Seth Freedman’s attack on Israel’s Jewish nature: Classically Guardian egregious absence of context

The 192 nations in the world (including most democracies) all represent and embody (via legal codification or just custom) various ethnic, religious, or social historical traditions.

In Europe, and N. America, many retailers (based on local or national laws) prohibit the retail and service industry from operating on Sunday, a day that Christian tradition typically recognizes as the Sabbath, a “day of rest”,

EU law allows each Member State to set its own policy concerning work on Sundays. The following European Union countries currently have legal restrictions on Sunday shopping: Spain, France, Norway, Netherlands, Belgium, Finland, Hungary, Italy, the UK and Sweden.

Germany’s Constitutional Court, in 2009, upheld a ban on retail stores opening on Sundays, following a complaint made by the country’s Catholic and Protestant churches, based on a clause in the German constitution that Sunday should be a day of rest and “spiritual elevation“.

The conservative Die Welt wrote, in supporting the court decision:

“The churches have argued correctly that employees in the retail sector are not given the possibility of organizing their Advent Sundays according to Christian principles: going to church.

While I’m sure there were those who opposed the (Christian) religious inspired ruling (issued in a “secular” European country), I don’t suspect Jews saw it, by and large, as a draconian infringement on their religious liberties.

More broadly, most diaspora Jews live in countries where such Christian traditions determines that Sunday, and not Saturday, is the day of rest, and where Christian holidays (such as Christmas) are national holidays, and (depending on the employer) must often use vacation time to get off from work for Jewish holidays.  Again, this is less than ideal, but it’s hardly an assault on non-Christian religious minorities.

In the United States (with a strict constitutionally ensured separation between church and state) some municipalities still prohibit Sunday shopping. Some local jurisdictions have regulations regarding when bars and restaurants may be open on Sundays (and when alcohol may be sold or served).

Do such laws negatively affect the lives of non Christians? Certainly. Such restrictions necessarily create significant inconveniences for observant Jews, whose Sabbath is Friday at sundown till Saturday at sundown.

But, neither do most Jews living in Western democratic countries see themselves (by virtue of living in countries with decidedly Christian cultures) as, in any way, second class citizens. 

In classic Guardian style, such relevant context escapes Seth Freedman’s Erev Pesach attack on the Jewish nature of Israel, in his CiF essay, Time for Israel to allow buses on Sabbath, April 7.

Writes Freedman, criticizing Israel’s restrictions on public buses running on Shabbat, in the context of a debate (and impending court decision) currently going on about whether to permit buses to operate in Tel Aviv on Shabbat:

In a free country it should be [everyone’s] cast-iron right to [take buses on Shabbat].

Yet the vagaries of a country defiantly defining itself along religious lines are disrupting the lives of millions of Israel’s citizens every weekend, and there seems precious little the state is prepared to do about it.

Among the more characteristic consistencies within Guardian commentary about Israel is imputing undemocratic values when critiquing Israeli polices deemed objectionable.  So, a law which merely demands that NGOs report foreign income is hyperbolically characterized by CiF commentators (not to mention NGOs like New Israel Fund) as nothing less than an assault on Israel’s democratic nature.

Similarly, for Freedman, in addition to characterizing restrictions on public transit one day of the week as inconsistent with a “free country”: Israeli officials opposed to changing the laws are “zealots”; arguments that such restrictions on public transport on Shabbat (consistent with maintaining the Jewish nature of the country) are “ludicrous”; and non Jews, by virtue of the limits on Shabbat transportation, are “second class citizens”.

Freedman’s piece also has this risible passage:

For those for whom Saturday is neither Sabbath nor sacred, why should they be denied the right to public transport on their one day off in the week, just to pander to the rights of one religious group? [Because] the state is not interested in giving Christian and Muslim citizens any say in such matters – as rightwing politicians like to say: if you don’t like the rules, no one is keeping you here, and don’t forget to shut the door behind you when you leave.

(And, it includes this unintelligible, and unintentionally comical, mixed metaphor: “But banning buses operating on Shabbat is shutting the stable door long after the horse has bolted down to the beachside cafe for a seafood salad.”)?!

In addition to the use of a classic right-wing Zionist straw man (who precisely said what he attributes to unnamed right-wingers in the final sentence of the passage?), Christians and Muslims do have a say in Israel’s democratic legislature (Knesset), such as Jews serving in the U.S. Congress (though a small minority in both houses of congress, state legislatures and city councils) have a say in laws passed in their country.

While there are very good arguments in favor of overturning the restrictions on public buses on Shabbat, here are a few details Freedman omitted:

  • Some public buses do indeed run on Shabbat. I was able to take an early Saturday afternoon bus from Kiryat Shmona to Tel Aviv, for instance, an exception necessitated, I suppose, by the length of the trip (about 4 hours) and the wish not to have passengers arrive at their destination too late (Shabbat now ends around 7:40 pm on Sat.)
  • Buses in Haifa (with a large Arab population) run on Shabbat, as do buses in Eilat. (H/T alert reader)
  • Buses Nos. 370 and 380, on the Be’er Sheva-Tel Aviv route, depart Be’er Sheva before the Shabbat is over. 
  • In addition to the option of cars or taxis, Sheruts (shared van sized taxis) run on Shabbat, and are quite inexpensive. For instance you can take a Sherut from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv on Shabbat for less than 40 shekels (roughly $8 U.S.).

On Passover, one of the questions asked during the seder is “why is this night different from all other nights?” (Why do we eat Matzoh?, etc.), and those who attack the Jewish nature of Israel seem unmoved by the fact that Israel (the world’s only Jewish state) is indeed different from all other countries (especially those governed by Christian or Muslim traditions). 

Israel is the only state in the world which has a uniquely Jewish character: where Jews don’t have to assimilate into a non-Jewish culture to thrive, and can observe Shabbat and the Jewish holidays without fear of losing their job or suffering any social opprobrium. 

This is one of the reasons why the Jewish state was born, its raison d’etre.  That’s what makes Israel different from all other nations.

Agree or disagree with the policy regarding public buses on Shabbat, but such policies have absolutely no connection with the democratic nature of the state.  Similarly, such laws don’t undermine the general liberal freedom enjoyed by its citizens, and nor do they impute second class status to its Muslim, Christian, Druze, Bahai (or secular) citizens, all of whom enjoy religious liberties unimaginable for religious minorities throughout much of the world.

14 replies »

  1. I’ve made the point about the sheruts myself. Libero-fascist try to use any conceivable angle to demonize and delegitimize Israel.

    • There’s a HUGE difference between forbiding shops from opening on Sundays and forbiding citizens from riding a bus on Saturdays. You can live easily without shopping one day a week. You cannot live easily if you cannot move around one day a week.

      It may be that M. Levick, who came from America, is very rich and can afford cars for him, his wife and his children. Well M. Levick, it may come as a surprise to you but many Israelis are not rich and cannot afford a car, and this sometimes includes people who do work. There is no reason why rich people should have the right to drive their car around at shabbat, while poor people should be stuck at home because there are no buses on shabbat.

      Please come have a look in Jerusalem: there are not sheruts in town on shabbat, and I can tell you youngsters and poor people are desperate to leave the city because there is absolutely nothing they can do on week-ends. How will you go to the swimming pool or walk in the Ein Kerem forest with your kids without public transportation?

      M. Levick, not everyone in Israel has an American passport and can move back whenever he or she is bored with the fact that a handful of religious people dictate the way we live. Please let Israel be a free country for everyone, religious or not. If you don’t wanna drive on shabbat please don’t. But let other people ride the bus. This is no Afghanistan.

      • Please come have a look in Jerusalem: there are not sheruts in town on shabbat,

        A laughable lie Benjamin. Everyone living in Jerusalem or familiar with it knows this.

      • And btw benyamin would you be so kind to explain what have to do with each other an existing or not existing problem in the Israeeli public transport and a British newspaper thousands of miles from Jerusalem? As far as I know the reliability of the trains in the London area not the best on the Earth… Maybe the Guardian should be busy to write about this…

  2. As with so much criticism of Israel, the key issue here is double standards.

    As you rightly point out in your article, as a Brit, I live in a country with many “sabbath trading” restrictions.

    As it happens, I don’t agree with their existence (although I also believe that nobody should be disadvantaged socially or economically for observing a Sabbath). But nobody is barraging me with tirades about how my country is a quasi-fascist theocracy over these restrictions, and if anyone tried, they would quite simply make themselves look silly.

    Why the double-standard? One has to suspect it’s for the usual reason.

  3. Apart from supplying Freedman with some pennies and some space for venting his hate against his fellow countrymen what is the reason that in a British paper the transportation in Israel is a matter of interest? The Guardian should be busy with contamporary poetry like GraSS and Raed Shalah. Maybe old habits die hard in Europe regarding the Jews and Easter?

  4. In Haifa, public transportation has operated on Shabbat for decades. The real point is not whether banning it on Shabbat in most Israeli muncipalities is an infringement on personal freedoms, rather it is that Jews in the country can observe Shabbat like they can nowhere else in the world. That is what makes the Jewish State unique. I can understand Seth Freedman is uncomfortable with Jews living as observant Jews but what I don’t get is why he wants to deny that to them so he can feel comfortable in the name of democracy.

    • Yes, it is. You may not like it, and it could even be detrimental, but majority rule is democratic. Rule by an appointed and unaccountable elite is not. In America there is an advise and consent rule when appointing judges to the Supreme Court. My understanding is that in Israel it doesn’t work that way. If so, Israel may not have the necessary checks and balances between the will of the people and the court. The will of the people is democracy, the court is a check on the will of the people.
      By the way, legislators all over America (and other democratic countries as well) come up with all sorts of hair-brained ideas for laws. It doesn’t make the country undemocratic.
      You need to find a different argument. Something a little more expansive and nuanced than “Democratic eh?”

  5. Give Freedman and the Guardian a break. It’s not easy to come up with good Nazi/Apartheid analogies every single day !