Should Sunday be a Day of Rest in Israel? An Interview with Dr. Arye Carmon

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In July 2011, Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom proposed that the Knesset enact legislation that would make Sunday an official day off from work and give Israel a long weekend that is in sync with the two-day weekend of the rest of the world. IDI's Matan Shefi interviewed IDI Former President and Founder Dr. Arye Carmon, who believes that this change is necessary, but must be implemented as part of a comprehensive social change aimed at bridging the gap between religious and secular Jews and creating an Israeli culture of leisure common to both these populations.

For a different view, see: Should Sunday be a Rest Day in Israel? An Interview with Prof. Avi Ben-Bassat

Do you think it is necessary to change the current structure of the days of rest in the Israeli work week? 
In my opinion, it is very important to change the days of rest in Israel, in order to narrow the widening rift between religious and secular Jews in Israeli society. We live in a reality of conflict, in which religious and secular Jews are moving further apart. On one side, secular Jews believe that what a person does in his or her own home should not be subject to coercion or interference, and they would like this policy of non-intervention to extend to the public sphere as well; on the other side, however, members of the religious community see the public sphere as having utmost importance, and would like it to reflect traditional Jewish values. 

When IDI formulated its draft of a Constitution by Consensus, we devoted a great deal of time to reaching compromises between the different sectors of Israeli society. One of these compromises concerned Shabbat, the Sabbath. In order to help bridge the gap between religious and secular Jews in Israel, we proposed that anything that pertains to business or commerce— for example, activity in the legal, business, or construction sectors—would be forbidden on Shabbat, while anything related to leisure—such as the operation of cinemas, museums, cafes, and even a limited amount of public transport—would be permissible on Shabbat. We were aware that if our proposal were to be accepted, several shopping centers in Israel, such as the center in Shefayim, would have to close on Shabbat. As this would impact these commercial centers economically, we proposed that Sunday be designated as an additional day of rest on which both commercial and leisure activities could be performed.

This proposal, in my opinion, could stimulate major change in contemporary Israeli society. It could serve as an impetus for a new reality in which the different sectors of Israeli society would share a common investment in a culture of leisure, and each individual could contribute to shaping Israel's leisure culture in accordance with his or her own world view.

Which problems would this proposal solve?

Most secular Israelis are not aware that observant Jews in Israel have very few days during the course of the year in which they can engage in leisure activities. Due to the restrictions inherent in their religious lifestyle, the only real days in which they can engage in recreation are the intermediate days of the Sukkot and Passover holidays. It is only on these days that observant Jews can hike or go to zoos, museums, the cinema, or the beach, and engage in the core leisure activities and main Shabbat pastimes of the secular community. If Sunday were to be designated as a day of rest, it would enable members of the religious community to engage in the leisure activities that secular Jews in Israel take for granted.

So do you support Minister Silvan Shalom's proposal?

We are opposed to Silvan Shalom's current proposal, because although it proposes adding Sunday as a day of rest, it does not include IDI's recommendations about permitting leisure activities on Shabbat. This bill thus misses the opportunity to initiate a process that could have a profound impact on Israeli society. By limiting the focus of the legislation to procedural issues and avoiding the heart of the desired change, the current proposal misses an opportunity to narrow the gaps between disparate segments of Israeli society, and sidesteps the main change that is necessary in reforming the structure of the days of rest in Israel.

Which sectors do you think would be hurt and which sectors do you think would benefit if Sunday were to be designated as a day off from work?

I believe that if IDI's proposal were to be accepted, everyone would benefit. The only ones who would be impacted negatively would be real estate developers in places such as Shefayim, Mazkeret Batya, and Haifa, where commercial centers are currently open on Shabbat. That would be the extent of the damage, and I think it is negligible. This is not just my personal opinion; it is based on the assessments of senior economists, who have concluded that adding Sunday as a day of rest in Israel would cause minimal damage to the local economy, workforce, and market.

What about the negative impact that such a change would have on efficiency? Friday would have to be a work day, even though it is not considered to be an efficient day of work in Israel, and extra time would have to be added to the end of each work day.

I believe that the total output of work would not be affected by this change. According to one version of the bill currently under consideration, there would be a net loss of only about half an hour per week from the average number of work hours in most industries in Israel today. It is also important to bear in mind that the length of the workday on Friday could be substantially longer in the summer, when the days are long and Shabbat begins late in the day, than in the winter. We must make sure that the proposed legislation is balanced and maintains the overall number of work hours in the current workweek. If we do that, I believe the effect of such legislation on the economy will be immaterial.

I would like to stress again that when we formulated IDI's draft for the Constitution by Consensus, we dedicated a great deal of thought to this matter. We checked the economic implications of the proposed change, and found that the impact on the Israeli economy would be insignificant. Senior economists also studied this matter, and arrived at the same conclusion. During the Caesarea Economic Policy Planning Forum that IDI convened in Haifa in 2007, this question was extensively debated by leading economists. That discussion strengthened my impression that this question is not essentially a clear-cut economic issue; rather, one's personal world view plays a decisive role in the way one approaches the issue.


Dr. Arye Carmon is the Former President and Founder of the Israel Democracy Institute.