December 11, 2018

Shopping for Votes: The Haredi-Ben-Gurion Alliance

On Jan. 1, Israel’s governing coalition suffered a blow: It could not find the majority needed to pass the so-called Supermarkets Bill, which is intended to give the Interior Ministry the power to decide whether a city can allow the opening of stores on Shabbat.

The Haredi Shas party has been demanding such a law, claiming that Supreme Court rulings have changed the sacred “status quo” on Shabbat observance. But some of the coalition parties do not approve of the bill. They dislike the idea of clashing with Israel’s secular voters over the sensitivities of a Haredi party.

On the morning of Jan. 1, in an attempt to convince the larger Israeli public that the law is required, Deputy Minister of Finance Yitzhak Cohen found an unlikely ally. Holding a sheet of paper, he gleefully read aloud from an old letter without revealing the identity of the writer. “Do you know who wrote this?” he then asked.

That Shas finds Ben-Gurion a useful ally is thus not as surprising as you’d think.

It was not a well-known rabbi, a Torah scholar or a Haredi sage. Shas was relying on an atheist to make its point: Israel’s founder, David Ben-Gurion. The letter, dated January 1936, was sent to a group of young pioneers — members of a kibbutz. They worked on Shabbat, and Ben-Gurion was pleading with them to stop.

“There is a need for a mandatory day of rest,” Ben Gurion wrote.

The leaders of Shas likewise believe that such day can be mandatory.

That an Israeli Haredi party uses Ben-Gurion to make its case is a positive sign — a sign of normalization, of the gradual Israelization of Haredi Israelis. Also, Shas leaders have a point. In many ways, their approach resembles Ben-Gurion’s — not necessarily on the specific issue of how Shabbat ought to be observed, but rather on the issue of uniformity versus diversity.

It is often an overlooked aspect of the debate on Shabbat, but the law currently on the table makes it hard not to notice: The debate about Shabbat is also a debate about other issues — such as the power of the state to control and dictate the culture of a country, and to control how localities behave.

It is these aspects of the debate over Shabbat that exhibit the intellectual incoherence of both proponents and opponents of the law.

Shas leaders — the initiators of this legislation — are happy to impose their cultural preferences on cities in which a majority of residents are secular. But they cry foul if a government attempts to impose its cultural preferences on Haredi cities. For example, if the government tries to force the city of Bnei Brak to open its roads to Shabbat drivers; or when it tries to force Haredi schools to include more “secular studies” such as math and English in their curricula.

The same is true as one examines the coherence of the law’s opponents. They want localities to have the freedom to open stores on Shabbat but insist on their right to impose a certain curriculum on Haredi schools. They want everyone to have the right to decide what to do on Shabbat but support strict regulation of culture by the state when they deem it important (one recent debate concerns the right of a right-tilting TV channel to broadcast news as it desires).

That Shas finds Ben-Gurion a useful ally is not as surprising as you might think. Ben Gurion wanted uniformity for many good reasons — to have a sense of community, to establish the power of the state, and to bring together a collection of people from different places and cultures. But he also wanted it because he was the one to decide what uniformity meant. In his time he called the shots, so uniformity, in most instances, meant that everybody did what Ben-Gurion said.

Today, as an important member of the ruling coalition, Shas has the power to call some shots. It can strive to achieve, on some issues, a Shas-type uniformity. So yes, you can call it “preserving the status quo.” But the real name of it ought to be: Where you sit is where you stand.

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at