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.

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