A Two-Day Weekend in Israel?

By Elliot Jager
Friday, July 8, 2011

With July 4th behind them, Americans can look forward to closing out the summer season with Labor Day on September 5th. All told, they will enjoy ten national holidays. Across the Atlantic, Britons will have nine "bank holidays" in 2012; Germans 11; French 10; and Italians 12. And, of course, in each of these countries, people have the leisure of weekends from the close of business on Friday until Monday morning.

In Israel, however, Sunday is the start of the work week. On the face of it, Israelis otherwise enjoy an almost equally bountiful number of off days: eight. On closer inspection, however, it turns out that all but one of these are religious holidays—Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, and so onthe singular exception being Independence Day.

New immigrants to Israel from Western countries (particularly those who are observant) are likely to confess that the absence of Sundays off has made for a difficult cultural adjustment.

But as Israelis are not obliged to work on Fridays, don't they already have a two-day weekend?  Not really. For one, Friday is a regular school day in Israel. Banks are open; so is the post office.  Building goes on at construction sites and sanitation workers collect garbage. There are no reliable figures for how many Israelis have Fridays off, but even for those fortunate enough to have the day to themselves, Fridays can still feel frenetic with sidurim (chores) like supermarket shopping, running errands, and preparing for Shabbat, the Sabbath, before the shops close early. 

For Sabbath-observers, the "day of rest" can take on its own hectic quality with morning and afternoon synagogue services, family meals, and lots of socializing. While observant Jews do not travel, secular Israelis without automobiles must make do with taxis or stay close to home, because in most places there is little in the way of public transportation.  Additionally, most shops, restaurants, and places of entertainment are closed.

Not surprisingly, many Anglo-Israelis along with immigrants from the former Soviet Union would gladly work part-day on Fridays, just as they did in the "Old Country," in order to get a breather on Sunday. Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky has long campaigned to make Sunday a day of leisure. His thought is that sharing Sundays off would reduce social and religious tensions and create opportunities for positive interaction between observant and secular Israelis.

Arguing that Israel needs to be in synch with the global economy, Likud Party powerbroker Silvan Shalom has also long been committed to the five-day workweek with Sundays off. Why should Tel Aviv's stock market be closed when everyone else's is trading (on Friday) and open (on Sunday) when world markets are closed? His plan would have Israelis work until noon on Fridays and make up the difference with slightly longer hours Monday through Thursday. There would be a five-day school week with longer hours. The result, Shalom predicts, would be a calmer, more harmonious country. 

Now, two Likud Knesset members, Ze'ev Elkin and Yariv Levin, have introduced legislation along the lines proposed by Shalom.  Their angle is that changing demographicsincreasing numbers of religiously observant Israelishave provided a fresh economic incentive for a Sunday that would encourage this sector to spend money on cultural activities, sporting events, and at the malls.  

Many but plainly not all native-born Israelis are willing to go along with the idea. Israel's secular majority prefers not working on Shabbat (though 12 percent do). On the other hand, younger secular Israelis, having found workarounds to mandated Shabbat closings, feel as though they already have a normal two-day weekend and have no great desire to exchange Friday for Sunday.

While some in the national religious sector have long favored the Sunday option, others are more wary. They like the idea of having a day off to do some of the same things their secular family and friends do, but worry that they will not have enough time, after working a shortened Friday, to prepare for Shabbat or travel to distant family before sundown. Others are dubious that having Sundays off will actually reduce desecration of the Sabbath. And the more insular ultra-Orthodox are vehemently opposed to Sundays on the grounds that it is a Christian rest day. Last but not least, Muslim citizens (some 16 percent of the population) are also less than keen to have to work on Fridays since it is the only day when believers are obligated to offer midday prayers communally in a mosque.

The economic impact of making the switch will likely carry the greatest weight. Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz worries that a five-day workweek, with Sunday off, would result in Fridays being fretted away, especially in the short days of the winter months. In effect, Israel would be transitioning unthinkingly to a four-day workweek. Better to officially transform Fridays to the start of a two-day weekend, says Steinitz.  On the other hand, the country's hoteliers support the Sunday scheme, as do the Manufacturers Association, Chamber of Commerce, and teachers' unions. Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer has not come out publicly on the issue but is reportedly sympathetic. The same is said of Histadrut labor federation chief Ofer Eini. 

Following the old adage "when in doubt form a committee," Netanyahu has appointed Eugene Kandel, head of his National Economic Council, to chair a panel that is to look into the matter.

No one doubts that frazzled Israelis could use the down time of a real Sunday. Who would not savor a post-Shabbat sunset knowing that they have the next day off? But creating a real Sunday weekend would require radical cultural adaptations, major revamping of the school calendar, and tortuous amending of the nation's labor laws.

The "peace process" may be an easier undertaking.

You can find this online at: http://www.jidaily.com/atwodayweekendinisrael

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