Thursday, July 07, 2011

Sunday & the 5-day workweek in Israel

Enjoy Your Weekend

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; New Yorkers get an additional three days off. Across the Atlantic, Britons will have nine "bank holiday" days 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 on – the singular exception being Independence Day.

Ask new immigrants to Israel from Western countries, particularly those who are observant, and they are likely to confess that the absence of Sundays – and having only one non-religious bank holiday – has made for a difficult cultural adjustment.
But Israelis are not obliged to work on Fridays, so isn't that like having a Sunday? Not really. For one, it's a regular school day. Banks are open; so is the post office; building goes on at construction sites and sanitation workers are collecting 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 before the shops close early.

For those who take Shabbat in earnest 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; 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 of 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.

Likud Party powerbroker, Silvan Shalom, the vice premier and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's arch political rival has also long been committed to the 5-day workweek with Sundays off. Shalom has argued that Israel needs to be in synch with the global economy. Why have Tel Aviv's stock market 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 would be a calmer more harmonious country, Shalom promises.

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 demographics – increasing numbers of religiously observant Israelis – has 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 would be willing to go along with the idea. Israel's secular majority prefers not working on Shabbat. On the other hand, younger secular people feel as though they already have a normal two-day weekend and have no great desire to exchange Friday for Sunday. Some worry they might lose benefits they now enjoy on Saturday (sporting events, culture, and limited shopping) in exchange for Sundays off. They've anyway found workarounds to mandated Shabbat closings. Many Tel Aviv nightspots are open; 12 percent of Israelis choose to work on Shabbat, and 44% enjoy limited shopping.

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, Moslem citizens (some 16% 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 5-day work week, 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 transform, officially, Fridays as the start of a two-day weekend, says Steinitz. On the other hand, the country's hoteliers support the Sunday scheme, as does 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 sunset on Shabbat knowing that they had 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" seems like an easier undertaking.


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