Days of (un) Rest: Political Consumerism and the Struggle over the Sabbath
From Ben-Gurion University:
Although many think the primary realm of political religious debate can be found in the Knesset, two BGU researchers contend in a new article that a deadlocked political system has caused the conflict to shift to the consumer realm.
Strife between secular and religious in Israel has been a factor since before the founding of the State. Many of the lifecycle functions were given over to religious institutions/parties’ control to ensure their support for the nascent state. One of those compromises was that businesses would be closed by law on the Jewish Sabbath, Saturday. Dr. Guy Ben-Porat and Dr. Omri Shamir of the Department of Public Policy and Administration in the Guilford Glazer Faculty of Business and Management argue in an article in the latest issue of Politics and Religion, a Cambridge Journal, that over the last two decades rising consumer demand has led mall and store owners to open on the Sabbath despite the fines incurred. In response, religious leaders have begun to utilize their communities’ ability to boycott stores that are open on the Sabbath and frequent those that are not instead as the government’s inability to curb the situation became apparent.
As Israel transitioned from a socialist to a capitalist country and adopted Western consumer values, secular store owners noticed a rising demand for shopping on the weekend. As the secular population discovered shopping as a leisure and family time activity, the commercial enterprises discovered lucrative new markets.
Outrage among religious communities found little outlet in government action. Even when fines were imposed for breaking the law, they paled to insignificance compared to the profits the store owners were making.
Over the years, religious leaders have harnessed their communities’ abilities to stay committed to a cause over the long haul and have boycotted certain chains for being open on the Sabbath. Ben-Porat and Shamir cite the example of the AM:PM chain of convenience stores, which opened in Tel Aviv 7 days a week 24 hours a day. The owner of the chain also operates a chain of supermarkets, Shefa Shuk, which boasted 40% of its clientele from the Orthodox communities. Those communities threatened to boycott Shefa Shuk if AM:PM continued to be open on the Sabbath. When the owner refused to capitulate, a boycott was launched. That boycott has been in effect for over a year and a half and has forced the closure of several of the supermarket chain’s stores located in Haredi areas.
As the formal political system has failed to yield solutions, the matter has gone to the streets where the potential for profit squares off against commitment to preserve the ritual nature of the Sabbath. Ben-Porat and Shamir predict that the trend will only strengthen in the coming years. “Consumer power, measured in both commitment and spending capacity, is likely to determine the future character of the Sabbath,” they conclude.