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Daylight Time Provokes Israel’s Religious Right

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Times Staff Writer

Before going to bed Saturday night, most Israelis performed a simple but out-of-the-ordinary little task. Many did it without thinking or caring much about it one way or the other. Some did it with a sense of satisfaction, even triumph, while for others, emotions ranged from resignation to something close to rage.

And there may even have been a few who chose the path of open defiance and did not set their clocks ahead one hour to daylight-saving time at all.

There are few, if any, places in the world where a transition to daylight-saving time is cause for major controversy. But in Israel, reintroduction of “summer time,” as it is known here, caps an intense political and social debate.

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One of Jerusalem’s more rancorous public demonstrations last month was over summer time. The issue has strained the fragile agreement that holds Israel’s coalition government together, split the Cabinet 11-6 and even led to charges by one minister that his Cabinet colleagues were setting him up for murder.

So what’s the big deal?

The reasons for the fuss go far beyond the issue of daylight-saving time itself and touch upon some of the most sensitive concerns in Israel today--the rise of the religious right, the need by secular politicians to court an increasingly religious and conservative electorate and the biblical concept of the Sabbath, which many ultra-Orthodox Jews fear that summer time will desecrate.

Yitzhak Peretz, the ultra-Orthodox rabbi who is also Israel’s interior minister, has been leading the fight against summer time.

Because of a quirk in the organizational structure of the Israeli government, the order to institute summer time each year must be signed by the interior minister; and this year Peretz, leader of the Sephardic Torah Guardians party, refused to sign it.

This, in turn, provoked a public uproar, led to a legal battle that almost went to Israel’s High Court and prompted Communications Minister Amnon Rubenstein to declare that his ministry would begin operating on summer time regardless of whether the rest of the country did. It also led to a fierce debate by the Cabinet, which last month overruled Peretz, voting 11-6 to institute summer time over his emotional objections.

“You have been shedding my blood! You have been organizing a public lynch campaign against me! I would not be surprised if what you have done will lead to attempts on my life!” Peretz shouted at Energy Minister Moshe Shahal, the chief proponent of summer time, during the Cabinet debate April 20.

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Shahal and other summer time advocates, including Rubenstein and Economic Planning Minister Gad Yaacobi, argue that adjusting clocks to summer hours will save the country as much as $6 million in energy costs per year. They also quote statistics showing that traffic fatalities over the past two years were lower during the months that summer time was in effect. They further maintain that most Israelis, including many Orthodox Jews, favor summer time.

However, Peretz and other ultra-Orthodox rabbis still object to the change out of concern that summer time may reduce attendance at early morning minyan prayer services. Worse, they fear that moving clocks ahead one hour may tempt shopkeepers, movie theater operators and others to desecrate the Sabbath by opening their establishments before the sun goes down Saturday.

The debate is not a new one in Israel, which has had summer time on and off in the past. But it has sharpened in recent years and come to a head because it symbolizes what many Israelis see as increasingly militant efforts by a right-wing fundamentalist minority to impose its will on a more liberal, secular majority.

These efforts have been partly successful because the small religious parties in the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, exercise a disproportionately large degree of political influence due to the fragility of the present coalition between the two major political groups, Prime Minister Shimon Peres’ Labor Alignment and Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s Likud Bloc.

Because neither of the large parties has enough Knesset seats to govern outright and because the delicate coalition could come unglued at any time, both major blocs have had to court the small religious parties with which they may need to form future coalitions.

Peres, who under the coalition agreement must rotate the premiership to Shamir in October, has not been insensitive to the sensibilities of the religious right. Last year, for instance, he supported a still-pending bill that would ban the sale of pork and he avoids being seen driving on the Sabbath.

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Now, however, there are emerging signs of a secular backlash. Although most establishments remain closed on the Sabbath, several movie theaters in Haifa recently opened on Friday nights.

Acknowledging the important role of the religious parties in politics, Shevah Weiss, a Labor member of the Knesset, nevertheless complained in a recent newspaper commentary that their demands were getting out of hand. “The achievements of the religious parties have indeed been numerous,” Weiss wrote. “The time has come, however, to say politely: ‘Enough. Here is where we draw the line.’ ”

The theme was also taken up by President Chaim Herzog in his address to the nation marking the 38th anniversary of Israel’s independence May 14.

Noting that the theme of this year’s Independence Day celebration was democracy, Herzog warned that Israel’s democratic conditions are being threatened by the fanatically religious.

“One of our gravest internal problems has become not less, but rather more, acute during the (past) year: That is the confrontation between the secular and the religiously observant among us,” Herzog said. “The tendency to fanaticism, separatism and isolation is dangerous in the extreme and if unchecked, might divide us . . . into two nations.”

Yossi Sarid, a member of the small, liberal Citizens Rights Movement, which organized an early morning protest with cuckoo clocks and alarm clocks outside Peretz’s home last month, adds that the Cabinet decision to impose summer time over Orthodox objections is a sign, albeit a tentative one, that “people are finally fed up with religious coercion.”

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“Now we are beginning to revolt,” Sarid said Saturday. “When we set our clocks ahead at midnight, we will be making a statement that enough is enough.”

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