Middle East

Israel debates controversial proposal for a longer weekend

Crowded escalator in Jerusalem Mall.
Image caption Israelis rush to the shops on a Friday before the start of Shabbat

There is a charming song used by Hebrew language schools to teach children the days of the week.

The tune is warm and folksy, although the lyrics are functional and repetitive, designed as they are to drum in a lesson.

"Sunday, work," it begins, "Monday, work… Tuesday, work". You get the picture.

The point is that it lists only Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, as a full day off - a grim lesson to absorb when you are only old enough to go to kindergarten.

That short weekend - a half-day on Friday and the whole day on Saturday - is reflected in the national timetable of Israel. At least it is for the moment.

The Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom has a plan to alter the structure of Israel's working week - giving everybody Saturday and Sunday off and leaving Friday as a half-day.

In theory, shorter lunch breaks and longer working days should mean that the same amount of work is spread over a reduced working week.

Mr Shalom is a passionate advocate of the plan which he says would allow Israel to co-ordinate its working calendar with Europe and North America.

No more sitting in your office in Tel Aviv on Sunday wondering why your customers in Cherbourg or Chicago are not picking up the phone.

Mr Shalom told me: "Tourism will boom and malls will be open. Most the sales will be on Sunday. I think it's a win-win a plan that will help the economy to grow and help the Israeli people as well… they are under great stress."

Day of leisure

You may detect a whiff of shameless populism about all of this - telling the voters they deserve an extra day off and then promising them it will not cost a thing does sound like a sure-fire electoral winner.

Among the keenest supporters are religious Jews.

Image caption The idea of a longer weekend is popular with religious Jews

At the moment they spend their half-day on Friday cooking, cleaning and preparing for Shabbat. Then, for 24 hours from sunset on Friday, they avoid work, travel and anything that involves the use of electricity.

They then return to work on Sunday and many argue that they do not have a real day of leisure since Shabbat is given over to religious worship.

The government's argument is that freeing them to shop and eat out in restaurants on Sunday would boost growth and create jobs.

If you think the idea that doing less work would generate more growth sounds too good to be true, there are plenty of businessmen who will tell you that is because it is.

I went to see Gad Propper, an influential entrepreneur in Tel Aviv whose portfolio of interests includes the operations of L'Oreal and Nestle in Israel.

He is worried the government is so blinded by the political and cultural upsides of the longer weekend that it cannot see a rather obvious downside.

"It's very much like when you fall in love with a woman and you see only the positive sides of her," he said. "You don't see the negative things and this is more or less the situation that Silvan [Shalom] is in."

"Everyone likes to have a longer weekend, I'd like it too, but it's not good for the country," he added. "Israel is young and we still have much to build - if we stop working we won't get there, so we need the working hours."

Muslim rejection

And the misgivings are not just economic either.

Nothing is simple in Israel and you are sometimes left feeling that everything here is about everything.

A fifth of Israel's population is Arab and mostly Muslim, and in that community you find a sense that there is much more at stake here than the structure of the working week.

After all, they point out, the Israeli government could extend the weekend by stretching it to include Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, rather than Sunday the Christian day of rest.

Ahmad Tibi, an Arab member of the Israeli parliament, does not think this is about synchronising the country's stock market with London and New York or boosting retail sales.

He sees it as a fundamental indication of how Israeli leaders see themselves and how they see their own Muslim citizens.

"They want to be European like they are in continuous denial about their presence in the Middle East" he told me.

"They are denying our presence here as a fifth of the population, ignoring Friday and ignoring Muslims. Maybe it's an indirect implementation of the idea of Israel as a Jewish state, which I oppose."

Happy shoppers

I spent an interesting hour talking about all this with shoppers in one of Jerusalem's busiest malls one Friday as the shopping for Shabbat reached a climax.

Image caption More time for the beach? Many Israelis feel they need more leisure time.

One or two were worried that the idea was unaffordable at a time when Israel is experiencing an unprecedented wave of street protests over the crushing cost of living here.

But most told me they saw Israel as a stressful, hectic place to live.

One woman joked: "I shouldn't say this, but there are times when I wake up on Sunday morning and realise that I have to go to work when I'm sorry I'm Jewish."

Israel has adjusted its national timetable once before - when it moved from an official six-day week to the present five-and-a-half in 1991 - and senior members of the government are convinced that their optimistic economic projections will work out.

Once again, the logistics of the change will be daunting, involving changes to school timetables along with shorter lunch hours and longer working days.

And of course someone is going to have to rewrite the words of that Hebrew song about the days of the week if the status of the Israeli Sunday really does end up changing.

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