Lazer Gurkow

Ayalon Highway Controversy: Democracy in Israel

Is Israel a democracy or a theocracy? Here is the story:

The Tel Aviv municipality and the Ayalon Highway Company plan to build a new pedestrian and cycling bridge that would cross the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv, one of the country’s most congested freeways.

The Ayalon Highway Company planned to shut down the highway for six consecutive Saturdays, beginning August 31st, to build the bridge. Working on Shabbat is forbidden by Jewish law but closing the highway on Shabbat is practical because traffic is lightest on Shabbat for long stretches of time.

On August 22nd, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz ordered the Ayalon Highway Company to freeze construction and submit a new work plan that doesn’t entail work on Shabbat. The issue grew quickly into a contentious public debate and the Knesset announced a special meeting to discuss the matter.

Opponents argue that prohibiting the work on Shabbat would turn the country into a theocracy. Proponents argue that if the spirit and letter of Shabbat can’t be celebrated in Israel, then where?

The claim that Israel will cease to be a democracy is hyperbole. If a referendum were to be held on this matter and the work ban on Shabbat were to be upheld, those who champion Israel’s democracy would remain disheartened. It is not democracy that the opposition decries, but what it means to be a Jew.

The traditional meaning of Judaism is synonymous with the Torah. As the Torah declares, “You all stand today before the Lord, your God. . . so that you may enter the covenant of the Lord, your God, and His oath, which the Lord, your God, strikes with you today. To establish you today as His people.

The people of Israel are the product of the Torah–our covenant with G-d. Shabbat is a central tenet of this covenant. Thus, to nullify Shabbat is to nullify the traditional concept of Judaism.

But in the modern era, there are Jews with a different conception of Judaism. To them, Judaism has little association with Torah. Rather, Judaism is a secular and cultural construct that derives from a history and a peoplehood. It is the thread that followed a people who refused to surrender after being exiled from their country. It is the tenacity of a people who held fast and ultimately returned to their country. Jewish festivals, culinary customs, and values all spring from this history. Torah has little to do with it.

The Torah foresaw that Jews would think this way and thus added the following statement. “It is not only with you that I strike this covenant and this oath, but with those standing here with us today before the Lord, our God, and [also] with those who are not here with us today.”

A historical Judaism stripped of Torah makes little sense because without Torah there would be no Jewish history. But that is a discussion for another time. For now, we will acknowledge that this is the secular concept of Judaism; the Judaism that these Jews fight for.

For many years, Jews who thought this way were the majority in Israel. The tide is beginning to shift. It is no longer only the ultraorthodox who revere Torah traditions. Today, a growing number of Jews in Israel celebrate the Torah traditions and observe its sacred rituals such as Shabbat and Kosher to one extent of another. This is frightening to those who understand Judaism differently. The fear is not that Israel will lose its democracy, but that Israel’s democracy might transform the state’s culture, values, and identity.

Is this the Battlefield?
This can be frightening to those who cherish their values, but to be fair, the Ayalon Highway decision will hardly impact the personal lives of individual Israelis. It will hardly force them to Keep Shabbat or inconvenience them. Although it would be more complex, the work can be done on weeknights without inconveniencing drivers on Shabbat. This is not about traditional Jews fighting to enforce Torah observance. This is about not yet traditional Jews fighting to preserve the secular nature of the state.

Judaism champions freedom of choice. The correct and best way to observe Judaism is indeed by choice. We might even suggest that G-d’s reason for allowing more democracy and liberty in the world in the last few centuries is precisely to foster the opportunity to choose freely. In the old days, when Jews lived under the authority of the Jewish community, religion was enforced. As we draw closer to the times of Mashiach, Judaism is no longer enforced. Rather we are summoned to choose it because Judaism by choice is much more meaningful than Judaism by coercion.

There will not be an attempt to force Jews to observe Shabbat and Kosher. The fears expressed by the opposition that if the bridge cannot be built on Shabbat, Israel will cease to be a democracy is hyperbolic at best and specious at worst. The goal here is not to enforce Shabbat but that the State of Israel, the body that represents the Jewish people, broadcast its support for Shabbat.

One need not be a pious Jew to appreciate that the Jewish state, the embodiment of Judaism, should not nullify the Shabbat. This was best expressed by former Prime Minister of Israel, Menachem Begin.

El Al
In May of 1982, a similar debate took place in the Knesset. The question at that time was whether El Al, the official airline of the State of Israel, should continue to fly on Shabbat.

Menachem Begin climbed the platform and announced that the government had would disallow further travel on Shabbat. Amidst loud protests he proclaimed that he remembered Jews in the diaspora, who would not work on Shabbat, and who could not work on Sunday in Christian lands. These Jews willingly gave up two days of income to honor the Shabbat, should the State of Israel not stand with these Jews?

Ours is the nation, he proclaimed, “that bequeathed to humanity the imperative of a day of rest to apply to the humblest of beings. Ours is the nation that gave laborers dignity equal to that of their employers; that both are equal in the eyes of God. Ours is the nation that bequeathed this gift to other faiths: Christianity–Sunday, Islam–Friday. Ours is the nation that enthroned Shabbat as sovereign Queen.

So, are we, in our own reborn Jewish State, to allow our blue and white El Al planes to fly to and fro, as if to broadcast to the world that there is no Shabbat in Israel? Should we, who by faith and tradition heard the commandment at Sinai, now deliver a message to all and sundry through our El Al planes–’No, do not remember the Sabbath day. Forget the Sabbath day! Desecrate the Sabbath day.’ I shudder at the thought that the aircraft of our national carrier have been taking off the world over on the seventh day over these many years, in full view of Jews and Gentiles alike.”

He concluded dramatically with the following: “One need not be pious to accept the cherished principle of Shabbat. One merely needs to be a proud Jew.”

About the Author
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a renowned lecturer, serves as Rabbi to Congregation Beth Tefilah in London Ontario. He is a member of the curriculum development team at Rohr Jewish Learning Institute and is the author of two books and nearly a thousand online essays. You can find his work at
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