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Israel on course to banning football matches on Shabbat

A court orders the government to rule on players’ right to rest on Saturday afternoons

    File photo: Fans of Beiter Jerusalem, the Israeli Premier League that does not play home games on Shabbat
    File photo: Fans of Beiter Jerusalem, the Israeli Premier League that does not play home games on Shabbat Getty Images

    Israel's High Court of Justice has ordered the government to stop wasting time on whether professional football should be permitted on Shabbat, threatening that it will come up with its own ruling if the government does not decide.

    Few doubt that if compelled to rule, the court would pull out a red card and order a complete ban on professional football on Judaism’s day of rest.

    Professional football conflicts with Israeli law, in which the right of Jewish workers to enjoy Shabbat as a day of rest has been enshrined since independence.

    The government is entitled to issue an exemption for footballers, but has never done so and a decision by Eli Cohen, Minister of Economy and Industry in the centrist Kulanu party, to issue one would provoke a crisis in the country’s right-leaning coalition.

    Last month Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu convened a meeting of the committee for Shabbat work exemptions to formulate recommendations for a work permit for footballers, but backed down when Shas – the Orthodox party in the coalition – vented its fury.

    Minister of Sport Miri Regev quickly made Likud's position clear: “Shabbat is a day of rest and should be observed. Religious players must not be coerced into working while religious fans should not be prevented from coming to support their team.”

    Many secular Israelis see the situation in terms of religious coercion but the push for a Shabbat ban has come from the players themselves.

    In Israel's formative years most players were secular Ashkenazi Jews of European origin, but in recent decades most players have been working class Mizrahi Jews who see themselves as religious rather than secular.

    Beitar Jerusalem midfielder Hen Ezra is one of 50 players and coaches in Israel’s Premier League who signed a petition last month to Mr Netanyahu asking not to play on Shabbat and being allowed to spend the day with their families.

    Beitar does not play home games on Shabbat and when forced to play away on Shabbat, the club finds a hotel close to the stadium so players can walk to the game.

    Hen Ezra (second from left), celebrating a UEFA Europa League goal against Hungary's Vasas in July, does not want to play on Shabbat
    Hen Ezra (second from left), celebrating a UEFA Europa League goal against Hungary's Vasas in July, does not want to play on Shabbat AP

    “I'm privileged to have been born a Jew and I try to keep religious observance as much as possible,” Mr Ezra said.

    “I also love football and want to carry on being a professional player.”

    The issue hit the headlines two years ago when players in Israel's second division, backed by the Histadrut trade union, successfully petitioned the Labour Court against playing on Shabbat after a TV deal resulted from traditional Friday kick-offs being switched to Saturdays.

    Subsequently an organisation representing the players petitioned the High Court for a blanket ban on Shabbat professional football.

    The Israel Football Association seems to have acknowledged defeat.

    “As an association we are not part of the argument,” said Rotem Kamer, the chief executive.

    “Our aim is to promote football in the best possible way in any given situation despite the complexities.”

    Any change to the status quo would not be dramatic. At present only 21 per cent of Israel's Premier League games are played on Shabbat in winter time when Shabbat ends early in the evening and 35 per cent of games in daylight savings time.

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