As athletic competitions go, soccer has a peculiar knack for keying into social tensions. That’s no exception in Israel, where the sport has been a vehicle for geopolitical maneuvering, racism, and outright violence.
The latest political turn involves Shabbat and the future of secularity in the Jewish state.
The issue will be familiar to Jews who grew up playing recreational soccer in the United States. Games are often scheduled for Saturdays–which, depending on your approach to the day of rest, is either a nice chance for fun and relaxation, or a clash between cultural norms and the religious traditions of your family.
Games fall on Shabbat in Israel, too, where the Israel Football Assocation has been organizing Saturday matches since the 1930s. Thousands of kids play on Saturdays. So do many professional teams.
In mid-August, a group of second-division players filed a claim against the IFA, saying that, legally, they can’t be required to play on Shabbat. Labor court judge Ariella Gilzer-Kats ruled in their favor.
Like Israeli companies that require employees to come in on Saturdays, the Israel Football Association now needs special permission from the Economy Minister to hold Saturday matches. Earlier this week, the chairman of the IFA announced that matches this weekend would be canceled unless the Minister comes through with a permit, according to Haaretz.
It’s hard not to see this showdown as one more symptom of the desecularization of Israeli society. Religious groups in Israel are exerting a stronger pull on the country’s politics–including, apparently, the politics of sports.
At the same time, it’s important to remember that, for soccer professionals, to play is to work. For them, the soccer field is its own kind of office. The question here–as with so many debates over religious rights–is to what extent a minority can impose its will on the majority. That question is even more complicated in Israel, where the relationship between Judaism and the state itself is a point of contention.
Israel’s second-tier league, according to Haaretz, has expressed its disappointment with the court’s decision, saying that “we are convinced that religion or politics should not be mixed with sports.” A hopeful sentiment, for sure. But while a soccer field may be hemmed in by four white lines, even the beautiful game isn’t sealed off from life at large.
Michael Schulson is a freelance writer in Durham, North Carolina. He writes about religion, science, and culture.