On Tuesday, a private member's bill that would make Sunday a day of rest passed its first reading in the Knesset. The bill would reduce the working week to four and a half days - a week that exists nowhere else, even in countries far richer and more developed than Israel.
According to the bill, promulgated by the National Religious Party's Nahum Langenthal, the working week would begin on Monday and end on Friday afternoon. There would be four working days of nine hours, with five hours on Friday.
Pinchas Sapir was once asked why he opposed a five-day work week in Israel. The finance minister replied: "Five days? Let's start with one working day a week."
His humor reflected the reality of the time, and it still holds today. Israel's productivity is low compared to Europe. Participation in the work force is very low (only 54% of working-age people), hence the total productivity in the economy is low. As a result, so is the standard of living.
The per capita gross national product is $16,000 a year. In average Western countries average per capita GNP is $24,000, and in the wealthier countries, is even above $30,000 per capita. It is difficult to conceive of a situation in which the Knesset would pass a law to reduce the working week without considering productivity, standard of living, budget deficit, taxation levels, security problems, social-economic gaps - and the continuing deep recession.
In the developed West, workers make do with a two-day weekend, but MK Langenthal is proposing that Israel grant itself an especially long weekend - two-and-a-half days - at an estimated cost of NIS 3.8 billion a year. This is a huge sum, given that the government is trying to cut its budget.
Of course, the truth is that Langenthal's bill never was about benefiting either the economy or the worker. Behind the bill are Haredi and national-religious interests aiming to bring about fundamentalist changes in the character of the country. Under the smoke-screen of developing "a leisure culture" Langenthal and his associates want to change the nature of the national Sabbath, turning it into a day for absolute moratorium, with all commerce and entertainment moved to Sunday.
The Israeli economy is already moving naturally toward a five-day work week, and Friday is becoming the second, extra day. This is a gradual process, made possible through collective wage agreements that fit the economy and labor market, and it is being decided by workers and their employers around the negotiating table. Most companies in the economy already do not work on Fridays, and by the end of the process, Israel will have a two-day weekend instead of the day-and-a-half of the Sapir era.
It is difficult not to be amazed by the behavior of those MKs who represent the secular public. They brag about their concern for the economy, yet most of them were not even in the plenum for the vote. That is how 16 MKs from the NRP, United Torah Judaism and Shas managed to win a large majority over a handful of MKs from Likud, Labor, Shinui and Meretz. And so, the Knesset is gradually taking its own life.