September 26, 2023

the Israeli Soccer Leagues administration acts in a ‘patronizing and aggressive’ manner and chooses to ‘blatantly ignore’ a large audience of religious players, children and families by having matches played on Saturday.

Soccer games on Shabbat are one of the facets of the religious status quo in Israel that don’t favor religious people. New rules are the first victory that the religious government had promised.

Smotrich, chairman of the Religious Zionism party, argued that holding games on Shabbat “excludes half of the Israeli population from soccer, both as spectators and as active participants,” and he called for a stop to what he called an “undemocratic, unsportsmanlike and un-Jewish” practice.

Without getting mired in terminological disputes as to what is democratic, sportsmanlike or Jewish, one should focus on the timing of this letter, and on the identity of the sender.

Smotrich argued that his appeal was triggered by an announcement several days beforehand by Kalfon’s organization, which boasted that games on the Jewish Sabbath would start earlier, at 3 P.M., in order to allow families, and particularly children, to attend. Smotrich mocked the wording of the so-called celebratory announcement (“Everyone likes to have a day of fun at the stadium”), retorting that if everyone can’t take part, there’s nothing to celebrate.

But for many Israelis, the Shabbat that followed the league announcement was indeed a celebration, even a pretty big one. For years now, local soccer fans – “fanatics,” in the good sense of the word – feel that the sports authorities in Israel do all they can to deter them from attending matches.

Under pressure from broadcast franchisees, the relatively late hours at which games start in places like Kiryat Shmona, Sakhnin, Nof Hagalil and Be’er Sheva means that children who are eight, nine, 10, 11 or 12 years-old end up returning home at midnight or later, which prevents them from going altogether. Setting the game times earlier is a necessary step demanded by tens of thousands of fans over many years, and it is to be commended.

It seems that to Smotrich, the hour at which the games begin is merely an excuse. The far-right politician actually calls into question the holding of any public activities on Shabbat whatsoever.

Bezalel Smotrich mentioned that “For you, new audiences do not include the fans who observe Shabbat and tradition in Israel. The administration continues to behave in a patronizing and aggressive manner. I’m calling you again – let’s work together to develop a plan that will open the gates of soccer to everyone.”

There is another dimension here: Smotrich describes the soccer league’s announcement as showing severe “disregard and inflexibility” toward such a huge community. Of course he means the religious community, which is unable to attend games that start before Shabbat ends.

Smotrich both accuse the Shin Bet security service of the murder of Yitzhak Rabin and also to threaten soccer fans who want to watch games on Shabbat. Whether we are talking about the Shin Bet or about Shabbat, Smotrich’s statements are to be considered seriously.

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