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Israel: Netanyahu ally Smotrich calls for football to be banned on Saturdays

Religious Zionism MP Bezalel Smotrich describes football on Shabbat as 'non-Jewish act'
Israel supporters wave the national flag during the UEFA Nations League - League B Group 2 - football match between Israel and Albania at the at the Bloomfield Stadium, in Tel Aviv on September 24, 2022 (AFP)
Israel supporters at a Uefa Nations League match against Albania at the Bloomfield Stadium in Tel Aviv, on 24 September 2022 (AFP)

A far-right Israeli MP poised to become a minister in the incoming government has demanded that football be banned on Saturdays in Israel, in order to respect the Jewish Shabbat.

Bezalel Smotrich, a member of the Religious Zionism party, said that he regarded playing football on the holy day as an "undemocratic, unsportsmanlike, non-Jewish act that must be stopped.

"It is unfortunate that for you, new crowds do not include Shabbat-keeping fans," wrote Smotrich in a letter to the commissioner of the Israeli Professional Football Leagues, Erez Halfon. "You have chosen to ignore a large audience of players, children and families."

According to Jewish religious law, no work is allowed on Shabbat - which takes place between sunset on Friday and sunset Saturday - while electricity must not be turned on or off and engines must not be operated.

However, in response to Smotrich, the Israeli Professional Football Leagues said that football had been played on Shabbat "even before the founding of Israel", adding that they had "changed the hours of the games in order to allow as many children and families to arrive at the games", according to the Jerusalem Post.

'Theocracy' alarm

Smotrich and his party are currently in negotiations with former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and ultra-Orthodox parties to form a new government in Israel, following the fifth election in less than four years.

Israel's Channel 12 has previously reported that Smotrich is a likely candidate to become either finance or defence minister, while his fellow party member Itamar Ben-Gvir has demanded the public security minister role, which would put him in charge of the police.

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There has been alarm both inside Israel and abroad at members of Religious Zionism joining the government. The party is the successor to the banned Kach party and has ideological links to the Jewish Defence League, an organisation banned as a terrorist group in numerous countries, including the US.

The party espouses greater influence of Jewish religious law in the state and society and has been branded "racist, anti-Arab, homophobic and anti-democratic" by the Anti-Defamation League. 

Following Smotrich's letter to the football leagues, Labor Party leader Merav Michaeli accused him in a tweet of wanting to impose "theocracy" on Israel.

"Smotrich has not yet sat in his [coalition] seat and already, he's trying to force his religious way of life on the entire nation of Israel," she wrote.

"Soccer games will continue as usual and if you dare to change it, the public will show you the way out. Israel will not be a theocracy."

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