Israeli family relaxing at the beach
Advocates say more free time would boost tourism, commerce and culture and leisure, and help work-life balances

Consensus is rare in the Knesset, where debates escalate quickly into name-calling, few subjects are too touchy for debate and few epithets beyond the pale.

But rare harmony on at least one point is breaking out among lawmakers on the right and far left, among the secular and the ultra-Orthodox, among majority Jews and minority Arabs alike. Israelis work too much, many MPs are saying, and need to cut themselves a break. Enter the two-and-a-half day weekend.

The Israeli working week — meant to accommodate both the Jewish sabbath (sundown Friday to sundown Saturday) and Muslim Friday prayers — runs from Sunday morning to midday Friday. Israel’s 43-hour working week is one of the longest in the OECD.

Now legislation is making its way to the Knesset that would give Israelis six Sundays off a year, providing more time to shop, spend time with the family and generally chill. The question being debated is whether the extra time off will reinvigorate workers and thus boost productivity — among the lowest in the developed world — or make it weaker still.

As things stand, the typical Israeli weekend runs something like this: a frantic rush on Friday morning to complete banking, shopping and other chores done before the afternoon, when most businesses close and the keening of the shofar horn blares over public loudspeakers, marking the start of Shabbat. A week’s rest is then packed into a single 24-hour slot.

At sundown on Saturday, a rush begins again as Israelis take to their cars and the streets, tweeting or heading to Ikea, as is their wont. On Saturday evening people wish one another a shavua tov (good week), then by Sunday morning they are back to the weekly grind.

“Israelis work too hard and too much,” says Dov Khenin, an MP with Hadash, a far-left party that belongs to the Arab Joint List, which is sponsoring one of four legislative initiatives that have passed preliminary discussion in the Knesset.

Eli Cohen, an MP with the centre-right Kulanu party, sponsored a bill calling for six Sundays off a year that was approved by a ministerial committee in June, the first step to becoming a law.

Some advocates of the law hope that half a dozen free Sundays a year will be the first step to reforms giving Israelis all Sundays off.

Advocates say more free time would give a boost to sectors like tourism (in trouble recently because of political unrest), commerce, culture and leisure, not to mention Israelis’ work-life balances. One of the biggest boosts to consumption, they say, would come from the large Orthodox Jewish minority, whose members face strict religious constraints on what they can do on Shabbat, when the devout are barred from driving, shopping and other worldly pursuits (hence the rush to Ikea on Saturday nights).

The Histadrut trade union federation likes the bill. Employers, who will have to pay workers overtime if free Sundays are passed into law, hate it.

“The idea is too expensive,” says Ruby Ginel of the Manufacturers Association of Israel. “If we add more days off, the market will produce less, so we will be less competitive and the costs will be huge.”

Ordinary Israelis see it differently. “One more day free time is better because people will work harder,” says Sarkis Karagozian, a photographer sampling a coffee at Jerusalem’s upscale Mamilla mall.

Karagozian, a member of the city’s Christian Armenian community, says the change to longer weekends will make him “feel European”. His father, he remembers, used to work for the British in Mandate-era Palestine, five days a week from 7am until 2pm. “After that, you were free — to play football, go see a movie, go for a rest,” he said. “The next day you would feel fresh.”

Shai and Salome Kalifa, an Orthodox couple, are emerging from a Zara clothing shop, where they are stealing some rare time to browse. “In general, we shop in the evening; if you need to do stuff, you need to leave work earlier,” says Shai, who has a job at a call centre. Salome, who works in quality control, is looking forward to more time off.

“It’s cool,” she says. “It will be a day off and we don’t have many of those.”

This article has been amended to reflect the fact that British Palestine was administered under mandate, not colonial rule.

john.reed@ft.com

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