The story goes that it was initially an American president who suggested that Israelis shift to a five-day working week. “Why not cut short one day,” wondered Lyndon Johnson back in the 1960s. In what has become a classic of Jewish self-criticism, Israel’s then prime minister, Levi Eshkol, suggested that people weren’t doing enough: “Let’s start with working two days, then build up to three and four and get to five.”
The truth is that Israelis do work hard. According to the latest OECD figures, workers in Israel put in more hours than their counterparts in the UK and France. But they are still not in tune with most of the world: though a five-day business week was enacted more than 20 years ago, the weekend is on Fridays and Saturdays instead of the Western Saturday and Sunday.
The Israeli government is now examining a proposal to shift the weekend to the Western form and a special committee, under the head of the National Economic Council Eugene Kandel, is to look into the multiple implications of such a change.
According to one of the main proponents of the shift, vice prime minister Silvan Shalom, the proposed new weekend would, “enable coordinated trading in currency, foreign equities, commodities, and other financial instruments connected with international markets”. First and foremost, it is supposed to synchronise the Israeli export-driven economy with its main markets in North America, Europe and Asia.
The proposal would make Friday a half day of work, until 14.00, since the Jewish Sabbath begins at sundown and lasts until Saturday night. Religious Jews who follow the tradition don’t work, travel or even spend money on Sabbath, and many stores and restaurants are closed on Saturdays. The extra day off on Sunday could therefore be used for commerce, sports, leisure and recreation.
The Chamber of Commerce as well as the Manufacturers Association are in favour of the shift. So is the president of the Hotel Association, Ami Federmann, who says that the main challenge is to make people work on Fridays, since Israel’s economy can’t afford three days off.
“It will have a very positive impact on the economy, especially on the hospitality sectors,” says Federmann. “Nowadays, people have to get back to work on Sunday morning, and if we shift days, they will have one more day to rest, eat, and spend time in hotels and restaurants. In a tense country such as Israel, it will have social and mental benefits too.”
Federmann believes the chances the shift will take place are good – though changes in labour agreements will be needed, too. Other analysts raise concerns about a possible decline in productivity and say that the change will be too hard to enact. “At the end of the day it is about politics, as always, and about being bold enough to challenge the traditional thinking.”