Israel's ultra-Orthodox Leaders to Hold Rare Summit to Strategize Against Threat to Religious Status Quo

The Haredi leadership is expected to escalate battle against railway work on Shabbat, and all options are on the table, including quitting the government

Ultra-Orthodox men pray during a protest against businesses staying open on Shabbat, in Ashdod, May 2015.
Ilan Assayag

The leadership of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community plans to step up its active opposition to work on the Jewish Sabbath, with a focus on work carried out by Israel Railways on Shabbat.

Three leading Haredi rabbinical councils resolved this week to hold a summit to plan measures against what they see as an erosion of the status quo banning nonessential government work from sundown on Friday to after sunset Saturday.

Leading rabbis from the Sephardi, Hasidic and non-Hasidic “Lithuanian” streams of ultra-Orthodox Judaism are expected to attend the conference, which will be held in the coming weeks.

The only precedent for the proposed gathering was a summit in 2014 over government efforts to draft Haredi men into the army.

“Israel Railway’s work on Shabbat is just a symbol of something much wider,” a source from a Haredi political party told Haaretz. “It’s a fight against the ongoing erosion of the status quo in recent years. We are seeing more and more places such as grocery stores and malls open on Shabbat, in addition to steps to approve public transportation and the opening of entertainment venues in Jerusalem on Shabbat.”

A different source in a Haredi party said ultra-Orthodox lawmakers feel disrespected, after being promised by Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz; Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Minister Haim Katz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the matter would be addressed. The source added that because Haredi coalition partners Shas and United Torah Judaism were aware that threatening to leave the government could hurt their constituents, a decision was made to let the rabbis decide how to respond to the erosion of the status quo.

"The issue, in effect, has been taken away from the Haredi lawmakers and handed to the rabbis, and with them, all options are on the table – up to immediate resignation from the governing coalition," the source said. 

About two months ago, railway maintenance work scheduled for Shabbat was canceled after the Haredi parties reached a deal with the prime minister and the labor and transportation ministers. The agreement stipulated the maintenance of the status quo and the holding of weekly meetings would be held to review requests for Sabbath work permits. Yisrael Katz instructed the Transportation Ministry to prohibit nonessential work on Shabbat.

Haredi representatives have warned since, however, that as they saw it, work was being performed on Shabbat that was not essential, in violation of the agreement.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu is in a political maze that we can’t explain. He is afraid of Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, who is undermining him, and is afraid to touch the matter,” MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) was quoted as saying in an article that was published on Friday in the ultra-Orthodox newspaper Yeted Neeman.