Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu has apologized for calling Israeli rhythmic gymnast Linoy Ashram to congratulate her for winning a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics on Saturday, following harsh criticism from religious political allies angered by his public violation of Jewish religious laws prohibiting the use of electronics on the sabbath.
Speaking at a gathering celebrating the recent wedding of United Torah Judaism lawmaker Yaakov Asher’s daughter on Sunday, the former prime minister, who is not observant, issued a mea culpa for the call and its subsequent posting on social media, stating that he “had to provide a personal example” and declaring that he was “not accustomed to putting things out before the end of Shabbat.”
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“My staff was very diligent, and they do not understand that what applies to a prime minister applies to me now as well. These things have been taken care of and will not happen again,” he said.
In a statement on its official Twitter account, Netanyahu’s Likud party attributed the release of the video of the phone call to a “technical error,” declaring that it had, as an organization, always “guarded the honor of Shabbat.”
While most of Israel’s leaders have been secular, it is a longstanding unofficial norm for senior officials to refrain from actions prohibited by traditional Jewish law on the day of rest.
During the Saturday afternoon call, Netanyahu congratulated Ashram, telling her that she had made history by bringing home the gold. Her win was the first time since 2000 that a rhythmic gymnast who is not Russian has taken the gold at the Olympic Games.
Despite the upbeat message of the call, condemnations came fast and furious, with United Torah Judaism Chairman Moshe Gafni declaring that the Olympics do not constitute a situation of “a danger to human life requiring the violation of Shabbat” and noting that, as head of the opposition, Netanyahu is also a state official bound by the same norms he observed as prime minister. “I am glad that the prime minister waited for the end of Shabbat, as Netanyahu should also have done,” he said.
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Netanyahu’s actions “hurt the masses of Shabbat observant Jews” as well as his “loyal partners for whom Shabbat is close to their hearts,” tweeted Shas Chairman Arye Dery.
Religious Zionism Chairman Bezalel Smotrich, who represents the hard right of the country’s religious Zionist camp, tweeted that he was “happy about Linoy’s gold” but “sad about the desecration of Shabbat. I am glad that the prime minister and the president waited for the end of Shabbat with their blessings. It is sad that Netanyahu issued a statement in the middle of Shabbat,” he said.
Over the past decade, ultra-Orthodox parties have been staunch allies of Netanyahu and have enjoyed a continued monopoly over several policy issues related to religion and state, as well as an exemption for ultra-Orthodox men from Israel’s mandatory military draft. In recent weeks, ultra-Orthodox politicians have amped up personal attacks against members of the governing coalition as the reality of their fading influence in government becomes apparent.
Past governments that have attempted to abolish ultra-Orthodox privileges have seen reforms erased after only a few years. In the 2013 election, Yesh Atid formed a coalition with Netanyahu’s Likud and managed to push through significant cuts to Haredi entitlements and pass a law requiring Haredi men to participate in the military draft. Those changes were quickly reversed when the Haredi parties rejoined the governing coalition after the next election.
Following the announcement of reforms intended to end the rabbinate’s monopoly over kosher food certification last month, Gafni accused Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana, who is an observant modern Orthodox Jew, of seeking to “erase any trace of Judaism and prevent Jewish citizens from eating kosher.”
In early June, shortly before Naftali Bennett was sworn in as prime minister, ultra-Orthodox lawmakers accused the religious Yamina leader of being a brazen sinner who should “remove his kippah.”
JTA contributed to this report.