Under ultra-Orthodox Pressure, Israel Freezes Construction of Tel Aviv Bridge on Shabbat

'Unthinkable that the sacred Sabbath will be trampled over in the state of the Jewish people,' Religious lawmaker says; opposition members: 'Politicians serve their rabbis rather than the public'

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
Yehudit Bridge simulation
Yehudit Bridge simulationCredit: Chen Architects
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Israel announced Wednesday it was freezing plans to close Tel Aviv's main traffic artery on a series of six Saturdays in order to build a pedestrian bridge.

The decision was made after pressure from the government coalition's religious members, who oppose working on the Sabbath.

The Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality announced Tuesday the construction of the new Yehudit Bridge over the Ayalon Highway. Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz said on Wednesday that the municipality's announcement is "outrageous and unnecessary" and ordered the city to submit an alternative plan for the works.

The Yehudit Bridge was supposed to be built over the highway over six weekends, scheduled over several months. The first highway closure was scheduled for August 31. Katz said that the manner of construction chosen could be "disproportionately onerous for the public over the weekends."

In a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday, MK Yinon Azulai (Shas) complained that Tel Aviv's plan was a gross violation of the coalition agreement, and that it was "unthinkable that the sacred Sabbath will be trampled over in the state of the Jewish people of all places."

File photo: Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, September 2017Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Tel Aviv-Jaffa mayor Ron Huldai was outraged by Katz's decision, saying that "closing the Ayaon Highway in the middle of the week will create a transportation catastrophe for the public."

"This government has lost all sense of shame," he added.

After Katz nixed the Saturday construction plans, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid said on Twitter that "the ultra-Orthodox, who are the ones who really control the coalition, ordered Netanyahu to suspend the works."

"Netanyahu of course obeyed and suspended [the works], and we will be the ones stuck in horrible traffic jams again," he said, presumably referring to the likely outcome of shuttering Tel Aviv's central highway on weekdays and diverting traffic to the city streets.

Following Katz's announcement, the Meretz party contacted its colleagues in the opposition to urge that the Knesset convene a special session, although the parliament is currently on a summer recess. Meretz chairwoman Tamar Zandberg said that "in a liberal democratic country in 2018, infrastructure works should be done according to needs and in the manner that causes the least inconvenience, not based on the unenlightened whims of politicians who serve their rabbis rather than the public."

Meretz managed to obtain sufficient signatures Wednesday and, as a result, a special Knesset session will convene during the summer recess to discuss this issue.

"Katz's intolerable surrender to the ultra-Orthodox proves how far this government is distancing Israel from a liberal democracy," Zandberg said.

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman from the ultra-Orthodox party United Torah Judaism congratulated Minister Katz, saying he had "shown a sense of public responsibility and prevented needless harm to the status quo and the tradition of Israel." According to Litzman, "keeping the Sabbath as the national day of rest has been a supreme value for generations. Canceling the works on Saturday at the Yehudit Bridge is a moral and blessed step that speaks to sound judgment, rather than provoking the religious and traditional population, which make up the majority of people in Israel."

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