The Religious Status Quo Is Dead, Long Live Shabbat Travel in Israel

By barring track work on the Sabbath, Netanyahu has ironically opened a window for the government to permit public transportation to operate on the official day of rest.

Avi Bar-Eli
Avi Bar-Eli
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A protest in Tel Aviv against the lack of public transport on the Jewish Sabbath, September 3, 2016. The main placard says, "Waiting for a bus for Shabbat."
A protest in Tel Aviv against the lack of public transport on Shabbat, September 3, 2016. The main placard says, "Waiting on a bus for Shabbat."Credit: David Bachar
Avi Bar-Eli
Avi Bar-Eli

At 6:30 P.M. last Friday, the religious status quo in Israel was broken. That was when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made the fateful decision to halt track-maintenance work on the railways during Shabbat, bending to the demands of his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners.

For the first time ever, permits to work on the Sabbath, which have been granted over the decades in order to provide essential services under section 12B of the Work Hours and Rest Law, by order of the Ministers’ Committee and with the approval of the Knesset Labor, Welfare and Health Committee, were canceled. In doing so, the prime minster issued a political order that is illegal and ran against the opinion of the cabinet’s professional leadership.

At this stage, we still don’t know whether Netanyahu is authorized to order Israel Railways to refrain from using the 20 Shabbat work permits it has for special projects, which it received from the Labor Ministry. It’s also unclear what price passengers will pay due to Netanyahu’s order — or what price the public will pay due to the postponement of infrastructure work that had been planned for Shabbat.

What is clear, though, is that from the moment Netanyahu acceded to the demands of the Haredi leadership to cease work on the railroad during Shabbat — even though such work has been performed legally for decades — the status quo on religious matters was violated.

Netanyahu has taken a dramatic step — even if that’s not what he intended. The status quo, which dates back to the days before Israel was founded, sets out the rules for what can or can’t be done by public institutions on Shabbat and holidays. It neither the Haredim nor secular Israelis were thrilled at the compromises it required of their deepest principles, it at least established ironclad rules everyone could understand. Until last Friday evening, that included working on the railroad.

There is no question that the new situation dictated by Netanyahu is scary. In light of the shaky condition of the coalition, the Haredi factions will be tempted to take advantage of their political power and exploit the dependence of the premier on their votes in the Knesset. Without the 13 seats of United Torah Judaism and Shas, Netanyahu would find himself without a parliamentary majority.

The ultra-Orthodox have tasted power, and now they can perpetuate the prohibition against Shabbat work on the railways, expand the prohibition to other infrastructure projects and maybe even expand the boundaries of the debate about Shabbat to include other aspects of the relationship between religion and state.

On the other hand, breaking the status quo also opens another window of opportunity. Ostensibly, it enables the introduction of long-necessary innovations in the archaic rules guiding Israel’s transportation sector, which has been frozen absurdly in the late 20th century while the world and the rest of the Israeli economy have changed beyond recognition.

No choice about 24/7 public transit

Anyone with eyes in his head, even if he wears a skullcap, understands that the 250,000 new cars Israelis buy annually are choking its roads and leave the economy no choice but to offer round-the-clock, 24/7 mass transit solutions. Likewise, a solution to the housing shortage in the center of the country is impossible unless more homes and workplaces are developed in the Negev and Galilee periphery, which will also require making public transportation available on Shabbat and holidays.

Moreover, it’s impossible to strengthen Israeli society and the economy while ignoring the need for public transportation of the non-Jewish public and the tourism sector. The 55 billion shekels ($14.6 billion) Israel is committed to investing in transportation infrastructure over the next several years will be poorly spent if the services it provides operate only 5.5 days a week, or 85% of the service they could provide to the public.

Generations of cabinet ministers have understood that. But every time they were confronted with the dilemma, they calmly blamed the near-sacred status quo and claimed that their hands were tied.

Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Credit: Yoav Davidovich

Well, here’s news for you: the status quo is dead. Finally, the shackles have been removed from the hands of ministers and the heads of local government.

No more self-righteous shrugging of shoulders and no more fake helplessness. No more ignoring the dangerous phenomenon of hitchhiking, and the traffic jams on Shabbat and holidays. No more undercover deals, or legalizing new Shabbat taxi routes in the framework of “extending existing routes.” From now on, everything is open and on the table. With the blessing of the prime minister, from now on everyone is allowed to do his job and to faithfully serve the interests of his electorate.

From now on, Transportation and Road Safety Minister Yisrael Katz must — not only may — form a professional team to reexamine the Israeli public transportation map and order it revised in accordance with the public’s needs. The finance minster must instruct his ministry’s budget division to draw up plans to increase subsidies for buses and trains to include operating on Shabbat. At the same time, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai must tell the Transportation Ministry what routes he wants to operate on Shabbat.

The status quo may be forced on the secular majority by the religious minority — but the minority certainly does not have a monopoly on breaking it. The local authorities must mobilize to repair an absurd, long-term injustice. And the Israeli media, with the help of welfare, economic and environmental organizations, must now mobilize to support them.

It was sad to see over the weekend how the Prime Minister’s Office managed to maneuver the public discussion about breaking the status quo into political-personal issues with his transportation minister. It was a futile exercise in distracting the public’s attention from what amounts to major worsening in religious coercion and the cost to hundreds of thousands of Israelis.

Professional surrender

If Netanyahu’s office previously used professional struggles to cover up political quarrels, ironically, the picture here is the opposite: This time, the use of a political quarrel was meant to cover up a dangerous professional surrender.

It’s no secret that Netanyahu and Yisrael Katz are on the outs. It’s no secret that relations between Netanyahu and Social Affairs Minister Haim Katz are tense. There’s no question that the bad blood between Likud ministers is playing a part in the escalation of the Israel Railways crisis.

But none of that should interest the train passenger, the driver who will be stuck in traffic jams on Route 2 and the other Israelis who are concerned about their individual rights. Something dramatic has happened in the relations between religion and state — and everyone is busy with a countdown to Yisrael Katz’s end.

The preoccupation with the internecine quarrel in Likud is not only causing an injustice to the public; it is also mistaken in terms of the facts. After all, it was Netanyahu who a week ago removed the authority to handle the Shabbat crisis from his ministers, and then appointed his chief of staff, Yoav Horowitz, to tackle the issue.

Netanyahu was the one who agreed to violate the status quo and to cancel 17 of the 20 projects Israel Railways was permitted to carry out on Shabbat. It was Netanyahu who approved the three projects subject to police approval. It was Netanyahu who didn’t realize in time that he had been pushed into a corner, and was therefore “punished” by Health Minister Yaakov Litzman of the Haredi party United Torah Judaism and the rabbis, who took advantage of his political weakness to force him to cancel all 20 projects — while ignoring the police.

Although he left no stone unturned, it was Netanyahu who was unable to find a professional body that would take upon itself the responsibility of rescinding the work permits.

And so, at the last possible minute, at 6:30 last Friday evening, it was Netanyahu who was forced to convey the announcement of his surrender — five minutes before the deadline determined by the Haredim — and then “sold” the media the story that it was actually his transportation minister who is to blame for everything. Enough already.

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