Haredim Demand Halt to All Railway Work on Saturdays, Rejecting Netanyahu Compromise

Israel Railways says that halting critical infrastructure work on Saturdays could lead to cancellation of late-night train services and those before and after the Sabbath.

Construction work for Israel Railways on the Sabbath, Tel Aviv, August 27, 2016.
Ofer Vaknin

The ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset have demanded that Israel Railways cease all infrastructure work on Saturdays, rejecting a compromise proposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday.

Netanyahu accepted the bulk of ultra-Orthodox demands on Thursday, agreeing to postpone 17 of the 20 infrastructure projects that the railways had planned to perform over coming weekends.

In a letter to the Prime Minister's Bureau on Friday, however, the religious parties demanded that the three remaining projects – defined by the railways and the police as "life critical" – also be halted, a move that could dramatically reduce the country's train service.

In a subsequent telephone conversations with the heads of the ultra-Orthodox parties on Friday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked them to accept the opinion of the Israel Police that the work was critical and that failure to do it could endanger life. He added that he was waiting for their final decision.

Also on Friday, Chief Rabbi David Lau sent a letter to Health Minister Yakov Litzman, head of the United Torah Judaism party, in which he rejected the argument that Pikuach Nefesh (the principle that the preservation of human life overrides other concerns) justified Sabbath work on the railways.

"In the light of the information made available to us, we cannot rule that there is a concern of Pikuach Nefesh that would override the Sabbath," Lau wrote.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with United Torah Judaism MK Yaakov Litzman
Emil Salman

Israel Railways said on Friday that the work will continue as planned on Saturday, in the absence of any instruction to the contrary.

Previously, the railways said that banning all work on Saturdays could result in the cancellation of late-night train services from next week, as well as those on Friday mornings and Saturday nights. The reason, they said, was that critical infrastructure work planned for Saturdays would have to be done at those times.    

In their letter, the religious parties demanded that all projects be cancelled this Saturday, pending a review of the projects by engineers working on their behalf next week.

Although Saturday is legally a day of rest in Israel, the law lets the Labor Ministry grant work permits for that day. Israel Railways has such permits and it is not clear whether the government can cancel the permission.

On Thursday, Netanyahu’s chief of staff, Yoav Horowitz, met with representatives of the United Torah Judaism party together with officials from the transportation and labor ministries and Israel Railways. Horowitz accepted most of UTJ’s demands; the party had said it might leave the governing coalition otherwise.

Horowitz largely acceded to the infrastructure demand, ordering the company to cancel 17 of the 20 jobs that had been scheduled for this Shabbat. The three exceptions were jobs defined as essential because a failure to perform them could endanger human life.

But this means the work would have to be done instead on Friday before the Sabbath starts or on Saturday night after it ends – which in turn would require canceling normal train service during those times. That would hurt the 35,000 people who use these trains every weekend, most of whom are soldiers.

If a similar volume of work were canceled every Shabbat, train service on Fridays and Saturday nights would effectively disappear. Moreover, some of this work would probably have to be shifted to weekday nights, meaning that late-night train service on weekdays would also be reduced or canceled.

Yet even after Horowitz made his major concession, the ultra-Orthodox deemed the offer insufficient. Earlier this week, MK Moshe Gafni and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, both of UTJ, had demanded that Israel Railways stop infrastructure work on Shabbat entirely, even if the work were deemed essential to save lives – for instance, repairs to the signaling system for passenger trains.

Moreover, UTJ was upset that Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich was absent from the meeting. To show their anger, party leaders declined to attend another, supposedly final, meeting Thursday afternoon. Instead, they sent junior representatives who, on orders from the MKs, said they had no authority to accept Horowitz’s offer but would have to bring it to the party’s rabbinical leaders for a decision.

Neither Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz nor Labor Minister Haim Katz attended either meeting, since Netanyahu had taken the issue out of their hands.

UTJ also made another demand: to appoint a “rabbinic arbiter” who would decide each week which jobs could be done on Shabbat. The transport and labor ministries strongly objected, saying it was inconceivable for professional decisions to be made by a rabbi instead of by the ministry people authorized by law to make them.

UTJ’s demands were made in response to last week’s outcry in the ultra-Orthodox community over railway work done near the Ayalon Highway’s Shalom Interchange on the Sabbath. Police had said the work should be done on Shabbat because shutting down part of Tel Aviv’s major highway midweek would be a nuisance to drivers.

Separately, Israel Railways published its financial report for the first half of 2016 on Thursday. Passenger numbers reached 28.9 million, up 12 percent from a year earlier.