Why the Political Crisis? Railway Work on Shabbat Has Been Routine for Years

Ultra-Orthodox leaders threatened to quit Netanyahu's government over plans to upgrade Israel's railroads over Shabbat, yet Haaretz finds that infrastructure work on the day of rest has been the routine for at least the past decade.

The Keren Kayemet Junction in Tel Aviv on the Ayalon Highway, alongside the coastal railway system viewed on Sunday, September 4, 2016.
Moti Milrod

Seeking to avert a government crisis, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu banned railroad work this past Shabbat after pressure from ultra-Orthodox lawmakers angry at a highly publicized plan to conduct infrastructure work.

But Haaretz finds that railroad work on the Sabbath is nothing new and that for the past decade the Israel Railways has executed between 10 and 20 repair and maintenance jobs every Shabbat.

The Railways also have obtained permits to employ 385 workers each Sabbath through the rest of the year. Only about 100 workers had been scheduled to work over the past Shabbat before the work was halted.

The weekly work detail covers repairs, maintenance and infrastructure upgrades. The railway company gets a permit for every job and the Economy Ministry approves the number of workers that may be employed.

Israel Railways has said there is no limit to the number of jobs permitted on Shabbat and that they get permits for Shabbat work each week, as necessary.  

“There has been no change in the number of jobs or types of jobs,” an Israel Railways source told Haaretz. “It’s been exactly the same as it’s been every Shabbat for the past decade. There has been no change in the status quo.”

The annual Shabbat-work permit from the Economy Ministry has not been fully utilized, Israel Railways said. Many approved slots cover work that overlaps with Shabbat, such as running trains late on Friday or readying the first trains for Saturday night, as well as those handling safety and security detail on Shabbat.

Data from the arrangements and enforcement administration, obtained from the Economy Labor and Welfare Ministroies, show that a year ago, on September 1, 2015, 386 companies and agencies had permits to employ people on the weekly day of rest.

The permits allowed for 17,500 people to work and keeping another 1,900 on call, though these are maximum numbers, and the actual number employed on Shabbat. The data  does not detail the religious affiliation of each employee.  

Last year the Economy Ministry published its first list of organizations that had obtained permits for Shabbat work. The list cited the name of the company, the reason for the request, the date and numbers of workers approved.

The Knesset Research and Information Center found that some 60 percent of employment permits relate to work defined as vital to the public, including flight services and border control, communications and electrical workers, television and radio broadcasters, tow trucks and other services.

The Israel Electric Corp. has 2,200 such permits, while Isracard may employ up to 23 people to deal with lost or stolen credit cards. The Israel Airports Authority possesses 1,420 permits, while El Al has 1,360 permits for workers to maintain its aircraft. Some permits in this category may raise an eyebrow – like the 10 permits given the Ben-Gurion Heritage Institute for guides for soldiers’ tours.

Most of the remaining 40 percent of permits are granted to organizations where shutting production would cause serious disruptions such as manufacturers like Tnuva which may employ 21 people on Shabbat.  The Agricultural Research Institute may employ 45 workers, while the Nespresso company may employ two, but only to service hotels.

Around one percent of the permits are for security-related work. Thus the Israel Police employs 25 people and keeps 125 on call, Beeper Communications employs five workers for “state security,” while some local authorities also employ people on security grounds