Don't Blame Bibi for Israel's Paralyzed Trains, It Was the Haredi Social Media

The crisis that left Israeli roads jammed and stranded soldiers is a lose-lose, and only shows that social media is a dreadful leader.

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Soldiers at a train station in Haifa - being transported by bus. The government normally buses soldiers around after weekend furlough, lest they clog up trains Sunday morning. This  Saturday night and Sunday, soldiers needing a train from Haifa had no other choice but to be bused.
Soldiers at a train station in Haifa - being transported by bus.Credit: Gil Eliahu

Why was a key train line, between Tel Aviv and Haifa, shut down Sunday, leaving thousands of soldiers desperately texting their bases as they waiting needlessly at stations down the line to get back to their bases? Why were drivers trapped in monstrous traffic jams? And why is the government suddenly facing its worst crisis since it was formed a year-and-half ago?

The proximate cause was Netanyahu's decision on Friday – just minutes before Shabbat began – ordering Israel Railways to stop doing infrastructure work on Shabbat unless it was essential to saving lives.

He was doing this at the behest of the ultra-orthodox, but why the prime minister would do such a thing and why the Haredim would insist on it is hard to fathom: It’s a lose-lose situation for the two main players involved.

The ultra-orthodox parties have no interest in a coalition crisis, much less in the government collapsing. They have been getting everything they ask for – fat budgets for yeshivot and expanded child allowances. The threats of the draft and being forced to teach English and math at their schools have been lifted. Why should they risk that for something like a little infrastructure work being done on Shabbat?

As for Netanyahu, he's the last person in the world to want to foment trouble, especially of this sort. His raison d’etre is to remain in power  But his decision to bar maintenance works on the tracks over Shabbat causes pain and grief to the average Israeli voter trying to get to work and does nothing to tickle the fancy of the rightist activists.  

So how did this happen, if none of the people ostensibly behind it, Netanyahu or the Haredim, wanted it? In fact, what we’re witnessing is the anarchy wrought by social media, augmented by the desperate efforts by mainstream media to keep up with its take-no-prisoners attitude toward the elite.

Suddenly, in Haredi social media

Infrastructure work on Shabbat, like the kind on the railroads, has been done for decades without attracting the wrath of the Haredi parties. The law allows that kind of work either because it would save lives (as halakha permits) or because it is economically necessary (as Israeli law allows).

But, as Yair Ettinger explains in Haaretz, the issue on the railroad works on Shabbat surfaced in the Haredi social media last week. Eventually the fuss found its way on to mainstream ultra-Orthodox websites like Kikar Shabbat, where Haredi leaders were lambasted for surrendering principles for politics.  Politicians from United Torah Judaism and Shas had to act, or risk looking indifferent to Shabbat desecration.

This relationship between a tut-tutting social media, a mainstream media trying to keep up and a panicked elite is nothing exceptional for the rest of Israel or the developed world. It was social media that got the cottage cheese protests going five years ago and has kept the pot boiling ever since.

In the Haredi world, the process evolved more slowly. Rabbis discouraged use of the Internet and the traditional mainstream Haredi media were subordinate to the rabbis and political leaders.

That is no longer the case. Since the death of Rabbi Eliezer Schach in 2001, the Haredi world has lacked a leader with the stature to keep the community in line. Power doesn’t flow exclusively from top to bottom any longer. It’s become a two-way affair.

Not vox populi, just vox

Some laud this new set of relations between the people and the powerful as a great advance for democracy. Suddenly, politicians, CEOs and others are answerable to the people, who have a voice on Twitter and Facebook.

This is all poppycock. The “people” of the social media aren’t representative of public opinion and aren’t necessarily looking out for the public’s interests. They are a constituency in and of themselves. They hold the elite to impossibly high ethical standards, deal in innuendo and conspiracies, and know that outrage and exaggeration are what create buzz, so the more the better.

The mainstream media find itself following suit and our political leaders feel they have no choice but to answer to it, no matter how ridiculous or counterproductive the results will be.

The people, in the case commuters, are typically not consulted at all.

Bibi has loved working with the Haredi parties because they were so disciplined and single-minded. Give them the money they want, and they leave the rest of governing to him.

No more. The new Haredi politician will be as obstreperous as Yair Lapid because, pushed by social media, he has no choice. Life is going to be harder for Bibi and the rest of Israel.

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