Editorial

Israel's ultra-Orthodox Engine

Hopefully the coercion that the Haredim are exerting regarding railway maintenance and supermarket hours on Shabbat will generate a counterresponse

Israeli Police scuffle with ultra-Orthodox Jews as they block a main road during a protest against Israeli army conscription, in Jerusalem, Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017.
Israeli Police scuffle with ultra-Orthodox Jews as they block a main road during a protest against Israeli army conscription, in Jerusalem, Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017. Ariel Schalit/AP

An incredible anomaly is accepted by Israelis as obvious: In every other country around the world, public transportation operates seven days a week. It’s an incongruity that screams to the heavens and largely harms the weak – those who can’t get around without public transportation. The state has informed them that on Shabbat and Jewish holidays they can stay home, unable to visit relatives or travel, because the tiniest of minorities has imposed its worldview on the entire population.

But even this warped approach, which has become routine, isn’t enough for the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, community. They want more. Not only do they want the railway system to remain idle on Shabbat, maintenance work can’t be done on that day, only on weekdays. The fact that such a decision would shut down the country’s railway system doesn’t bother them. Let the people spend another couple of hours in traffic jams or miss a day of work.

This distortion is happening because unlike the image he tries to cultivate, Benjamin Netanyahu is a weak and easily pressured prime minister. When Health Minister Yaakov Litzman threatens to resign, Netanyahu trembles like a leaf, even though he knows that a government has never given the Haredim so much, and they aren’t going to bolt so quickly.

This week MK Moshe Gafni announced that he’s advancing a bill that would forbid the opening of supermarkets anywhere around the country on Shabbat, including in Tel Aviv, despite the High Court of Justice’s ruling on the matter. Now Litzman is bypassing him on the right on the railway issue. Each and his pound of flesh, each with his own voter base.

We’re talking about United Torah Judaism, a party that has only six Knesset seats but that actually controls the government in all the important civilian realms – marriage, conversion, conscription, kashrut, Shabbat, prayer at the Western Wall and the approach to Judaism's non-Orthodox streams.

The last time the Haredim pushed the secular community into a corner, the Shinui party, headed by Tommy Lapid, won 15 seats in a general election. We have to hope that the disproportionate coercion that the Haredim are exerting this time will eventually generate a counterresponse so that in the end not only will railway maintenance be done on Shabbat, but public transportation will run every day of the week, as in any properly run country.

The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel