The Sabbath day, a hallmark of the Jewish state and one of Judaism’s most celebrated contributions to civilisation, is stirring Israeli politics again.
Compelled to insert a pair of 60-metre-long steel structures into Tel Aviv’s busiest train station as part of the preparations to electrify the new railroad to Jerusalem, Israel Railways figured the best way to minimise disruption of traffic was to perform the work on the Sabbath, when public transport is idle and private traffic sharply declines.
The state-owned company took the matter to Transport Minister Yisrael Katz from the ruling Likud party, who presented it to ultra-Orthodox politicians in a meeting from which he emerged convinced they were fine with his decision to order the performance of the work on Saturday. They weren’t.
“We never agreed to this,” said Moshe Gafni, a lawmaker for United Torah Judaism and Chairman of the Knesset Finance committee. “Katz is lying,” he accused publicly, and demanded that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu fire him, or see his coalition collapse.
Gafni and his colleagues, whose two parties represent between them 13 of the coalition’s 67 lawmakers, said there was no technical need to perform the works on a Saturday, when work has been forbidden by Jewish law since antiquity.
Israeli law enshrines the Sabbath as Israel’s national rest day by forbidding employers to make Jewish employees work on Saturday. The law, it should be noted, also bans demanding work from non-Jewish workers on their faiths’ days of rest, or another day of their choice.
However, the law allows for exceptions, both general – like hospitals, fire stations and the security services – and individual, like a power plant whose machinery demands continuous operation.
In such cases, the Minister of Labor is authorised to grant exemptions limited to specified situations. In Katz’s case this meant obtaining a permit from his colleague, Labor Minister Haim Katz (no relation), which he did.
Netanyahu didn’t fire the Transport Minister, but he did order the works re-scheduled from Saturday to Sunday. Tel Aviv’s main railway stations, as well as the adjoining Ayalon thruway, were therefore closed for several hours, causing huge traffic jams.
Sunday mornings are Israel Railways’ busiest hours of the week, because that is when thousands of soldiers return to their bases from furloughs. Stuck in that jam, then, were not only thousands of drivers, passengers and commuters, but also the careers of politicians and entire parties whose future it might affect.
First among these was the Transport Minister, a party boss who at 61 has been a fixture of Israeli politics for 35 years, harking back to his days as a student leader at Hebrew University. Now in his eighth year, and third term, as Transport Minister, the energetic and authoritative Katz is largely credited with the revolution Israel’s roads and railways are undergoing, as new highways and railways abound.
The Sabbath row was largely about his personal status. The ultra-Orthodox politicians failed to get him fired, but Netanyahu did publicly reprimand Katz while sitting alongside him at the opening of the weekly cabinet session, in the presence of TV cameras. “This was an unnecessary crisis,” said Netanyahu, implying Katz concocted it as part of his struggles with his boss.
Katz had indeed attempted two weeks earlier, in his capacity as Chairman of Likud’s Secretariat, to take from Netanyahu some of his power to appoint officers in the party apparatus. Pundits therefore agreed that the bad blood between the two men is part of the Sabbath crisis.
Where that acrimony originates is a matter of debate, but there is no debating that since returning to the premiership seven years ago, Netanyahu’s potential successors seem to end up on the outside, each in his own moment and circumstances.
The first of these was former education and interior minister Gideon Sa’ar, 49, an eloquent lawyer and prolific legislator who left politics abruptly two years ago, and is widely expected to stage a return, whether from within Likud or via a different party.
Then there was Moshe Kahlon, who as Netanyahu’s Communications Minister earned public kudos for deregulating the cell phone industry and slashing consumer rates. Kahlon also resigned before establishing a centre-right party of his own, with which he is now back in Netanyahu’s coalition as Finance Minister.
Then there was Avigdor Lieberman, now Defence Minister, but previously Netanyahu’s Foreign Minister until he broke away from Netanyahu and Likud along with his own nationalist party to spend a period in opposition.
Lastly, there is former chief-of-staff, Lt-Gen Moshe Ya’alon, Defence Minister until last May, when he too had a break with Netanyahu, before announcing his intention to challenge Netanyahu for the country’s leadership.
Added up, these departures make many suspect Netanyahu does not like potential successors seated around his cabinet table. Whatever the value of this personalised insight, the Sabbath-works crisis is definitely a problem for all of Likud.
The Likud originally rose to power in 1977 partly thanks to a political row involving the Sabbath.
It happened when the Labor government held a well-attended ceremony for the arrival of the Israel Air force’s first F-15’s fighter jets late on a Friday afternoon. Protesting the desecration of the Sabbath, that government’s religious members abstained in a no-confidence vote, causing then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to call an early election. Labor was trounced.
There were many causes to that seminal election outcome, but what happened with respect to the Sabbath was emblematic of all the rest, as it epitomised Labor’s general loss of cultural touch with vast, traditional electorates.
An inversion of this now threatens Likud’s otherwise firm grip on the political system.
Likud remains very attentive to the observant electorates it wrested out of Labor’s orbit last century. Where it may become exposed in the wake of the Sabbath work controversy is the Russian-speaking electorate. This predominantly secular electorate votes largely for Likud, and in fact tipped the scale in Likud’s favour following long years of near-parity between Israel’s two main electoral blocks.
By now joined by their Israeli-born children, these predominantly middle class voters were heavily represented in the gridlock that the crisis caused, and will likely recall that experience when they next approach the ballot box.
Moreover, the Russian-speaking public’s issues with the ultra-Orthodox parties run deeper than one day’s worth of traffic jams.
Nearly one-third of the immigrants’ Jewish ancestry does not include their mother, a lineage that makes Orthodox rabbis consider them non-Jews.
While there is no arguing that this definition is Jewish law – as opposed to Israeli law – many immigrants complain that ultra-Orthodox rabbis make their conversion process into Judaism unnecessarily difficult. The consequent flocking of Israeli citizens to marry in Cyprus to avoid rabbinical oversight comes coupled with a sense of insult that may yet spark a political backlash
A hint of this sentiment was suggested by a Channel 2 TV poll conducted just after people emerged from the politically-engineered gridlock. It showed the centrist Yesh Atid, which is led by Netanyahu’s former finance minister Yair Lapid, ahead of Netanyahu and the Likud for the first time ever.
Elections aren’t currently scheduled until 2019, and the new votes Lapid gained in this poll came almost exclusively from Labor. Even so, Netanyahu is clearly caught between a political rock and a social hard place.
The best proof that Netanyahu is concerned was his undeclared, but implied, decision to let Saturday works happen in the future.
Following a High Court of Justice ruling – in response to an appeal by the Opposition – that the Prime Minister lacked the authority to make decisions about what work should be performed on the Sabbath, since the law says this decision rests with the Labor Minister, Netanyahu said that “the order of things” had been clarified and that that should seal the crisis.
It was an apparent effort to create the impression that the crisis was not about “what” but about “who.” Yet the dilemma is about what: what part of the ultra-Orthodox agenda, if any, is Netanyahu ready to compromise in order to retain his secular electorate, and what part of ultra-Orthodoxy’s dogmas are its politicians ready to compromise in order to reconcile faith and modernity.
The ironic part of the conundrum relates to the underlying issue at stake here – theology. Traditional Judaism has no clear answers for the demands of a modern state, because from the times of Moses until 1948 it never faced dilemmas such as whether and how to deliver electricity on Saturday, how to run a highway across a cemetery, or how to allow farmers to survive the agricultural sabbatical year called for under Jewish law without going bankrupt.
Ultra-Orthodoxy does not deal with these questions at an abstract level, because it remains ambivalent about the Jewish state’s theological meaning. Modern Orthodoxy, however, deals with these problems extensively because it believes Zionism is God’s will, and the Jewish state is his sacred creation. That is why the modern Orthodox politicians shunned ultra-Orthodoxy’s ultimatum to Netanyahu. As they see it, the state’s Sabbath is a different species from the individual’s Sabbath.
Such religious matters are very distant from Netanyahu’s worldview, as he was raised in a very secular home, and his exposure to Jewish law is believed to have been minimal.
Even so, given Israeli political dynamics, the PM may nonetheless eventually find himself debating rabbis in the name of the majority who disagrees with them on matters like who is a Jew, what is conversion, and how the Sabbath should be observed by the Jewish state.