Three Ha'aretz cartoons summarize a recent commotion in Israeli politics. One depicts a horrendous traffic jam associated with a major construction project, with Bibi smiling and claiming to have "screwed Katz.'



Another shows two wounded politicians, Bibi and Transportation Minister Israel Katz, reflecting several days of media commentary about a struggle that did not produce a clear winner. The headline reads, "Shabbat injured."



A third cartoon damned Bibi for hypocrisy. It shows him sitting at a Sabbath table while Sara is blessing the candles, and he is violating the Sabbath by smoking a cigar.


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​Behind the traffic congestion and political sparring is the construction of Tel Aviv's light rail, and the approach of Rosh Hashana. 


The light rail will interface with the established rail network, and requires an occasional interruption of service so expanded stations and other infrastructure can be put in place. 


While the best time for that is the Sabbath, Israel's ultra-Orthodox politicians, with the assistance on this occasion of the Orthodox Rabbinate, declared that it was forbidden to do such things on the Sabbath.


No work on the Sabbath is the religious ideal, but it comes up against the pressures of a modern society. 


There are established agreements for doing essential work on the Sabbath, and on this occasion the Minister of Transportation received and approved the opinions from professional staffers that the work should go ahead as it routinely occurred on previous Sabbaths.


But the approach of High Holidays elevates religious sentiment to one of its seasonal heights, along with the custom of renewing rabbinical coffers by donations from religious Israelis and overseas Jews.


The heads of ultra-Orthodox parties threatened to leave the government coalition if the work continued, and the Prime Minister issued an order that the work be stopped.


The result was that the work began after the end of the Sabbath and proceeded through Saturday night and much of Sunday, which goes by the name of "First Day" (as in the Book of Genesis), and is Israel's major day for transportation as people stream back from their one day weekend.


Including in the flow, and highlighted by the political opponents of the Prime Minister, are tens of thousands of soldiers going back to their bases, with many of them dependent on trains running between Tel Aviv and Haifa, which had been stopped due to the construction that occurred on Sunday rather than Saturday.


No trains meant more cars and buses, and the kinds of congestion pictured in the Ha'aretz cartoon. There were also some scuffles as soldiers competed for limited space on the buses.


Bibi and his minions claimed it was all the work of Israel Katz, who they see as involved in an inner party struggle to limit or replace the Prime Minister. Almost all of the media saw it as Bibi's counter punch to limit Katz's ascendance, and to curry favor with the ultra-Orthodox.


The prominent media exceptions were Israel Hayom, expressing the sentiments of its owner Sheldon Adelson and living up to its reputation as Bibipress, as well as the outlets associated with the ultra-Orthodox that that cursed both Bibi and Katz.


So much for Act I, occurring on September 3-4.


By the middle of the following week, the Supreme Court had responded to a suit from opposition party Meretz with a ruling that the Prime Minister had been out of place in ending the railroad's work on the Sabbath. The Court affirmed that the authority rested with another Katz in the government, Minister of Labor Haim Katz. 


With respect to the following Sabbath, September 10, Haim Katz committed himself to relying on the recommendation of professionals in the relevant ministries as to whether he would allow work said to be essential, and keeping the Sabbath out of politics. He also said that he would try to keep the issue as quiet as possible, without prominent announcements likely to rile those sensitive to issues of Sabbath and political oneupsmanship.


An occasional storm on the borders of religion and politics is part of the Israeli experience. 


At the heart are 3,000 years of religious lawmaking and religious customs, with customs at least as important as law in shaping what individual rabbis insist as essential.


Also crucial is the lack of a religious hierarchy in Judaism. A number of rabbis, each with their congregations and supporters, are said to be the religious leaders of the generation. 


Insofar as there is always something that a religious Jew can claim to be improper, it is never clear why a particular issue comes to the surface. It may be a rabbi's demand that a violation of the Sabbath is intolerable, the discovery of what is said to be non-kosher food or utensils in a context that claims to be kosher, uncovering ancient graves at a construction site that a rabbi declares to be Jewish, and therefore not to  be disturbed, the latest instance in the IDF's recruitment that threatens the preferred life style of ultra-Orthodox young men, or another round in the demands of ultra-Orthodox politicians for more housing, greater payments, lower taxes, special deals on water or electric charges for large ultra-Orthodox families. 


One can suspect that a rabbi's need for funds leads him to look for a cause to promote his insistence on Judaic purity in order to spur his sources of donations, but one can be never sure about what is moving the murky world of the ultra-Orthodox. For many Israelis who consider themselves secular, and even among the Orthodox, the commotions associated with the ultra-Orthodox reinforce the image of parasites demanding more by way of special treatment received without equivalent contributions of military service, contributions to the national economy, or preparing their children for economic independence via useful education.


Yair Lapid was the initial winner of the transportation and political mess. A survey a few days after the first Sabbath showed his political party, There is a Future, leading Likud for the first time.


In a mid-week interview, Lapid sounded like a potential Prime Minister who would work with all Israeli sectors. He was not the fire brand of the past against the ultra-Orthodox, but did speak in behalf of requiring secular studies in their schools, which would allow their young people to support themselves.


As the Sabbath approached, Labor Minister Haim Katz announced that essential work would occur, but his office would not release details. Hopes were that a relatively low profile would keep the ultra-Haredim in their synagogues and study halls, and allow Israelis to travel normally on Sunday.


Comments welcome
-- 
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem

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