Middle Israel: On the wrong track with Israel's complex Shabbat dilemma

The religious issues that haunted Labor governments are evolving into a threat to Likud’s political hegemony.

September 10, 2016 06:00
Tel Aviv, Shabbat

CREWS WORK on expanding the Tel Aviv Railway Station on Shabbat.. (photo credit: ALONI MOR)

The ink on 1949’s armistice agreements had hardly dried when the Sabbath made Jews turn on each other, as movie theaters in Jerusalem began selling tickets during Shabbat, partly because they lost Christian clients stranded on the city’s Jordanian side.

Ultra-Orthodox demonstrators’ consequent storming of the Edison Theater’s box office and their dispersal by club-wielding police soon proceeded downhill to the Eden Theater, where scuffles with ticket buyers soon broke out, before police joined the brawl while a passing traffic cop barged, atop his motorbike, through the crowd, firing his pistol in the air.

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It was, no doubt, a proverbial backdrop for a Yiddish-language flick titled The Jewish Melody, but it was also a telling curtain- raiser for the challenges that awaited the newborn Jewish state.

Nearly seven decades on, the predicament that mixes faith, law, and sociology is returning to haunt the politics of a changing State of Israel.

LAST SUNDAY ’S traffic jams along the Coastal Plain, which stemmed from the politicians’ rescheduling of railway works originally intended for last Saturday, were but a link in a chain of such rows that animated Israeli history from its inception.

In one case, Shabbat shook the system to its foundation. It happened in 1977 when the first Yitzhak Rabin government held a ceremony where 3,000 people greeted the air force’s first F-15s while candlelights were already flickering in living rooms throughout the country.

The National Religious Party’s ministers protested and then abstained in a no-confidence vote in the Knesset. Rabin responded by calling an early election, a fateful move that resulted in Labor’s historic loss of power, and in the Likud’s enlistment of all the religious parties as its strategic partners of nearly 40 years.

Though religious parties dismantled coalitions along the decades on other issues – such as women’s conscription in 1952, and responsibility for immigrants’ education in 1951 – Shabbat has been the most contentious, because the arguable need to desecrate it can arise at any time in any place.

Ironically, the F-15s case was not typical, as there was no need to land the planes on a Friday. The typical case is about objective necessities. For instance, in 1999 a power station’s 250-ton turbine had to be wheeled more than 100 kilometers down the Coastal Plain through Tel Aviv at 6 kph while occupying three lanes.

As this was about a power station and about Tel Aviv’s main thruway, the Ayalon, this was about public necessity and also safety, because clogging the central artery midweek would potentially obstruct an emergency vehicle’s path.

That case was classic, not only technically but also politically, because the infrastructure minister of the day was Shas’s Eli Suissa, who as the minister in charge of electricity had to approve the planned journey’s desecration of the Sabbath, a license he obviously refused to deliver, and a task his party turned into a coalition crisis.

Shas’s threat produced a petition by the secular opposition to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the need to ship the turbine on Shabbat had to be judged by police. Ultimately, then-prime minister Ehud Barak ruled that since such shipments had been done on Saturdays for decades, the turbine would travel on Saturday, but that auxiliary parts which could be delivered separately would be trucked midweek.

It was a set of coincidences that shed light on Shabbat’s public complexity in the Jewish state, much of which stems not from secular politicians’ rigidity but from Jewish law’s lack of precedents concerning the management of a modern state.

The ancient Jewish states faced no dilemmas concerning the delivery on Shabbat of electricity, water, public transport or highway safety.

Noticing this legal deficit already in the state’s early days, observant philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz (as quoted in Tom Segev’s 1949: This First Israelis) suggested that modern rabbinical law formally allow the state to do on the Sabbath what it forbids an individual, just as it allows the army to kill while forbidding the individual to kill. He suggested a sweeping rabbinical statement making this distinction. No Orthodox rabbi for now has followed this advice.

Israeli law, however, has gone a long way toward Orthodox writ. And this legislation is at the crux of the current political brouhaha.

ISRAELI LAW makes Shabbat the national rest day, yet what it forbids is not the operation of a workplace but the employment of its Jewish workers on Shabbat and its non-Jewish workers on their own faiths’ days of rest, or a day of their choice.

This fundamental principle was formulated already before the state’s establishment, when David Ben-Gurion promised its legislation to religious politicians, both modern Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox, while wooing them, successfully, to sign the Declaration of Independence.

At the same time, the law lists industries and services in which employers are allowed to assign work on Shabbat, ranging from security and hospitals to fire fighting and public order. In addition, the minister of industry can issue specific exemptions from the law, based on various constraints, such as industrial processes that demand a machinery’s continuous activation.

Apart from this, following legislation that evolved over the years, local governments are allowed to license the opening on Shabbat of stores, cafés, restaurants and theaters.

Thus, following Ben-Gurion’s acceptance of Shabbat’s principle status as the national rest day, politicians from both sides of the religious divide have jointly created flexibilities that reconciled tradition with modernity’s needs and a secular majority’s demands.

In this legal respect, then, the current row is about who decides whether planting at the foothills of the Azrieli towers two 560-ton, 60-meter-long steel structures – as part of the electrification of the new railway to Jerusalem – justifies working on Shabbat.

The technical answer to this question was given by the High Court of Justice, which ruled in response to an appeal by Meretz that only the minister of labor can overrule Israel Railways’ decision to upgrade on Shabbat Israel’s busiest train station.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quickly endorsed the ruling, saying it shows “what the order of things should be” and that work that has to be performed on Shabbat will be performed on Shabbat.

That would have been the end of the affair, had it really been about legalisms. It isn’t.

THE THOUSANDS of soldiers, commuters and drivers who crowded the Ayalon’s jammed lanes and shuttered stations are mostly unfamiliar with the law’s wording and the High Court’s rulings. What matters to them is that their routine was disrupted by religious politicians, to whom the government surrendered.

The large number of soldiers in the jams carries political weight that the ultra-Orthodox parties can ignore, but Netanyahu cannot.

A hint of this clout was offered in a Channel 2 poll that claimed Netanyahu and the Likud slipped this week under the liberal Yesh Atid and its leader, Yair Lapid, who rose to 24 mandates from their current 12, as opposed to the Likud’s decline from its current 30 to 22.

While such polls mean nothing for an election currently scheduled for 2019, they do mean something concerning the current mood and, more importantly, concerning a socially transforming Israel’s political priorities.

Rabin’s misjudgment in 1977 was sociological no less than political. Along with most others in Labor, he was unaware of the Middle Eastern immigrations’ political maturation, and how they would respond to his perceived desecration of the Sabbath. It was a social transition that produced political cataclysm.

A similar dynamic unfolded in 2013, when Lapid won 19 seats and emerged as a grudging Netanyahu’s main coalition partner, following the social protests of 2011, when the middle class took to the streets in demand of cheaper housing, tuition and food.

Now, religious issues might rattle the political system, especially considering that ultra-Orthodox politicians, feeling emboldened following their rail-borne victory, now say their next goal is to shut down Tel Aviv’s grocery stores on Shabbat.

The social wild card in all this is the post-Soviet immigration, a good one million people who are almost all secular.

This electorate, which back in 1992 helped restore Rabin to power, eventually abandoned Labor in the wake of the second intifada, which it associated with the Labor-designed Oslo Accords. This electorate has no such agenda with Lapid, who didn’t exist politically when Oslo happened.

It is this electorate to which the Likud owes its current political hegemony.

It is also the electorate that frequently feels humiliated and hassled by the Chief Rabbinate when it comes to getting married, divorcing or converting. This electorate was also heavily present in last Sunday’s traffic jams, from which at least some emerged suspecting that the political train they boarded is on the wrong track.


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