Although United Torah Judaism and Shas were able to claim that they strongly defended the honor of the Sabbath during the latest coalition crisis, it is highly likely that the same storm will circle back around, and with increased fury, in the not too distant future.
From their point of view, one of the critical achievements of the agreement with the prime minister was a guarantee to pass legislation that will anchor in law a requirement for the labor and social services minister to “take into consideration Jewish tradition,” among other considerations, when deciding which maintenance and construction projects can be carried out on Shabbat.
But what will this law actually achieve? The minister will not be obligated in any way to stop construction work on Shabbat, only to think about doing so. In practice, he could say that he has thought long and hard about the particular project and then approve it, regardless of Jewish tradition.
This is what makes Sunday night’s agreement so dangerous for the Haredi parties, because although it allows them to save face in front of the Haredi media and public for the moment, future Sabbath desecrations are likely to generate even greater scrutiny in the sector.
And in truth, the Haredi parties do not in any way want to topple the government. The current coalition is widely perceived to be the most favorable ever
to the concerns of the Haredi public and its leadership.
UTJ and Shas still have a whole basket of items on their legislative agenda, first and foremost a new legal arrangement to allow blanket exemptions from military service for yeshiva students.
Other matters, such as legislation to tighten the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over conversion and kashrut, are also critical goals, and with two years left to this current Knesset and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid rising in the polls, the Haredi parties do not want to put these goals at risk.
But will the agreement have the desired effect of reducing the Haredi clamor over Shabbat desecration? The answer is likely to be no.
Most of that clamor is coming from the Haredi online news media, which are widely read in the Haredi public and which is unrestrained in its editorial policy, unlike the traditional Haredi print media, which are heavily censored by the community’s rabbis.
The online news sites have effectively cowed the Haredi parties on several aspects of public policy, notably regarding the Western Wall agreement and Shabbat, by relentlessly drawing attention to the fact that government policy opposes traditional Haredi perspectives.
If, in the past, it was convenient for the Haredi parties to turn a blind eye to critical infrastructure maintenance on Shabbat which takes place far from Haredi communities, the spotlight shined upon the phenomenon by the online Haredi media has made that reality far more uncomfortable for UTJ’s and Shas’s MKs to reconcile themselves with.
Haredi community politicos bring information of public Sabbath desecration to the ears of the leading Haredi rabbis without consulting the MKs, and the consequences can be clearly seen in Ya’acov Litzman’s resignation, which was carried out on the instructions of the Gur grand rabbi, who has been strongly lobbied by leading members of the community on the issue of Shabbat.
Indeed, the problem of the Haredi online media is so acute for Shas and UTJ that Shas chairman Arye Deri felt the need on Monday to try to stymie the flow of negative press on the issue of Shabbat.
Speaking to the media at the Shas Knesset faction meeting on Monday, Deri said that “those journalists who are concerned about Shabbat and give us ethical counsel and sometimes beat us up should know: We work in accordance with the instructions of the rabbis and the Council of Torah Sages.”
So what will happen when this coming Shabbat, and those Shabbatot in the near future, when maintenance work again takes place? According to Yisroel Cohen, a political reporter for the Kikar Hashabbat website, the online media are tracking events closely and “have their finger on the pulse.”
If the legislation regarding maintenance work and grocery stores is advanced, then the Haredi media are likely to “go with the flow of the Haredi MKs,” says Cohen.
“If the Haredi media see that these things are not being implemented, then it’ll create chaos for the MKs.
And regardless of progress on these laws, the online media will report on any maintenance work this coming Shabbat.
Asked whether maintenance work this Shabbat would constitute a violation of the agreement, a source close to Litzman said simply that he “hopes that there won’t be any.”
Such hopes may be in vain, as the Transportation Ministry and Israel Railways have made clear that ongoing maintenance work is vital in guaranteeing the safety of passengers on the network.
While there may be a lull in the next few weeks in the tumult over Shabbat, the agreement reached on Sunday in no way guarantees that the Haredi parties will not come under pressure again to increase political pressure on the government if the maintenance work continues.
If the legislation to take the Sabbath into account when approving this work is approved, and the labor and social services minister nevertheless continues to frequently authorize more maintenance on Shabbat, Sunday’s agreement will be shown up for the smoke screen it really is, whose main purpose is to enable UTJ and Shas to climb down the tree on which they got stuck over their demonstrations regarding the honor of the Sabbath.
What happens to the coalition if and when they get embarrassed again remains to be seen.