Haredim force Katz to halt Ayalon work on Shabbat

The intervention led to severe protest from Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai and members of the opposition in Knesset, who gathered enough signatures to force a recess-debate on the issue.

TEL AVIV’S congested Ayalon Highway in 2014.  (photo credit: MOSHE MILNER / GPO)
TEL AVIV’S congested Ayalon Highway in 2014.
(photo credit: MOSHE MILNER / GPO)
Transportation Minister Israel Katz has frozen plans by the Tel Aviv Municipality to conduct construction work on a footbridge across the Ayalon expressway on six Shabbatot in a row, following haredi objections to the work.
The intervention led to a fierce protest by Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai and members of the opposition in the Knesset, who excoriated Katz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for what they said was “scandalous” capitulation to haredi demands.
The Knesset opposition has now gathered enough signatures to force a recess debate on the issue.
Following the hostile reaction to the suspension of the construction work, Channel 2 reported on Wednesday evening that officials in the Prime Minister’s Office tried to distance the prime minister from Katz’s decision, saying, “It is not reasonable to close down the Ayalon in the middle of the week.”
Katz claimed on Channel 2 that construction of the bridge would interfere with the electrification of the high-speed Tel Aviv-Jerusalem railway, and that he had therefore delayed any work on the footbridge by six months until the electrification is complete, and would not allow any other work on the highway, during the week or on the weekend, until that is done.
Infrastructure construction and maintenance has caused severe political problems in recent months for the government, and led to serious coalition instability and eventually the resignation of Ya’acov Litzman as health minister, although he was subsequently appointed deputy health minister in charge of the ministry.
The Tel Aviv Municipality plans to construct a footbridge across the Ayalon to connect the west and east of the city divided by the highway, making it easier for pedestrians to reach either side and reduce road traffic.
But when the construction plans were announced, haredi politicians reacted furiously and demanded that they be halted.
Shas Party MK Yinon Azoulay wrote to Netanyahu, calling the timing “outrageous,” given that it is currently the buildup period to the High Holy Days.
“It is unthinkable that the holy Shabbat will be brazenly trampled on in the Jewish state,” wrote Azoulay. “Therefore I request your urgent intervention on this matter to refrain from violating the purposes of the [Hours of Work and Rest Law], which are basic principles that require the preservation of Shabbat in public and the prevention of the violation of the status quo with all that entails.”
And the two most influential haredi papers, Yated Ne’eman and Hamodia, mouthpieces of the Degel Hatorah and Agudat Yisrael parties, respectively, led their Wednesday papers with large headlines about “mass Shabbat desecration.”
On Wednesday morning, Katz described the announcement by the municipality and Ayalon expressway as “outrageous and unnecessary,” and said that construction would severely harm the public on the weekends in question.
Huldai called Katz’s decision “scandalous,” and said closing the Ayalon during the week would be a catastrophe for weekday traffic, and would be worse than a previous incident, when railway construction fell on Sunday instead of Saturday, which led to widespread gridlock and public anger.
“The government has lost its shame,” he continued, and said that he had instructed the municipality’s legal department to examine a petition to the High Court of Justice on the matter.
“Just like the decision on closing grocery stores on Shabbat, this is part of the attempt to change the character of the state and the city,” Huldai said.
The Israel Democracy Institute pointed out that some 400,000 Jews work every Shabbat, and that the haredi parties merely make a fuss when Shabbat work hits the headlines.
“In light of this, would it not be appropriate to allow several dozen workers to work on Shabbat to prevent massive traffic jams and heavy budgetary damage?” asked Dr. Shuki Friedman, director of the Center for Religion, Nation and State of the Israel Democracy Institute.
“The time has come for a real and logical solution for the religion and state relationship in the State of Israel which will allow necessary construction work to be carried out, but will prevent mass employment on Shabbat and the denial of a day of rest with people’s families to hundreds of thousands of Israelis,” Friedman said.
Zionist Union chairman Avi Gabbay said, “Netanyahu doesn’t care if we dehydrate in traffic jams,” saying that “only someone who doesn’t care about the public could capitulate so quickly.”
Yesh Atid chairman MK Yair Lapid also blamed Netanyahu, saying, “The haredim, the true rulers in this government, instructed Netanyahu to freeze the construction on the Ayalon, and Netanyahu, obviously, obeyed them and froze it, and we will stand once again in crazy traffic.”
Lapid said that only a government led by his Yesh Atid Party would not concede to such demands in the future.
Litzman, however, praised Katz and said he had shown “public responsibility and prevented an unnecessary injury to the status quo and Jewish tradition,” and that “throughout the generations, Shabbat observance has been a supreme value” which should be preserved.•