Status quo shenanigans

A battle over rail works on the Sabbath left 100,000 people without train services and shone a spotlight on Israel’s fragile coalition politics.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz ride an Israel Railways train (photo credit: ELIYAHU HERSHKOVITZ/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz ride an Israel Railways train
OUTSIDE THE United States, many look at the current US presidential campaign as weird and surreal. The two leading candidates batter each other relentlessly, while polls show each has unprecedentedly high disapproval ratings close to 60 percent and American voters, both right and left, prepare to cast their ballots while holding their noses.
But for sheer fantasy, nothing comes close to the political battles that took place in late August and early September in Israel, revolving around a Latin phrase and a 70-year-old letter that threatened to bring down the government and necessitate new elections.
First, the facts. On Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings, Israelis normally crowd the trains as they head home, to work or to their army units, after Shabbat. I often join them.
On Saturday evening, September 3 and all day Sunday, September 4, more than 100,000 Israelis found themselves stranded with no train service because of a virulent squabble over a strange Latin phrase ‒ status quo ‒ that has come to dominate the relationship between secular and ultrareligious people and political parties.
Infrastructure work on Shabbat violates the status quo, said the ultra-Orthodox; only pikuah nefesh (life-saving) work is allowed.
The Defense Ministry hurriedly organized buses for the soldiers.
Why was train service halted? To avoid a government crisis, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu banned railroad construction on Shabbat, leaving a section of track unfinished and forcing cancellation of all trains between Haifa and Tel Aviv. On Friday, September 2, Netanyahu ordered Israel Railways to halt 17 of 20 projects scheduled to be worked on over the Sabbath. The track work was done, instead, on Sunday, a weekday, halting the trains.
This decision followed an ultra-Orthodox protest at vital Shabbat work done on a bridge on the Ayalon expressway a week earlier.
There were spontaneous demonstrations in Haifa and in Tel Aviv organized by Free Israel, a non-profit group battling ultra-Orthodox hegemony. Construction on the Sabbath would be “an unprecedented desecration… and a gross violation of the status quo,” said three ultra-Orthodox leaders – Shas head and Interior Minister Arye Deri, Agudat Yisrael leader and Health Minister Yaacov Litzman and Finance Committee chairman Moshe Gafni.
In the background was a fierce intra- Likud war between Transportation Minister Israel Katz, whose ministry runs Israel Railways, and Netanyahu.
At the Sunday cabinet meeting, Netanyahu reprimanded Katz, saying “crises happen only if you want them to.” He implied that Katz purposely engineered the crisis to embarrass or weaken Netanyahu.
KATZ, A highly popular and effective minister, came within an inch of being fired by Netanyahu, who thought better of it because it might endanger passage of the government budget since Katz could have taken five or six supporters with him and undermined the government’s majority of six.
The ability of the ultra-Orthodox to pressure Netanyahu stems from the 66-member coalition in which ultra-Orthodox parties hold the balance of power. It is highly doubtful they would resign from the cabinet, because they desperately need the funds they get by being in government – but, nonetheless, they use their political power with skill and gain every possible edge from it. United Torah Judaism, the Ashkenazi haredi party, has six Knesset members, and Shas, the Mizrahi ultra-Orthodox party, has seven.
At the center of this conflict lies the Latin phrase, “status quo,” which means “existing situation.” The late prime minister Menachem Begin was obsessive about precise language and insisted on calling it “status quo ante,” the existing situation beforehand.
It is extremely ironic that the concept of religious status quo in Israel, now seen to impose the will of a small minority on the secular majority and limit its freedom, arose precisely because of concern for religious freedom.
In Israel, “status quo” originated before the founding of the State because, in June 1947, the United Nations put pressure on David Ben-Gurion, then head of the Jewish Agency, to guarantee “freedom of thought and speech” to all citizens of the proposed Jewish state, including Orthodox Jews.
In response, Ben-Gurion wrote a letter to the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael, proposing a united policy to present to the UN Special Committee on Palestine, which had begun a fact-finding tour. The letter set policy in four key areas of concern to religious Jews: Shabbat, kashrut, marriage and education. This “status quo” letter has metamorphosed to become, ironically, an instrument that, in fact, denies many secular Israelis the freedom to travel and shop on the Sabbath, or even marry officially.
That letter became the set-in-stone definition of “status quo ante” – the existing situation after the State of Israel was founded.
But that “stone” is sometimes more like pliable play dough. For example, when Israeli TV first began broadcasting on Thursday, March 24, 1966, there was a question whether it would broadcast on Shabbat.
Ben-Gurion’s letter did not help because there was no TV in 1947.
In a lightning move, Israel Television went ahead and began to broadcast on Friday night. This set a precedent and it became, automatically, part of the status quo – because TV had broadcast on Shabbat once, it would do so forever. Status quo.
An in-depth study by the daily newspaper Haaretz reveals a great deal of cynicism and eye-winking regarding work on Shabbat.
The truth is vast amounts of work already are done on Shabbat, despite the ultra- Orthodox and its desperate embrace of the status quo. Here is what Haaretz reporters found: “… railroad work on the Sabbath is nothing new and that for the past decade Israel Railways has executed between 10 and 20 repair and maintenance jobs every Shabbat. Israel Railways has said there is no limit to the number of jobs permitted on Shabbat and that they get permits for Shabbat work each week, as necessary. Data from the arrangements and enforcement administration, obtained from the Economy, Labor and Welfare Ministries, show that, a year ago, on September 1, 2015, 386 companies and agencies had permits to employ people on the weekly day of rest. The permits allowed for 17,500 people to work and keeping another 1,900 on call.”
Police, soldiers and Ben-Gurion Airport all are fully operational on Shabbat. Work is permitted by Jewish law on Shabbat if it is “life-saving.” That term leaves much latitude for interpretation.
How, then, should we understand the furor over the status quo ante? More properly, it is status quo anti – anti, meaning a highly personal, internal political war between two antagonists, Netanyahu and his fiery Transportation Minister, Katz, who opposes him and supports rail work on Shabbat when needed, and some muscle-flexing by the ultra-Orthodox, just to remind Netanyahu where his bread is buttered. In Israeli playfor- keeps political warfare, no prisoners are taken, and the public, train travelers, pay the price, as usual.
This is not the first time the status quo has threatened to bring down a government.
In late August 1999, the government of prime minister Ehud Barak nearly fell when the Israel Electric Corporation dared to move a huge electric turbine on the Sabbath.
“This turbine has become a monster symbolizing the violations of the Sabbath,” Abraham Ravetz, then-head of United Torah Judaism said, threatening to pull out of the cabinet.
Some observers think that crisis spelled the beginning of the end for the ill-fated Barak cabinet.
Netanyahu has a long memory. I’m certain he remembers that incident, even though it occurred 17 years ago. His instinct for self-preservation is Olympic. He may even remember a much stranger episode.
On May 19, 1960, the Knesset rejected by a vote of 61-6 a motion of non-confidence by Agudat Yisrael. The reason for the vote? Ben-Gurion had claimed that only 600 Israelites left Egypt in the Exodus instead of the 600,000 mentioned in the Bible. He also suggested that the Israelites were in Egypt for two generations rather than the 400 years indicated in the traditional version.
In Israel, religion and politics are sometimes like gasoline fumes and a lighted match.
ONLY IN Israel can a 70-year-old document – Ben- Gurion’s 1947 letter – bring the trains to a standstill and cause a cabinet crisis. If it were not so tragic, it would be highly amusing.
An observer from another planet, after checking out America’s strange politics, could land in Jerusalem and then wonder: “Here is Israel, Start-up Nation, home of creative hi-tech, home of the Pentium, Centrino, memory sticks, Iron Dome and drip irrigation, which sets its work week agenda, including key infrastructure projects, on the basis of a 70-year-old letter written before the state was founded, according to the dictates of an ultra-religious minority. Hmmmm.”
Personally, I do not blame the ultra- Orthodox. They use their political ammunition with superb skill. Gafni is experienced and efficient. Litzman is the most highly regarded of all cabinet ministers by the public, even though he is a Gur Hasid. They marshal their legions of voters and focus on religious laws and their yeshivot. And, in fairness, modern life makes it all too easy to gradually erode our one day of rest and turn it into another work day.
The ultra-religious are growing in numbers and have much economic clout. And, in the polarized geography of Israeli politics, they almost always hold the balance of power in the Knesset between the left and right. Increasingly, they are undertaking secular studies and joining the workforce.
The future of Israel demands that secular and religious find common ground, speak civilly to one another, and avoid futile conflicts like the one that halted the trains.
It is high time to remove the “anti” from the status quo. Human beings have left brains (logic and reason) and right brains (emotion). Is it too much to ask our political leaders, religious and non-religious alike, to use their left brains just a tad more? Postscript: The Supreme Court issued an interim order on Tuesday, September 6 barring Prime Minister Netanyahu from cancelling Sabbath work on the railroads, on the grounds he lacks legal authority.
Netanyahu has now placed all future such decisions in Welfare and Social Services Minister Haim Katz’s hands (a friend and ally, but not a relative, of Israel Katz). Katz announced he does not intend to automatically approve all the infrastructure works planned by the Israel Railways.
The writer is senior research fellow at the S. Neaman Institute, Technion and blogs at