Trains and politics

The prime minister and the transportation minister should put aside their differences – or at least avoid letting those differences hurt the running of the country.

Netanyahu and Katz (photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90,POOL)
Netanyahu and Katz
(photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90,POOL)
As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Transportation Minister Israel Katz exchanged barbs and mutual incriminations over working on Shabbat on Israel Railways’ projects, hundreds of thousands of citizens were left stranded without public transportation on Sunday.
According to the Prime Minister’s Office, Katz intentionally initiated the crisis with Shas and the United Torah Judaism by giving orders to carry out unnecessary work on Shabbat.
“This unnecessary crisis was initiated by Katz in order to harm Netanyahu’s relationship with the haredi community, or alternatively, to harm the prime minister’s image in the general public,” Netanyahu’s office said in a statement on Saturday night.
The haredi parties joined Netanyahu in attacking Katz, saying he lied to them by saying the work done on the railways was essential, when in reality it was not.
Sources in the Transportation Ministry said Netanyahu was the one who initiated the crisis, because he was looking for an excuse to fire Katz. The two men have been at odds since Katz – who also chairs the Likud’s governing secretariat – attempted last month to weaken Netanyahu’s position within the party.
The sources also said that the Transportation Ministry’s directives were in line with the existing status quo that permits essential work to be conducted on Shabbat.
But the haredi parties rejected Katz’s explanations, and threatened to topple the government coalition unless the work planned for Shabbat was halted. Just hours before the beginning of Shabbat on Friday evening, Netanyahu ordered that work be halted on 17 out of 20 sites throughout the rail system. The surprise cancellation along the Tel Aviv-Haifa route caught Israel Railways crews by surprise, after they had already disassembled parts of the track.
Work was resumed after the end of Shabbat, but the delay kept trains out of action for most of the day on Sunday. Hundreds of thousands – including many IDF soldiers attempting to return to their base after a Shabbat break – were left without trains. In an attempt to provide an option, the IDF and the Defense Ministry operated buses that transported soldiers between northern and central Israel. Ironically, operating the buses resulted in about 100 government workers being forced to work on Shabbat.
There are a number of lessons to be learned from this incident.
First, as we have argued in the past, haredi parties must not be allowed to impose their stringent interpretations of Jewish law or Halacha on the modern Jewish state.
Halacha developed in the pre-modern era during a time when the Jewish people were hosts in other people’s countries cannot provide answers to the challenges that arise in the running of a highly developed nation.
The Israel Electric Corporation, Ben-Gurion Airport, the ports, hospitals and many other bodies desecrate the Shabbat every week, even in cases where according to the strict reading of Halacha it is not permitted. The haredi politicians who represent an ideology and theology that view the establishment of the State of Israel as less than desirable tend to ignore the desecration of the Shabbat that is carried out by Israel Electric Corporation, the seaports, Ben-Gurion Airport, the IDF and the police – to name just a few.
All of this desecration is absolutely necessary for the running of a Jewish state. But if was up to the rabbis, none of it would be permitted. Usually they are not asked their opinion. In the case of Israel Railways, the desecration was brought to the attention of the rabbis by the haredi press.
The other lesson to be learned is that petty political squabbles can result in the suffering of hundreds of thousands.
The prime minister and the transportation minister should put aside their differences – or at least avoid letting those differences hurt the running of the country.
Politicians are public servants who were chosen to serve the citizens. The people of Israel should not be used as pawns in power struggles among politicians.