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Ultra-Orthodox Jews shout at a policeman during a protest against the opening of a road on the Sabbath, near a religious neighbourhood in Jerusalem June 23, 2012..(Photo by: REUTERS)
The political football called Shabbat: Why now?
Any attempt to loosen the status quo regarding Sabbath observance in the public realm will be fiercely fought by haredi political representatives.
Recent months have borne witness to ever greater frustration in the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) political parties United Torah Judaism and Shas with the ongoing infrastructure construction and maintenance work carried out on Shabbat. This includes other developments, such as attempts to increase the number of grocery stores open on the Sabbath in Tel Aviv, and proposed changes to the legal status of Saturday football matches.

But such activity has always gone on.

Saturdays have often been used in the past to undertake maintenance work on highways, which would otherwise snarl up traffic during the week, many grocery stores in Tel Aviv have always been open despite a legal ban, and professional soccer matches have been staged on Saturdays for decades.

One difference is that the scale of the construction does seem to be greater than in the past. Transportation Minister Israel Katz has advanced several large transport infrastructure projects and has sought permits to carry this work out on Shabbat in order to advance them as quickly as possible.

There is also significant interest in the issue by various rabbinical committees to preserve the sanctity of Shabbat in different cities, and the associated haredi politicos who lobby and agitate on both a municipal and national level.

And there is significant concern from some of the most senior members of the haredi rabbinic leadership, in particular the grand rabbi of the Gur Hassidim, the biggest hassidic community in the country, Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter who sees Shabbat observance as an especially important issue.

It may also be a function of the prime minister’s current political weakness due to the criminal investigations against him, and the heightened ability of the haredi parties to obtain concessions on this issue.

Finally, the restive haredi online news media has, as with other issues, also helped drive haredi political and rabbinic protest on the matter.

As in many issues of public religious life, the online haredi news media is not restrained by rabbis or politicians as the old haredi newspaper mouthpieces are and traditionally have been.

If in the past, a particular issue was seen as a complicated problem that could cause political difficulties for both the haredi parties and the government, then the traditional haredi newspapers would ignore the issue or sweep it under the carpet on instruction from the rabbinic leadership.

This is becoming increasingly difficult due to the unrestrained coverage given such issues by the online haredi media and the access of approximately 50% of the haredi community to some form of Internet.

This coverage generates pressure on the haredi parties even before the haredi dailies can decide whether or not cover it, and can be embarrassing for them in front of both their voters and rabbis if the online media points out their failings to uphold, for example, something as basic to religious life as Sabbath observance in the public realm.

Whether or not the issue is particularly important to the average haredi man, or woman, on the street is however debatable.

The construction and maintenance work does not take place in haredi communities, they are unaffected by the grocery stores open in Tel Aviv, and do not see the Saturday matches either.

If you were to ask a haredi man in the street if he supports political pressure on the government to stop such activity however, he would likely say yes, although at the same time the priority he would give the issue may not be particularly high.

Still, the very fact that all three Councils of Torah Sages of Degel Hatorah, Agudat Yisrael and Shas convened together last week, and deliberated for more than two hours, indicates the serious manner in which the haredi leadership is addressing the issue of Shabbat in the public realm.

The statement they issued was not particularly tough and had no real political consequences, but the very fact that they met sent a potent political message that was not lost on the government or Labor and Social Services Minister Haim Katz, who the day before the meeting told haredi MKs that construction work would be halted during the upcoming holiday period.

Although the haredi leadership would be loathe to create an all-out coalition crisis over the matter, the sector’s political clout and the importance of Shabbat to significant elements in the community mean that any attempt to loosen the status quo regarding Sabbath observance in the public realm will be fiercely fought by the haredi political representatives.

The convening of the Councils of Torah Sages represents a sincere elevation in the severity of the haredi response on the issue, and we can certainly expect further such moves if the government ignores these demands.
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