Israel train snafu: just politics or a deeper divide?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu halted maintenance on the country's train system Saturday, affecting thousands of commuters the next day.

Oded Balilty/AP
An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man waits to vote in Bnei Barak during the 2013 legislative elections in Israel. Responding to pressure from ultra-Orthodox members of his coalition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suspended maintenance of the country's rail system Saturday, a weekly Jewish holiday.

It was meant to be routine maintenance on Israel’s rail system Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, when work is ritually forbidden.

But instead, thousands of commuters were left scrambling for seats on replacement buses at the start of the country’s workweek the next morning, after the prime minister suspended 17 of these 20 projects Friday in response to criticism he received from ultra-Orthodox members of his governing coalition, which has only a thin majority in the Knesset.

Benjamin Netanyahu blamed his transportation minister and party secretary, Yisrael Katz, who it has been speculated will challenge Mr. Netanyahu for Likud Party leadership during the next election cycle, according to the Times of Israel.

There was an attempted putsch against me in the [Likud] central committee, that did not succeed, and then it turns out that work is being done on Shabbat and there is an attempt to incite the [ultra-Orthodox] against the government,” said Netanyahu at Sunday’s meeting of the Likud ministers, before his weekly cabinet meeting. “I will not let anyone carry out a putsch.”

But, opposition members and Israeli media commentators have rejected this explanation, instead saying Netanyahu caved to threats from ultra-Orthodox members of his coalition when they threatened would leave it. 

Netanyahu wouldn’t be the first Israeli politician to walk a tightrope between halakha (Jewish law) and an industrialized, secular Israel. But questions about halakha in this modern-day democratic republic have increasingly come to a head, as the country has become more religiously polarized between ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews, with some warning this conflict will escalate further in the near future.  

“The Israel Railways issue is just the coming attraction for the even bigger battle ahead over whether businesses should be allowed to remain open on Shabbat,” writes Zvi Zrahiya for the Haaretz newspaper. “The ultra-Orthodox parties have been making Shabbat work a top priority recently.”

In Israel, there is largely no bus or train service from Friday evening to Saturday evening in observation of the Jewish Sabbath. Maintenance work has been routinely allowed, however, according to Reuters.

But in recent weeks, ultra-Orthodox politicians have faced criticism on Twitter and in religious newspapers over railway repairs on Shabbat, with demands they challenge the coalition over it, according to Reuters. While Mr. Katz, the transportation minister, insisted the work continue, Netanyahu limited the scope a week ago.

Then, with a section of track north of Tel Aviv having been dismantled the day before, Netanyahu halted maintenance Saturday. The order unleashed a nightmare for commuters Sunday, as an estimated 150,000 Israelis rely on the rail system, including soldiers returning to bases after the weekend.

Opposition members and media commentators have said Netanyahu's order was self-preservation. Included in his governing coalition of 66 politicians are 13 ultra-Orthodox members. If just five members were to leave, Netanyahu’s coalition, the most right-wing in the country's history, would fall apart.

This isn’t the first time Netanyahu has faced this issue. One testy question is whether the ultra-Orthodox haredim should be drafted. Haredim are presently exempted from the country's mandatory military service and subsequent reserve duty. They are allowed to instead remain in state-funded religious seminaries. When Netanyahu faced pressure in 2012 from secular centrist and left parties for draft reform, it also exposed Israeli frustration over political influence of the ultra-Orthodox, as Joshua Mitnick reported for The Christian Science Monitor.

“Though military service is a recent issue, mainstream frustration with the ultra-Orthodox’s outsize political influence has functioned as a wedge issue in previous Israeli elections, and fueled the rise of centrist parties pledging to pursue a secular agenda,” wrote Mr. Mitnick at the time.

As Mr. Zrahiya wrote for Haaretz, politicians in the ultra-Orthodox parties of Shas and United Torah Judaism now plan to oppose any measure that will allow businesses in Tel Aviv to remain open on Saturday. A special committee, headed by Eli Groner, the director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, plans to propose reducing the number of business open in Tel Aviv on the Sabbath, but not limiting all commercial activity. The recommendations require cabinet approval. Shas and United Torah Judaism have already expressed opposition to all options that would keep any businesses open, according to Haaretz.

The escalating tension in the Knesset reflect the religious polarization in Israeli society, as the size of Israel's "religious middle," shrinks, according to a study the Pew Center released in March. Ultra-Orthodox and secular Israelis have disagreed over how much religious law should affect Israel democracy ever since the country's beginnings in the early part of the 20th century. While the train flub is about governance, Israelis are at odds over how much democracy should take precedence or give in to halakha.

Among secular Israelis, 89 percent believe democracy should trump religious law. Among ultra-Orthodox, 62 percent believe halakha is more important than democracy. The increasing population of the Israeli ultra-Orthodox will continue this trend into the future, according to Pew. 

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