A row over roads highlights the growing sway of Israel’s religious hardliners
Ancient religion meets a 21st-century economy
THE morning of September 4th, a Sunday and the start of the working week in Israel, was a lot worse than the usual automotive nightmare. Maintenance work on the main (and only functioning) railway line between Tel Aviv and the north, which had been scheduled for Saturday, when regular services are suspended for the duration of the Sabbath, had been cancelled due to pressure from the ultra-Orthodox Haredi parties, who were threatening to pull out of the ruling coalition, potentally bringing it down. As a result, the work extended until Sunday evening, creating much greater pressure on the roads than usual.
As drivers advanced at a snail’s pace, officials and politicians traded recriminations. In particular, it set up a fresh clash between Binyamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, and one of the more popular members of his cabinet, the transport minister Yisrael Katz. Mr Katz is one of the few Likud ministers with an independent base of support in the party, which makes Mr Netanyahu suspicious of him: he is said to blame Mr Katz for stirring the Haredis up over the issue.
The implications of this latest coalition spat could go further than a morning of traffic jams. The uneasy relationship between the Jewish state and the Jewish religion has been regulated since the late 1940s by an unofficial arrangement between the more secular types and the devout minority. In essence this has meant that while Israelis are nominally free to choose to live their lives largely free from religious coercion (except from marriage and divorce which are the sole preserve of the official rabbinate), the state’s official and visible functions respect the dictates of traditional Jewish law. So, while Israelis can drive their cars or catch a plane from Ben Gurion airport on their holy day of rest, public bus companies, Israel Rail and the national flag-carrier, El Al, must cease services from sundown on Friday afternoon until nightfall on Saturday.
Haredi politicians have routinely turned a blind eye at necessary maintenance work and upgrades done over weekends on transport infrastructure, as is also the case with other essential services such as the power grid and the health system. There is a tacit understanding that for Israel to have a Western-level standard of living, parts of the economy have to be allowed to continue working seven days a week. Why the change? One reason is the emergence of an ultra-Orthodox online media, which has over the last few months been lambasting its elected representatives for allowing “desecration of the Sabbath”. This has forced them to abandon their attitude of plausible deniability and demand an end to weekend maintenance work.
Many of Israel’s previous prime ministers have relied on religious allies to keep their coalition governments afloat; Mr Netanyahu’s majority is so slender that he, too, must depend on them. But continuing to maintain the balance between the strictures of an ancient religion and the demands of a 21st century economy is proving increasingly difficult—even for a political operator of Mr Netanyahu’s calibre.