After ultra-Orthodox protest, minister halts Tel Aviv bridge work on Shabbat

Israel Katz orders planners to find alternatives to constructing pedestrian walkway straddling Ayalon highway over weekend, despite need to shut part of busy freeway

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

An artist's impression of the Yehudit Bridge in Tel Aviv. (NCArchitects)
An artist's impression of the Yehudit Bridge in Tel Aviv. (NCArchitects)

Transportation Minister Israel Katz said Wednesday he had ordered a halt to work on a pedestrian bridge in Tel Aviv that would have shut down the busy Ayalon freeway on Saturday after ultra-Orthodox coalition members protested over construction work being done on the Jewish day of rest.

Work on the Yehudit bridge, which will span the Ayalon highway and link a high-tech office park with the rest of Tel Aviv, had been planned to begin at the end of the month over six consecutive 24-hour periods starting Friday evenings. The construction, which will require one direction of the highway to be shut down while massive steel support girders are hoisted into place, had been slated to coincide with Shabbat to minimize impact on commuters.

However, ultra-Orthodox lawmakers in the government protested the work as a violation of a coalition agreement to refrain from infrastructure work on the day of rest, which begins at sundown Friday.

The United Torah Judaism party, an ultra-Orthodox faction in the government, published declarations against the work in community newspapers Wednesday and demanded that the work be moved to another day. UTJ party leader and deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman has in the past resigned his post in protest to infrastructure work on Shabbat.

Katz’s statement did not mention the ultra-Orthodox protest, but rather said the announcement by Tel Aviv city hall that the Ayalon highway would be closed for a series of six weekends was “outrageous and unnecessary.”

“The method chosen for the construction of the bridge seems problematic and may cause severe and disproportionate damage to the general public during the weekend,” said Katz, who is also intelligence minister.

Transportation and Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz at a press conference held at the Ministry of Transportation on April 5, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

He ordered a freeze on the work and instructed Ayalon Highway Co., the company which operates the road, to find an alternative, including late-night work.

“We are acting in accordance with the instruction from the Transportation Ministry and we will look at alternatives,” Ayalon Highway Co. said in a statement.

Opposition lawmakers slammed Katz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for caving to ultra-Orthodox pressure and likely causing a traffic nightmare on the Ayalon should it be shut during the week.

Zionist Union leader Avi Gabbay tweeted that “Netanyahu doesn’t care that you wilt away in [traffic] jams. Only someone who doesn’t care about the public — could give in so quickly.”

“The ultra-Orthodox, the real leaders of this government, ordered Netanyahu to freeze the work on the Ayalon. So Netanyahu of course obeyed and froze it, and we’ll again have to stand in crazy traffic,” said MK Yair Lapid, head of the secularist Yesh Atid Party.

“A shameful surrender by minister Katz to the ultra-Orthodox,” tweeted MK Tamar Zandberg, head of the left-wing Meretz party.

She said that her party would organize a Knesset meeting during the current recess “to return Israel to be a liberal democracy where infrastructure work is done according to needs and not according to the whims of rabbis.”

The protest over the construction work was the latest in a series of affairs in which ultra-Orthodox lawmakers have threatened a coalition crisis over perceived violations of Shabbat, including in November when plans to upgrade train lines over the weekend nearly toppled the government.

United Torah Judaism MK Uri Maklev leads a Science committee meeting in the Knesset, on June 04, 2018. Miriam Alster/Flash90)

UTK Knesset Member Uri Maklev said in statement Tuesday that “Shabbat is not an answer for construction work or maintenance work.”

“In the same way that they know how to close roads on a weekday for a marathon, such as bike races and other such events, so should also be the case for the construction of complex engineering infrastructure such as these,” Maklev said. “For every matter a solution can be found these days, between timetables and proper planning. Shabbat is not a solution.”

MK Yinon Azoulay, from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, appealed in a letter to Netanyahu for him to urgently intervene to not violate laws pertaining to work and rest days as well as preventing “violation of the status quo with all that entails.”

Azoulay noted that a clause in the coalition agreement states “the status quo regarding religion and state will be preserved as it has been for decades in Israel.”

The Yehudit span will link an area with several office towers, including Google Israel’s office, that sits on the eastern side of the Ayalon freeway, which essentially cuts it off from the rest of the city center to the west of the highway.

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When completed, the bridge will be 110 meters long, 18 meters high, and 11 meters wide. It will have a pedestrian and a bicycle lane separated by a central area featuring benches.

Construction will require steel beams weighing a total of 1,000 tons to be lifted into place, Channel 10 reported Wednesday.

The now-canceled plan had scheduled the first work session for August 31. On each occasion the highway was to be closed in one direction from 6 p.m. Friday for 24 hours.

The Ayalon, which runs north to south through the eastern part of Tel Aviv, is among the country’s busiest highways.

View of Ayalon highway in Tel Aviv in 2015. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

In November Litzman, at the time health minister, resigned his post in protest to train infrastructure work which was scheduled on Shabbat. He later returned as deputy health minister after a compromise was reached regarding the work.

The coalition crisis was resolved with government agreeing to propose a law maintaining the status quo with regard to Shabbat observance in Israel, including passing the so-called mini-market law, legislation which prevent convenience stores from operating on Shabbat.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman attends a Health Committee meeting at the Knesset on July 2, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

In addition, the government agreed to pass an amendment to a constitutional Basic Law, allowing Litzman to serve as deputy minister in the Health Ministry with no minister serving above him.

Litzman had been loath to become a full minister, due to his community’s reluctance to grant full legitimacy to a secular Jewish state. But a 2015 court ruling forced him to seek and receive rabbinic approval to become a full minister.

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