Economy Ministry rebuffs Haredi minister, says rail work on Shabbat will continue

UTJ had earlier demanded maintenance work on intercity rail system be halted on Jewish day of rest; Netanyahu said to promise non-critical work will be halted

Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox men clash with police and security guards during a protest against construction work for the Jerusalem Light Rail, on June 8, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)
Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox men clash with police and security guards during a protest against construction work for the Jerusalem Light Rail, on June 8, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

The Economy Ministry on Sunday rejected pressure to halt routine maintenance work on the public intercity rail system Shabbat, after a letter from United Torah Judaism head MK Yitzhak Goldknopf demanded such operations be stopped during the weekly Jewish day of rest.

In a statement Sunday, the ministry said such works “have always been carried out within the framework of Israel Railways’ permit to carry out maintenance and safety work.”

“There is no intention to cancel them,” it stressed.

Meanwhile, Kan news reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had in fact assured Haredi parties that non-essential work on Shabbat would end.

Goldknopf had claimed that coalition agreements between UTJ and Netanyahu’s Likud party had stipulated that “this work would end.”

The rail company does not operate on Shabbat, and the practice of carrying out maintenance work during the day of rest is intended to prevent, as much as possible, disruption to the service’s regular schedule.

According to a Channel 12 report, Transportation Minister Miri Regev held a meeting on Sunday evening to address the issue, where it was agreed that Israel Railways would present “solutions” for reducing work done on Shabbat by the end of the week.

UTJ head Yitzhak Goldknopf during a debate preceding forming Israel’s 37th government, December 29, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“The status quo regarding the railway work on Shabbat will be maintained as it was in the [previous] Netanyahu governments,” she said, alluding to work continuing as it has in years past.

The apparent discrepancies between Regev and Netanyahu’s reported responses could not immediately be settled.

According to financial media outlet Calcalist, the main project that would be impacted by preventing work on Shabbat would be the electrification of the country’s rail lines, due for completion in 2025. Other potentially impacted projects include a signaling system upgrade and adding additional train tracks to the busy Ayalon Highway section in Tel Aviv.

The outlet said that the cost of slowing these projects would run into billions of shekels.

The Channel 12 report said Regev had offered two ostensible concessions to placate Goldknopf: Firstly, that workers operating on Saturday would be non-Jewish, and secondly, that work would not be conducted near Synagogues. However, the network noted that these conditions are already largely realized.

In a Saturday evening letter, Goldknopf wrote to Regev: “It has been brought to my attention that there is work on Shabbat at Israel Railways that does not meet the definition of preserving life” (a religious standard that allows breaking Shabbat prohibitions of work under extreme circumstances).

Former CEO of Israel Railways Shahar Ayalon told the Maariv news outlet on Sunday that he too had faced similar pressures from ultra-Orthodox politicians in the past.

Asked whether it was possible to avoid carrying out work on Shabbat, Ayalon responded: “Anything is possible, but then you won’t have trains on Sunday, only on Monday.” He added that “the cost would be congested roads for all of us.”

“We don’t have many different lines that we can use for trains when there is maintenance work. Therefore, you can’t do the maintenance work on a weekday because the trains are on the tracks at that time… it would be a major disaster,” he said.

Ayalon also pointed out that Haredi society, due to low rates of privately owned vehicles, is highly dependent on public transport, including intercity trains, and would be disproportionately affected by the prevention of maintenance work on Shabbat.

UTJ has long taken issue with public works projects on the Sabbath and has previously pushed train maintenance to the fore of coalition crises. The party tried to demand that power plants stop generating energy on Shabbat in December, but Likud rejected the proposal.

Carrie Keller-Lynn contributed to this report.

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