UTJ leader claims work breaks vague coalition promise

Haredi party demands end to Shabbat train work, in first test for coalition

Likud-held Transportation Ministry officials refuse, warning of service delays if maintenance is pushed to weekdays

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Housing and Construction Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf at his handover ceremony from outgoing minister Ze'ev Elkin, at the Housing Ministry in Jerusalem, January 1, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Housing and Construction Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf at his handover ceremony from outgoing minister Ze'ev Elkin, at the Housing Ministry in Jerusalem, January 1, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Potentially sparking the new coalition’s first crisis, the United Torah Judaism party has demanded that the country cease routine maintenance work on the public intercity rail system on Saturdays, claiming that the work is an unnecessary violation of Shabbat and breaks a religious “status quo” that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party promised to uphold in coalition agreements.

In a Saturday evening letter dated “after the end of Shabbat,” ultra-Orthodox UTJ head Yitzhak Goldknopf wrote to Transportation Minister Miri 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 for breaking Shabbat’s prohibition against performing work.

Goldknopf, the housing minister, who headed a Shabbat enforcement group before entering politics and becoming UTJ leader last year, added that in the party’s coalition agreement with Likud, “it was agreed this work would end.”

“We cannot put up with this situation. I ask for your urgent intervention in this matter,” he continued in his letter to Likud’s Regev, with whom he said he spoke last week about Shabbat train work.

While Regev did not immediately publicly respond, unnamed Transportation Ministry sources were quoted by Hebrew media as saying that Saturday maintenance will continue, as it is critical to avoid weekday service holdups. A spokesperson for Israel Railways declined a Times of Israel request to comment on Goldknopf’s demands.

Israel Railways does not offer passenger service during 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 power plants stop generating energy on Shabbat in December, but Likud struck the clause from its coalition agreement.

UTJ’s strict adherence to Jewish law may force the first crisis of Netanyahu’s nascent government by testing the boundaries of religion and state, in a coalition in which Likud is more secular and liberal than each of its far-right and religious political bedfellows.

Illustrative: Passengers wait for a shuttles to Tel Aviv at the Beit Yehoshua train station on February 19, 2018, after the Israel Railways closed the train line between Beit Yehoshua and Tel Aviv Savidor Central station for infrastructure work. (Flash90)

Former transportation minister Merav Michaeli tweeted on Sunday that stopping Saturday maintenance work would cause “tremendous harm to the public traveling on the train and on public transportation” and called on Regev “not to give in to Goldknopf’s delusional demands.”

“As transportation minister, I made a decision to actually increase the work on Shabbat. This is how we finished a large part of the railway electrification project earlier than expected, and restarted the trains to the north,” continued Michaeli, the Labor party leader, who handed her ministry over to Regev 10 days ago.

In an apparent reference to Michaeli’s initiatives, Goldknopf wrote in his letter to Regev that this past Saturday’s train track work was “the result of agreements signed by the previous government.” However, the core issue of working on the train on Shabbat preceded Michaeli’s term and sparked tension in previous Netanyahu-UTJ governments.

Transportation Minister Miri Regev stands behind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a government meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, January 3, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The UTJ-Likud agreement, like all of Likud’s agreements with its religious partners, includes vague language promising to preserve the religion and state status quo, with a mention of how that balance was interpreted before the past government’s year-and-a-half tenure.

“The status quo will be preserved in issues of religion and state according to what has been accepted for decades in Israel. The government will honor Shabbat,” the coalition agreement states.

Now back at the Transportation Ministry, which she previously helmed before Michaeli, Regev said she would reexamine several of her immediate predecessor’s initiatives, including public transportation and carpool lanes on intercity highways, a congestion tax, and plans for the Tel Aviv metro.

The secular Michaeli had previously pushed to expand passenger service on the forthcoming Tel Aviv light rail to Shabbat, causing an uproar within the ultra-Orthodox community and leading to Regev’s pushback.

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