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Netanyahu apologizes to Haredi MKs after phoning Olympic medalist on Shabbat

Opposition leader says he is ‘very careful to keep the Sabbath’ and his staff will learn to do better; Likud blames ‘technical error’ that led to publishing post before nightfall

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu (R) apologizes to ultra-Orthodox MKs after releasing a statement on the Sabbath, August 8, 2021. (Video screenshot)
Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu (R) apologizes to ultra-Orthodox MKs after releasing a statement on the Sabbath, August 8, 2021. (Video screenshot)

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu apologized on Sunday to ultra-Orthodox lawmakers within his own Knesset bloc after he phoned Olympic gymnast Linoy Ashram to congratulate her on winning a gold medal and publicized the call before nightfall on Saturday.

“I am very careful to keep Shabbat,” Netanyahu said. “My staff is very diligent, but they did not understand that what applied as prime minister, applies now as well. These things will not change,” he said.

“I say this out of respect for Shabbat, out of respect for the Jewish nation,” Netanyahu added, while attending a wedding blessings event for United Torah Judaism MK Yaakov Asher’s daughter.

Netanyahu came under fire from his political partners on Saturday evening after he issued a public statement during the Sabbath. While Netanyahu is not religious, he had avoided publicly breaking the Sabbath when he was prime minister.

At issue was not the call itself, but the fact that the message was publicly issued before Shabbat was out.

The blowback took some time, as many of the MKs in the opposition traditionally observe Shabbat and refrain from using electronics.

But reactions were swift once the stars came out. UTJ chairman Moshe Gafni said Netanyahu’s statement had “desecrated the Sabbath.”

“I am glad that the president and the prime minister waited [to congratulate Ashram] until after Shabbat. Mr. Netanyahu should have done the same,” Gafni said.

In his call to Ashram, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett made a point of emphasizing that he only learned of the gymnast’s Saturday morning victory after Shabbat, upon which “we celebrated here at home.”

Gafni’s fellow UTJ MK Yaakov Litzman also censured Netanyahu, saying there was no “real need” for him to put out the statement on Shabbat.

“It’s expected of someone with an official state title to respect the Sabbath, as the president and prime minister did in this case,” Litzman said in a statement.

Shas chief Aryeh Deri said Netanyahu’s release of the statement “offended many Sabbath-observing Jews and offended his loyal partners, for whom the holy Sabbath is very dear to their hearts.”

Deri noted that the Sabbath is considered so holy that one cannot desecrate it and then ask for forgiveness.

Israeli gold medalist Linoy Ashram competes in the individual all-around final of the rhythmic gymnastics event during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, on August 7, 2021. (Lionel Bonaventure/AFP)

The head of the Knesset caucus for observing the Sabbath, Shas MK Moshe Abutbul, issued a statement reminding Netanyahu that he should have been more respectful, particularly given the fact that “the majority of his political partners are Sabbath observers” who expect him to “respect the values of the Jewish heritage.”

Bezalel Smotrich, who heads the far-right Religious Zionism party, echoed the ultra-Orthodox lawmakers’ remarks, tweeting that an Olympic gold medal is not enough of a reason to “desecrate the Sabbath.”

Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (File; courtesy)

“It’s sad that there are those here who take advantage of the medal to laugh at the Sabbath and its observers,” he added, in an apparent reference to a tweet published hours earlier by Labor MK Ram Shefa, which appeared to mock Smotrich and other Sabbath observers for missing out on the medal win in real time.

Following the flood of condemnations, Netanyahu’s office made an attempt at damage control, with the Likud party issuing a tweet claiming the release of his statement on the Jewish day of rest was due to a “technical error.”

“Likud always safeguarded and honored the Sabbath and made sure not to publish statements to the press during the Sabbath. This is how we will continue to act,” the party said.

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