Ultra-Orthodox health minister resigns over Shabbat railway works

Ultra-Orthodox health minister resigns over Shabbat railway works

Yaakov Litzman’s United Torah Judaism party staying in ruling coalition; Netanyahu says he won’t appoint replacement to health portfolio

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman attends a  committee meeting at the Knesset, November 14, 2017. (Flash90)
Health Minister Yaakov Litzman attends a committee meeting at the Knesset, November 14, 2017. (Flash90)

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party officially resigned from his cabinet post Sunday in protest of infrastructure work on rail lines performed on Shabbat.

After an ongoing dispute related to the installation of a new signaling system on a track in the Negev, Litzman notified Netanyahu on Friday that if the maintenance work was conducted on Saturday, he would resign on Sunday.

The work was carried out Saturday, with Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz and Welfare Minister Haim Katz — who also serves as the state’s top labor regulator — insisting that delaying the maintenance work would have left the railway tracks less safe in the interim, and carrying it out during the work week would snarl traffic for days.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

In a video statement, Litzman explained that he could not countenance the “state-sanctioned public desecration of Shabbat.”

“Citizens of Israel, throughout the generations the Jewish people knew it must safeguard the Sabbath as a supreme value, and even to sacrifice one’s life for it. The holy Sabbath is the national day of rest, and we were raised to protect against desecrating the Sabbath. Unfortunately, in light of the great pain caused by the government’s work [on the Sabbath] carried out openly by Israel Railways for some time now, I’ve decided to resign my position as health minister. I cannot continue to bear ministerial responsibility as a minister of Israel while there is state-sanctioned public desecration of Shabbat, in contravention of the sacred values of the Jewish people, the status quo and the coalition agreement,” Litzman said.

Litzman’s resignation won’t weaken Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s parliamentary coalition, as his six-MK United Torah Judaism party plans to remain in the coalition, according to a statement from Netanyahu’s office on Friday.

“The heads of the factions have clarified that they do not intend to leave the coalition,” the statement said, noting that the government would work to find the “best solution” it can to the crisis “to both respect the Sabbath and ensure safe, consistent public transport.”

In a bid to entice Litzman back to the cabinet, Netanyahu will take over the Health Ministry and will not be appointing a replacement, he informed fellow cabinet ministers on Saturday. The move leaves the portfolio open should UTJ retract its decision and agree that Litzman rejoin the cabinet. Netanyahu also plans to leave Litzman’s appointed senior officials at the ministry in place, according to Hebrew media reports.

The prime minister was also reportedly weighing attempting to pass an amendment to a constitutional Basic Law to allow Litzman to serve as a deputy minister in the ministry with no minister serving above him, an arrangement the High Court of Justice has ruled unlawful under current law.

Litzman’s resignation drew criticism from the government’s opponents, who suggested it was a sham.

“In a modern society, if you want trains to run all week, you have to do maintenance work on Shabbat,” Labor party leader Avi Gabbay said over the weekend. “Litzman is a good minister, and his resignation shows that the Netanyahu government is finished.”

MKs from UTJ and its constituent ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi parties have tended not to take ministerial positions in the governments in which they serve, preferring to limit themselves to posts such as Knesset committee heads — a reflection of a certain ambivalence regarding the secular Jewish state. Litzman himself entered the current coalition as a deputy minister in 2015 before taking up his ministerial position.

Welfare Minister Katz announced on Friday morning that he had authorized the work on the train lines to be carried out on the Jewish day of rest because failure to do so could endanger lives.

Minister of Welfare and Social Affairs Haim Katz. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

“After thorough examination, I authorized only essential work to ensure the safety of rail traffic, and if it were not carried out it could endanger lives,” Katz announced. “This decision reflects full consideration for the feelings of the religious public, on the one hand, and maintaining the routine of the train passengers on Sunday.”

“For the past year, every weekend I have weighed the needs of the railways against the sanctity of Shabbat and it has passed quietly,” Katz told Israel Radio, adding that he didn’t know why this Shabbat had suddenly become an issue that required Litzman to quit.

Shortly after Katz’s comments, Litzman told Netanyahu on Friday he was quitting and would formally submit his letter of resignation on Sunday. He had spoken to his religious leader, Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter, the head of the Ger Hasidic movement, who ruled that it was not permissible to do the work on Shabbat.

In the ultra-Orthodox newspaper “Hamodia” which is put out by Litzman’s Agudath Israel movement, he wrote, “We, as senior partners in the coalition, also have matters which are important to us… For the sake of the obligation to preserve the Jewish values of the state, we are in the government, influencing it.”

The statement marked the first suggestions that the party plans to continue to influence the government — that is, that it would not quit the ruling coalition even after Litzman resigned.

Illustrative: An Israel Railways train passes the Ayalon Highway, near the Arlozorov Street ‘Central’ train station in Tel Aviv, August 23, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In the past, similar crises were solved through one-time compromises that saw the use of non-Jewish workers only, who are permitted to work on the Sabbath under the traditional Jewish law espoused by the ultra-Orthodox parties, but that is reportedly not possible for the past weekend’s signaling system project, which requires specific employees with certain technical skills who cannot be readily replaced.

According to Army Radio, the work also will draw on the skills of German engineers who arrived in Israel to work on the signaling system over the weekend.

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