UTJ freezes coalition talks in protest of Eurovision work on Shabbat
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UTJ freezes coalition talks in protest of Eurovision work on Shabbat

Senior lawmakers ask why thousands of permits were suddenly issued for preparations to be made for song contest final while the Saturday sun is still in the sky

Part of the technical area of the Eurovision stage in Tel Aviv, May 5, 2019. (Thomas Hanses, Eurovision)
Part of the technical area of the Eurovision stage in Tel Aviv, May 5, 2019. (Thomas Hanses, Eurovision)

The ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism Party canceled coalition negotiations Monday after finding out permits had been issued to allow thousands of people to work during Shabbat at the Eurovision song contest.

“A light trigger-finger to issue thousands of permits to work on Shabbat is shocking,” UTJ co-chair Moshe Gafni told the Yated Neeman newspaper, saying his party could not accept “this grave situation.”

The international song contest, which opens May 14 in Tel Aviv, will conclude Saturday evening, May 18, after the end of Jewish day of rest, during which Jewish law prohibits work. However, thousands of work permits were issued to allow the concert hall to be prepared during the day, the ultra-Orthodox Behadrei Haredim news website reported Monday.

Under Israeli law, workplaces need special permits to employ Jews on Shabbat. A separate law passed in 2017 requires the labor and welfare minister, currently Likud’s Haim Katz, to take into account several factors when considering approving permits for work over Shabbat, including the workers’ welfare, Jewish tradition, the possibility of an alternative on another day and the effect the work on Shabbat will have on the public sphere.

The law was part of a compromise agreement reached with ultra-Orthodox parties, which are expected to be a linchpin of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s next coalition. UTJ leader Yaakov Litzman had threatened to quit the coalition at the time.

Gafni said his party talked about the issue of work on Shabbat with representatives of Netanyahu’s Likud party on Sunday, and was incensed the permits had been issued without UTJ’s feedback.

MK Moshe Gafni speaks at the United Torah Judaism party’s campaign kickoff in Bnei Brak on February 24, 2019. (Yehuda Haim/Flash90)

“In the current situation it is impossible to continue (negotiations). We will not remain silent about the desecration of Shabbat,” Gafni said. “We informed them (Likud) that what was there would be no more.”

Outgoing Minister of Religious Services, Yitzhak Vaknin (Shas), sent a letter to Likud Friday morning asking for time to study the matter, expressing his shock at the last-minute demand for Shabbat permits.

“The awareness that (Eurovision’s) existence may necessitate preparations on the Sabbath has been known for about a year, so why is the permit request being submitted at the last minute,” Vaknin asked, noting no such request had been made the last time Israel hosted Eurovision in 1999.

Netanyahu is attempting to cobble together a right-wing coalition of 65 seats comprising Likud (35 seats), Shas (8), United Torah Judaism (8), Union of Right-Wing Parties (5), Yisrael Beytenu (5) and Kulanu (4). He has until mid-May to reach an agreement, but may ask for a two-week extension.

Talks have already hit loggerheads amid a dispute with the secularist Yisrael Beytenu, which wants to roll back Haredi control of religion and state issues.

The Shabbat work issue is big enough that it has toppled a previous government in Israel.

In 1976, a Friday afternoon ceremony for the delivery of new F-15 fighter planes ran late, with attendees having to travel home after sundown and thus violating the Jewish Sabbath — leading to prime minister Yitzhak Rabin tendering his resignation and the country going to elections.

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