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The Pliable Status Quo

On Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings Israelis normally crowd the trains as they head home, or to work, or to their army units, after Shabbat. On Saturday evening, September 3 and all the next day over 100,000 Israelis found themselves stranded, with no train service, because of a virulent squabble over a strange Latin phrase, status quo, that has come to dominate the relationship between secular and ultra-religious people and political parties. Infrastructure work on Shabbat violates the status quo, claim the ultra-Orthodox; only life-saving work (pikuah nefesh in Hebrew) is allowed.

To avoid a government crisis, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu banned railroad construction on Shabbat, leaving a section of track unfinished and forcing cancellation of all trains between Haifa and Tel Aviv. The track work was done instead on Sunday, a weekday, halting the trains. This decision followed an ultra-Orthodox protest at vital Shabbat work on a bridge on the Ayalon highway a week earlier.

The ability of the ultra-Orthodox to pressure Netanyahu stems from the 66-member coalition, in which ultra-Orthodox parties hold the balance of power. It is highly doubtful they would resign from the Cabinet, because they desperately need the funds they get by being in government – but nonetheless they use their political power with skill and gain every possible edge from it. United Torah Judaism, the Ashkenazi Haredi party, has six Knesset Members and Shas, the Mizrahi ultra-Orthodox party, has seven.

Status quo is a Latin phrase meaning existing state of affairs. In Israel, “status quo” originated before the founding of the State, ironically because of United Nations pressure in June 1947 on David Ben-Gurion, then head of the Jewish Agency, to guarantee “freedom of thought and speech” to all citizens of the proposed Jewish state including Orthodox Jews.

Ben-Gurion wrote a letter to the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Israel, proposing a united policy to present to the UN Special Committee on Palestine, which had begun a fact-finding tour. The letter set policy in four key areas of concern to religious Jews: Shabbat, kashrut, marriage and education. This status quo letter has metamorphosed to become, ironically, an instrument that in fact denies secular Israelis the freedom to travel, shop, or even marry officially.

At the beginning of the status quo: Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion speaks at the Jerusalem railway station after the first Israel Railways train arrives from Tel Aviv, 67 years ago, August 7, 1949. Credit: Teddy Brauner / GPO.

That letter became the set-in-stone definition of status quo ante – the existing situation, after the State of Israel was founded. But that “stone” is sometimes more like pliable Play-Doh. For example, when Israeli TV first began broadcasting, there was a question whether it would broadcast on Shabbat. Ben-Gurion’s letter did not help, as there was no TV in 1947. In a lightning move, Israel Television went ahead and began to broadcast on Friday night. This set a precedent and it became, automatically, part of the status quo – because TV was broadcast on Shabbat once, it would do so forever.

"Only in Israel can a 70-year-old document – Ben-Gurion’s 1947 letter – bring the trains to a standstill and cause a Cabinet crisis"

An in-depth study by the daily newspaper Haaretz reveals a great deal of cynicism regarding work on Shabbat. The truth is vast amounts of work are done already on Shabbat, despite the ultra-Orthodox and its worship of the status quo. Here is what Haaretz reporters found: “… railroad work on the Sabbath is nothing new and that for the past decade Israel Railways has executed between 10 and 20 repair and maintenance jobs every Shabbat. Israel Railways has said there is no limit to the number of jobs permitted on Shabbat and that they get permits for Shabbat work each week, as necessary.

Data from the arrangements and enforcement administration, obtained from the Economy Labor and Welfare Ministries, show that a year ago, on September 1, 2015, 386 companies and agencies had permits to employ people on the weekly day of rest. The permits allowed for 17,500 people to work and keeping another 1,900 on call.”

Police, soldiers, and Ben-Gurion Airport all are fully operational on Shabbat.

How then should we understand the furor over the status quo ante? More properly, it is status quo anti – anti being the internal political war between Netanyahu and his fiery Transportation Minister Israel Katz, who opposes him and supports rail work on Shabbat when needed; and some muscle-flexing by the ultra-Orthodox, just to remind Netanyahu where his bread is buttered. In the play-for-keeps political warfare, no prisoners are taken, and we train-travelers pay the price, as usual.

Only in Israel can a 70-year-old document – Ben-Gurion’s 1947 letter – bring the trains to a standstill and cause a Cabinet crisis. If it were not so tragic, it would be highly amusing.

Dr. Shlomo Maital is senior research associate at the Samuel Neaman Institute for Advanced Studies in Science & Technology, Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, and professor (emeritus).