Controversial Construction on Shabbat

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What Happened?

The original plan: Tel Aviv municipality and the Ayalon Highway Company plan to build a new pedestrian and cycling bridge.

The Yehudit Bridge will cross the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv, one of the country’s most congested freeways, and connect the eastern and western parts of the city. The bridge is expected to reduce traffic and encourage residents of nearby cities to walk or bike into central Tel Aviv.

Ayalon Highway Co. planned to shut the highway in one direction for 24 hours, from 6pm Friday until 6pm Saturday, for six consecutive weekends, beginning August 31st. On the one hand, this posed a problem to many, as it was on Shabbat. On the other, the company chose to do the construction on the weekends, when the traffic is lighter and would not interrupt daily commuters.

On August 22nd, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz ordered these plans to come to a halt. Katz stated that “the method chosen for the construction of the bridge seems problematic and may cause severe and disproportionate damage to the general public during the weekend.” Katz called for Ayalon Highway Co. to submit an alternate work plan.

Plans are now awaiting discussion in the Knesset (Israel’s parliament), which will convene for a special meeting on the matter despite being on summer recess. Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai said it most starkly, saying a decision not to build on Shabbat would be “shameful” and turn this democratic country into a “theocracy.”

Diversity of Perspectives within Israel

Members of Haredi parties were appalled by the possibility of intense construction on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, as it would violate the sanctity of the day, which prohibits building, among other activities.

Yaakov Litzman, Deputy Health Minister and head of ultra-Orthodox political party Agudat Yisrael, stated, “This is a mass Shabbat desecration that constitutes a serious violation of the status quo, severely damaging the tradition of Israel and the feelings of the majority of the Israeli public, haredi, religious, and traditional alike, who see the Sabbath as the national day of rest. This act requires a public protest, as throughout the generations the Jewish People have known to observe the Sabbath day as a sign between God and Israel.”

On the other hand, secular politicians accused Yisrael Katz of issuing the construction freeze after facing pressure from Haredi politicians (whose support, some argue, Katz will need in order to become Prime Minister after Netanyahu).

Left-wing political party Meretz chairwoman Tamar Zandberg declared, “In a liberal democratic country in 2018, infrastructure works should be done according to needs and in the manner that causes the least inconvenience, not based on the unenlightened whims of politicians who serve their rabbis rather than the public.”

Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist party Yesh Atid, expressed serious frustration with any decision to freeze building on Shabbat, saying that Netanyahu will be the real loser here, sardonically saying, “the ultra-Orthodox, the real leaders of this government, instructed Netanyahu to freeze the works. Netanyahu, of course, complied and it is we who will sit stuck in traffic.”

Why Does This Matter?

  1. Israel as democracy and Jewish State: One of Israel’s core issues since its founding has been whether Israel can be both a democratic and Jewish state. While some view construction on the Sabbath a desecration of Jewish law in the Jewish State, others see freezing the project as a sign of theocracy.
  2. Relationship between religious and secular people: In Israel, there is ongoing tension between the religious and secular populations. This construction controversy is yet another divisive point that highlights the groups’ competing interests.
  3. Transportation concerns: These debates will delay the construction of the bridge, which will impact commuters and residents.

Discussion Questions

  1. Ruth Gavison, legal expert and co-author of the
    Gavison-Medan covenant, together with Rabbi Ya’akov Medan, who seeks to promote religious and secular co-existence, has said: “If Israel is not democratic, it has no justification for being. If Israel is not Jewish, it has no reason to be.” Can you think of ways to help Israel strategize and make a decision that honors both aspects of Israeli society or is it sometimes a zero-sum game?
  2. poll from 2017 suggested that 78% of Israelis supported keeping businesses open on Shabbat. Does this impact how you think the Israeli government should make the decision here on Shabbat?
  3. America has a separation of church and state, but many countries,
    including Israel, do not have a clear division. In light of that, in what ways is it easier to be an Israeli politician than an American politician, and in what ways is it more challenging?

Practical Classroom Tips

  1. Hang four signs around the room saying, “Strongly Agree,” “Agree,” “Disagree,” and “Strongly Disagree.” Read the quotes from this digest and have students stand by the sign they identify with, and then articulate why they believe what they believe.
  2. “Speed dating”: Form two circles, one inside of the other, so that students are facing each other. Read one of the discussion questions aloud and give students two minutes to discuss it with their partner. Rotate one of the circles and repeat this for each question (and feel free to come up with more!).
  3. Ask students to think about which opinion/s they agree with. To develop empathy, challenge the students to write down two reasons in support of the opposite opinion. Ask some students to share what they wrote.

Further Reading

  1. Jerusalem Post op-ed
  2. Haaretz op-ed
  3. Ynet News (Yediot Achronot) op-ed

Engaging with Israel: Random but Important

  • Israeli company SodaStream was bought by PepsiCo for $3.2 billion ($144 per share)! PepsiCo chairman and CEO Indra Nooyi said the two companies are “an inspired match.” Actress Scarlett Johansson was once an ambassador for the company.
  • Israel is entering its sixth year of extreme drought. The Kinneret, or Lake of Galilee, supplier of 10% of Israel’s drinking water,  is nearing the “black line,” 6.6 meters below maximum capacity and the point at which the lake’s whole ecosystem will be in danger. Thanks to major desalination plants, Israelis do not feel the effects of drought strongly, though if it continues, water usage may be monitored.
  • Leptospirosis, a bacterial infection caused by animal urine in water sources, has spread in some bodies of water in the Golan Heights. Dozens have been affected and the Israeli Ministry of Health has warned the public against bathing in these waters.

Noam Weissman

Dr. Noam Weissman is Senior Vice President at OpenDor Media. He leads the education vision and implementation at OpenDor Media with a special focus on the development of meaningful content and resources for students and educators. He holds a doctorate in educational psychology from USC with a focus on curriculum design.

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