Turbine controversy [II]
by Jonathan Rosenblum
September 3, 1999
All sensible citizens can take heart from the solution to the turbine controversy that appears to be emerging from a government committee specifically established for that purpose. That solution calls for the huge machines to be transported in the early morning hours on consecutive weekday nights. Special parking areas will be built to accommodate the turbines between journeys.
As is so often the case, however, the proposed solution was arrived at only after a great deal of brinksmanship and at the cost of further fraying in the fabric of secular-religious relations. A similar solution had already been put forth by the directorate of the Israel Electric Corporation weeks ago.
Prime Minister Ehud Barak was convinced that United Torah Judaism would leave government over the Shabbat transports, and he feared that Shas would follow suit and leave him without a majority coalition. He correctly reckoned that the word of the Gerrer Rebbe and Rabbi Yosef Elyashiv, unlike that of certain ministers and politicians, could be taken at face value.
Not that the prime minister could be expected to understand what lay behind UTJ's threat, which appears so irrational from the vantage point of normal political horse-trading. During the months of negotiations leading up to the formation of the government, the representatives of UTJ raised no issue other than the threat of a mass draft of 18-year-old yeshiva students. Asked repeatedly if there were no other issues on their agenda, they insisted that there were not.
Yet by leaving the government, UTJ would have doomed any understandings already worked out on the draft issue, with the High Court's deadline for legislative action looming only months away. In addition, a defection of the haredi parties would have opened the way for Barak to bring in Tommy Lapid's Shinui Party and thereby create the most antireligious government Israel has ever seen.
UTJ's position was puzzling for another reason as well: The party seems to have adopted the traditional role of the National Religious Party. Mizrahi theology invests the state with theological significance, and as a consequence the NRP has always been concerned with the preservation of halachic forms by the state. In 1977, for instance, the party brought down Yitzhak Rabin's first government over a ceremony to accept delivery of American F-15s on Shabbat.
And 10 years ago, when Aryeh Deri proposed noting on newly issued identity cards that the term Jew on the Israeli identity card has nothing to do with the bearer's halachic status, the late NRP leader Zevulun Hammer protested loudly. Admitting that the State of Israel does not follow halachic criteria would have undermined the state's theological significance, he felt.
Yet today you can't tell the players without a scorecard. Now Shaul Yahalom of the NRP wonders aloud about the big fuss over the turbine when a million Jews in Israel already spend their Sabbaths in shopping malls. He no longer distinguishes between the actions of the state and those of individual Jews. Meanwhile the chareidi world has placed particular stress on Sabbath desecration by the state. What lies behind this seeming inversion of historical positions?
While the haredi world does not view Israel as the first flowering of the Redemption, its Torah leaders are acutely aware of the educative role of the State of Israel for the nearly five million Jews living within its borders and for many millions more abroad. What Israel does conveys powerful messages to Jews around the world.
The message conveyed by the Shabbat transport of the turbines was one the Torah leadership could not countenance. The government, through the State Attorney's Office, informed the Supreme Court last week that there was 'no alternative" to moving the turbine on Shabbat. That statement was patently false. The turbine can obviously be moved down the same highway during the week.
True, weekday transport will likely prove more expensive (though given the huge overtime bonuses for Shabbat labor it is not clear how much more expensive) and more disruptive (though Friday night traffic is far from negligible along the turbine's route). But to equate no alternative for the same price with no alternative at all, as the government did, in effect conveys the message that Shabbat has no value.
Major traffic arteries in Israel's urban centers are closed all the time for marathons and marches. And the main Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway is shut down whenever President Clinton comes to town. The inconvenience caused in such cases is great, but other interests are deemed to outweigh that inconvenience. The Torah leaders refuse to participate in an implicit statement that the Tel Aviv marathon or a presidential motorcade is more important than Shabbat.
Predictably, the turbine controversy has provoked much anti-haredi editorial comment by those who resent any reminder of their Judaism. And many others simply cannot fathom all the tumult about one more instance of Sabbath desecration.
Yet an honest evaluation of UTJ's position will serve to dispel some common myths about the chareidi community, most notably that it is unconcerned with its fellow Jews and cares only about maximizing government support for its institutions.
No observant Jew would have been directly affected in his observance of Shabbat by the transport of the turbine. Yet the community's Torah leaders were willing to run any risk, and pay any price, in terms of the community's narrowly defined interests to prevent the government from sending a message that would diminish the sanctity of Shabbat in the eyes of non-Sabbath observant Jews. It is the proponents of moving the turbine on Shabbat who have elevated money to the sole determinant of public policy.
Let us hope that the proposed resolution of the turbine issue provides a model for the future, and that next ime we do not have to wait until the issue becomes a test of wills.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics, Israeli Society
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