MK Matan Kahana
MK Matan KahanaDanny Shemtov, Knesset spokesman

Within the first few days of the establishment of the new government, many of its ministers were already providing indications that they intend to implement far-reaching changes in policy. On Monday, a particularly sharp exchange in the Knesset revealed the intention of the new Religious Affairs Minister, Matan Kahana (Yamina) to alter the status quo as regards Shabbat (Sabbath) observance in the public sphere, but a statement he made that at least one prominent haredi rabbi was in favor of such changes drew the ire of haredi MKs, who called him out on his claim and proved it to be a complete distortion.

The point of contention centered around allegations Kahana made with regard to the city of Harish, which has a significant religious population, and is around 20% haredi. Originally a small town, Harish was originally intended to expand into a haredi city of 100,000 residents but the plans were eventually nixed due to secular opposition and currently, the city’s trend is to become more and more secular.

According to one senior government official affiliated with the Yamina party, Kahana sees Harish as an example of how to move forward on a national scale, citing what he alleged was a compromise solution regarding Shabbat observance promoted by the religious mayor and the municipality, whereby shops in the city center would not be allowed to open on Shabbat (in compliance with the law) but the mall on the city’s outskirts would open on the day of rest.

Speaking in the Knesset plenum on Monday, Kahana made mention of this arrangement during a speech. “Look at what’s happening in Harish,” he said. “Harish is a new city, and at first there were battles there between the religious and the secular, between new arrivals and veteran residents. Would they open stores and businesses on Shabbat, or would they close? Then the mayor stepped in – a religious man, in fact, I think he’s actually haredi – and he and his coalition [on the local council] managed to reach understandings. They decided that within the city itself, everything would be closed, but on the outskirts, they would open.”

Kahana continued, “And now, let’s see who supported this compromise. Rabbi Ba’adani, a member of the Council of Torah Sages affiliated with the Shas [haredi] party, supported it. Rabbi Melamed [a prominent Religious Zionist rabbi] supported it. Rabbi Shmuel David [the Religious Zionist rabbi of Afula] supported it. Also Rabbi Stav [another prominent Religious Zionist rabbi] and other rabbis too, including those whose names I know. Let me read out to you what Harish’s mayor told me: ‘We told Rabbi Ba’adani that we have two options. We can either seal the city hermetically, or we can discuss this and reach an agreement. The rabbi said we should discuss the issue – he said this quite clearly. Then we went to Rabbi Shlomo Amar [the haredi Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem] and he asked us: Whom did you consult before me? We told him: Rabbi Ba’adani. And Rabbi Amar said that he would approve whatever Rabbi Ba’adani decided.’

“My friends,” Kahana continued to address the Knesset, “what do you say to what’s happening in Harish today? Is the state of Judaism better or worse? My fellow members of the Knesset, for the last 73 years you have ‘maybe’ won a few battles, but you’re losing the wider struggle for the Jewish identity of the State of Israel.”

Minister Kahana then stepped down from the podium where he was replaced by MK Uri Maklev (UTJ). “Unfortunately,” he began, “the Minister for Religious Affairs has just presented members of the Knesset with a tissue of lies and distortions that has no relation to the true situation. They [members of the Yamina party] have an entirely different understanding of what Judaism is to the way we understand it. Here we have the Religious Affairs Minister – a member of the same political party as the Prime Minister who deceived his voter base over the past year and now expects us to believe him when he says that his party will defend all that is holy and precious to the Jewish People.”

Maklev then addressed the specific points made by Kahana with regard to Harish. “The mayor of Harish tried to pass an auxiliary law permitting commerce on Shabbat and we opposed him and exposed the reality of what he was trying to do, and we even had senior judicial experts, people you respect, who agreed with us that the law he was trying to pass constituted the exact opposite of the preservation of the sanctity of Shabbat.

“Is this the kind of Shabbat you want to see here in the Land of Israel?” Maklev asked. “This is what you call a Jewish state? If the state is not founded upon the preservation of the holiness of Shabbat, on kashrut, on marriage and conversion according to Jewish law, then how is it Jewish?”

Maklev then accused Kahana of distorting the facts in his account of what transpired in Harish, showing the plenum letters from senior rabbis – including one from the aforementioned Rabbi Ba’adani – which were sharp in their condemnation of the course adopted by the mayor of Harish in seeking his Shabbat compromise.

“We will continue to expose your lies,” Maklev said. “These are issues that go to the heart of the character of the State. People who present themselves as believing Jews are extending their hooves in an attempt to be considered kosher [as the pig does, since it has just one of the two signs required to be recognized as a kosher animal -ed.]. We will not recognize compromises or concessions on matters pertaining to all that is holy and precious. They are producing ideas straight out of the [playbook] of Reform [Jewry] but we will not accept compromises.”