Religious party puts up Shabbat pay-wall

By Anshel Pfeffer, September 21, 2010

Interior Minister Eli Yishai has opened a new front in the battle between state and religion by ordering his ministry's website to close down its payment facilities on Shabbat.

The Israeli government does not officially work on Shabbat but its websites are online around the clock, seven days a week, and allow citizens to make most payments from their home computers. Two weeks ago, Mr Yishai, leader of the strictly Orthodox Shas party, told the Interior Ministry's website to block the payment facility, which allows Israelis to order new passports and identity cards, on Shabbat and High Holy Days.

Statistics show that only about seven per cent of Interior Ministry online payments are made on Shabbat but consumer groups have attacked the move, saying that many Israelis take care of their online affairs over the weekend.

So far, the closure has been blocked by the Minister for Improvement of Government Services, Michael Eitan, who supervises the government's online services.

"No-one can act unilaterally," he said last week. "I am sure there are technological ways of preventing desecration of the Shabbat while allowing everyone to act in their own homes according to their own free will."

Chairman of left-wing opposition party Meretz, MK Haim Oron, has already tabled a new law mandating that all official websites be fully open seven days a week, saying that "the online services do not involve anyone working on their rest-day".

Meanwhile Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman of United Torah Judaism has also decided to close his ministry's online payment facilities on Shabbat, though it is unclear yet whether other ministries controlled by religious politicians will follow suit.

Welfare Services Minister Yitzhak Herzog, however, has decided to open the payment facilities of the National Security Institute's website seven days a week. It was closed on Shabbatot under previous governments, when it was controlled by Shas politicians.

Meanwhile, it seems that Shas is willing to back down on another issue of state and religion. Following the public outcry last week when Israelis reset their clocks to Winter Time despite scorching temperatures outside, Shas leaders announced this week that they would be willing to agree to an extension of Summer Time. The current law stipulates that Summer Time ends the weekend before Yom Kippur, so that the end of the fast-day can be an hour earlier.

Last updated: 2:53pm, September 21 2010