Holy day Internet blackout on ministry websites fuels secular, religious tensions

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli government offices that provide a wide array of public services are pulling the plug on online payments on the Jewish Sabbath and holidays, creating a potential new source of friction between the religious and secular in the Jewish state.

Ultra-Orthodox Cabinet ministers are leading the charge to enforce the religious prohibition on spending money on Jewish holy days. But for non-religious residents, tourists and foreign workers, the planned ban joins two leading ills of Israeli life — red tape and religious restrictions — in a marriage of inconvenience.

Currently, Israelis and the tens of thousands of foreign workers living here are able to renew their passports, extend their visas or pay hospital fees online 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

But now, the interior, health and religious affairs ministries — all controlled by ultra-Orthodox parties — plan a holy day payment blackout.

Government offices have historically been closed to the public on Sabbath, noted Roi Lachmanovich, spokesman for the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, which controls the Interior Ministry. Now that the computer is the public face of the state, "public service won't be available on the Internet," he said.

"It shouldn't operate on the Sabbath, like no state office operates on the Sabbath," added Deputy Health Minister Yakov Litzman of the United Torah Judaism Party.

The inconvenience is liable to fuel already considerable secular resentment of the ultra-Orthodox, who make up less than 10 percent of the population but wield disproportionate influence in Israel's parliamentary democracy.

Few ultra-Orthodox men serve in the military, which is largely compulsory for Jewish citizens. Many ultra-Orthodox families rely on state handouts because the men want to pursue religious studies rather than work.

The ultra-Orthodox also have a monopoly on civil matters like marriage and divorce, creating further tensions.

Officials did not say when the newest measures would take effect, but officials with the liberal Reform movement, which promotes religious pluralism, vowed to fight them.

Anat Hoffman, director of the Reform Movement's Israel Religious Action Center, called the decision illegal.

"You cannot dictate to people what to do in their own home. They cannot tell people what to do on their own computer," she said. "For many people, Saturday is their only day off, for non-Jews in Israel this is their only day off."

The ultra-Orthodox ministers aren't going so far as to shut down the ministry sites totally on holy days, reasoning that what people do in their own homes is their own business, Lachmanovich said. The order will only apply to payments. "When it comes to services the state gives, you have to maintain the (state's) character," he said.

Israel's social security agency, the National Insurance Institute, recently took the opposite decision.

For years, the agency blocked Internet payments on holy days. But recently it began operating its site around the clock. In contrast to the government ministries, the agency is headed by a professional appointee and not a political one.

"There were requests and complaints from citizens, so we decided to open it," said spokesman Haim Fitussi.

Fitussi said payments had been blocked originally to avoid any problems that might have arisen because technical support wasn't available on holy days. But because other sites operated successfully on those days, the policy was revised.