A traffic accident that resulted in the death of a 22-year-old man in a Tel Aviv suburb yesterday shows signs of becoming a communal and political issue that could result in the first parliamentary challenge to the new government of Menachem Begin.
Early yesterday, Herzl Attiya drove his Land Rover into a chain stretched across a road in the suburb of Bnei Brak to stop drivers from entering the area on the Jewish Sabbath.
Attiya lost control of his car and crashed into a wall. He was killed and a passenger was injured.
Bnei Brak is inhabited mostly by Orthodox religious Jews with pockets of secular Jews living among them. Controversy has simmered for years over whether the Orthodox Jews had the right to close off the roads into their neighborhood on Saturday the Sabbath. Orthodox Jews believe it a sin to drive on the Sabbath and many Orthodox neighborhoods are routinely cordoned off, from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday with full permission of the authorities.
The Bnei Brak municipality, however, appears to have had doubtful authority to set up a roadblock. The stringing of a chain across the road - a dangerous practice in any event - has infuriated many secular Israelis. Tensions between religious and secular-minded Jews in Bnei Brak have risen sharply.
Prime Minister Begin expressed the sorrow of the government at today's Cabinet meeting. The Jerusalem Post said in an editorial that the accident "raised the danger that the differences between secular and observant Israelis could once again flare up. . . One of the facts of life that we have had to live with ever since the founding of Israel is that we are a divided people on religious questions."
The issue of how much the religious-minded minority can impose its will on the secular majority has come to the fore since the formation of Begin's coalition government, which depends on the 17 seats belonging to the religious parties. Begin's coalition holds a slim majority of 63 in the 120-member Parliament and the religious parties hold the balance of power.
It is impossible to accurately measure degrees of orthodoxy, but it is reasonably accurate to say that, although [WORD ILLEGIBLE] per cent of the country observes dietary laws, no more than 20 or at the very most 30 per cent would want traffic banished on the sabbath.
In order to obtain the support of the religious parties, Begin had to promise to support their demands. The religious parties hope to de-liberalize abortion laws, tighten up regulations governing who can be considered a Jew and in General make observance of the Sabbath stricter than at present.
The religious parties also want to make it easier for women to avoid military duty on religious grounds, raising fears that the security of the state could be weakened.
At present, more than 25 per cent of the members of the armed forces are women, and recent increases in frontline troops have been made possible because more women have been put into support roles.
Shimon Perez, leader of the opposition Labor Party, has said he intends to raise the issue in the Parliament Monday. Nobody expects the government to fall, but the debate, if the government cannot block it, could prove embarrassing.
The incident at Bnei Brak is complicated by the fact that the chain was put up by the municipality with the knowledge of the local police, who claim that Attiya was driving recklessly.
Permission to close off a road must be obtained from the ministry of transportation, however, and there is no indication that this was done.
Begin asked the attorney general last week to rule on whether the road could be legally closed. The attorney general's finding has not been made public but in any case, the municipality decided not to wait for it.
In the past, Israel has always tried to accommodate the Orthodox Jewish community in ways that would not seriously disrupt commerce and communications. For example, the national airline, E1 A1, has no scheduled flights listed for Saturday. Nonetheless, E1 A1 flies on Saturday, its flights simply listed as special rather than E1 A1 scheduled flights.