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Israeli offices halt Web payments on Sabbath

Associated Press / September 17, 2010

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JERUSALEM — Israeli government offices that provide a wide array of public services are pulling the plug on online payments on the Jewish Sabbath and holidays, potentially creating another 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 nonreligious 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.

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 the 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.

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.

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.’’

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