Political, religious and social activism leaders traded blows on Tuesday
following Monday’s decision by the Tel Aviv Municipality to advance a request to
the Transportation Ministry to operate city public transportation on
Following the approval of the proposal, a spokesman said the
ministry “[would] not infringe [upon] the status quo which has been in place for
decades regarding all aspects of public transport on Shabbat.”
response, Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On called on the attorney-general to explain
to Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz (Likud) that he is obliged to use
professional considerations alone in weighing such requests.
quo regarding religion and state has no legal validity, and the refusal of the
minister to grant a license would not stand up to examination by the High Court
of Justice,” Gal-On said.
The secular majority in Tel Aviv wants public
transportation on Shabbat, as indicated in the hearing and vote yesterday, she
said, calling the issue a matter of social justice, environmental concern and
freedom of religion. “The secular community will not force those who observe the
commandments to get on buses, but the need and desire of people without private
vehicles to get about on the weekend must also be respected,” she
The “status quo” refers to an understanding created in 1947
between David Ben- Gurion and the Agudat Yisrael movement, which represented the
period’s ultra-Orthodox community, that addressed the community’s concerns about
the status of religion in the putative state.
Since then, the so-called
status quo has preserved the statuses – as they were in 1947 – of many religious
issues, including public transportation.
In general, establishments
providing leisure activities and food may stay open on Shabbat, while most other
shops are closed.
Many restaurants nevertheless close because the
rabbinate will not provide a certificate of kashrut if they open on
Limited bus service runs in Haifa on Shabbat as per the status
quo, which was originally put in place to account for the needs of the city’s
large non-Jewish population.
Meretz councilwoman Tamar Zandberg, who
proposed the initiative, said on Tuesday that the time has come to open up the
issue for public debate.
“This is something which has not been approved
by the public, and the public has never chosen in a democratic way to implement
it,” Zandberg said.
She added that a compromise was preferable, allowing
the city to operate a basic but substantial public transport system with the
option of excluding some neighborhoods.
In a recent study examining the
level of Jewish religiosity in Israel conducted by the Israel Democracy
Institute and the Avi Chai Foundation, 59 percent of respondents said they were
in favor of public transportation on Shabbat and 68% said that weekday
activities, such as going to cinemas, cafes and restaurants, should be available
on the Sabbath as well.
The Shabbat transportation request will be
presented formally in the coming days to the ministry’s commissioner of public
transportation, who is legally authorized to approve such requests in cases
where a municipality considers such services to be essential.
If it is
rejected, activists say that they will seek to establish an independent bus
company to operate on Shabbat.
Mickey Gitzin, director of the Be Free
Israel secularist movement that worked in conjunction with Zandberg to advance
the proposal, said the organization will now encourage other municipalities to
make similar requests, in order to bring the issue to the national and
Yisrael Meir Lau, chief rabbi of Tel Aviv and former
chief rabbi of Israel, wrote to Mayor Ron Huldai on Tuesday, calling on him to
reverse the decision.
“A feeling of deep disappointment and pain filled
me when I heard about this decision,” Lau wrote. “[It] would be a serious injury
to the sanctity of Shabbat – which is a reminder of the creation of the
universe, a reminder of the Exodus from Egypt, a day of rest for all workers and
a day of spiritual elevation and family togetherness.”
Lau called on the
interior and transportation ministers to reject the request.
religious MKs also weighed in on the issue. MK Uri Orbach from the national-
religious Habayit Hayehudi party called the move a “cheap provocation” and said
the mayor should ensure that transportation during the week is good enough
before dealing with Shabbat.
In a Channel 2 interview, MK Nissim Ze’ev
(Shas) said Israel is “first and foremost a Jewish state, and after that a
democratic one. Tel Aviv can’t behave in a different manner than other cities in
The Tzohar national-religious rabbinical association also
called on the municipality to refrain from damaging Israel’s Jewish character
without a broad public debate.
“Because we live together, and the
importance of maintaining the state's Jewish character, I believe that any
decision that affects all residents – religious and secular – needs to be made
through public discussion and consensus rather than unilateral action,” said
Tzohar chairman Rabbi David Stav.
Rabbi Uri Regev, director of the
Hiddush religious freedom lobbying group, said the transportation minister
should “respond to the will of the public, and not surrender to pressure from
the haredi [political] parties.”