Transportation Minister Israel Katz (Likud) has threatened to cut off state funding to Tel-O-Fun, a short-term bicycle-rental arrangement in Tel Aviv, unless the municipality closes it down on Yom Kippur.

Dozens of automated bicycle rental stations are dispersed around the city, enabling pedestrians to rent a bike at one point and drop it off at another. The arrangement, well-tailored to Tel Aviv’s flat landscape, has significantly reduced congestion and pollution and has provided citizens and visitors with a clean, convenient way of getting around the city and an easy way to stay in shape. Tel-O-Fun operates on Shabbat and holidays. But out of deference to the holiness of the day and its symbolism, the Tel Aviv Municipality has significantly reduced the operation of Tel-O-Fun stations on Yom Kippur.

None of the employees manning Tel-O-Fun’s information booths works. Only individuals with a yearlong membership are permitted to rent a bicycle. And the rental is allowed on condition that the bike is taken before sundown on Yom Kippur eve and is not returned until after sundown the next day.

This is pretty much the way it worked last year, Tel-O-Fun’s first Yom Kippur, except that this year the bikes were to be be provided at no charge. This appears to be a surprisingly reasonable policy considering the fact that for some of Tel Aviv’s predominately secular residents, Yom Kippur is a perfect day for bicycle riding.

With no public transportation available and with the vast majority of Israelis – both religious and secular – refraining from driving out of a sense of respect for this holy day, the empty Tel Aviv streets are ideal for cycling.

But the transportation minister, either because he truly believes Yom Kippur should be imposed on everyone or perhaps out of a desire to curry favor with Shas and United Torah Judaism, the two haredi political parties that are members of the government coalition, has decided that even this drastically reduced level of operation of the Tel-O-Fun system is not enough.

Tel Aviv Councilman Binyamin Babayoff (Shas) claimed that Tel Aviv’s bike rental policy for Yom Kippur was “a mark of disgrace” for the first Hebrew city.

“What the Greeks tried to do unsuccessfully 2,000 years ago is now happening here,” Babayoff told Ynet, showing no signs that he intended his statement as a hyperbole.

Resorting to a veiled threat, Katz reminded Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai that the Transportation Ministry had provided NIS 20 million in funding for the Tel-O-Fun project and that the ministry was involved in the funding of additional projects to the tune of millions of shekels a year.

Out of his own narrow political considerations, Katz – not known to be particularly observant himself – has chosen to take an extremist position. Huldai’s policy of significantly reducing Tel-O-Fun’s operations on Yom Kippur is surprisingly considerate, given Tel Aviv’s mostly secular character.

By demanding even more of Tel Aviv’s residents and visitors to the city – and resorting to threats to force them to bend to his will – Katz has generated bad feelings and an unnecessary dispute at a time of the year when we should all be focusing on building bridges and fostering unity.

Many locals and tourists might ask themselves why Tel-O-Fun should be restricted at all on Yom Kippur. If an individual decides to rent a bicycle from an automated station on Yom Kippur, why should Katz or any other elected official be able to intervene? While most Orthodox Jews believe that riding a bike is a departure from the spirit of Yom Kippur, opinions are split in Jewish law on whether doing so is absolutely forbidden.

The majority who say it is concede that the prohibition is not particularly severe.

In fact, the tradition that has developed among secular Israelis of turning Yom Kippur into a day of bike-riding for children – and many adults too – has proven to be a compromise that works.

Many secular Jews might not go to synagogue to pray on the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, but they have agreed of their own volition to refrain from driving their cars out of respect for Yom Kippur and for their fellow Jews.

All some of them want is for them and their children to be allowed to ride their bikes in Tel Aviv. Is that too much to ask from the transportation minister?

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