It is 3 p.m. on Friday in French Hill, Jerusalem. I’ve missed the last bus into the city. For the sake of religion and tradition, a public service has been shut down.
The entire country is now deprived of affordable and reliable regularly scheduled transportation for 25 hours. The very specific cases of Haifa or the Arab community bus system in Jerusalem are the usually noted exceptions that prove the rule.
As part of a 10-month fellowship program sponsored by Masa Israel in conjunction with the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, I live in the residences of the Hebrew University near Mount Scopus, while interning in a governmental ministry. The other Fellows and I work and partake in seminars during the week, and have Friday and Saturday to explore the country and relax.
However, once I miss that last bus, this is no longer possible.
From Friday afternoon onward, a student’s entire weekly budget can be spent on those two days on taxis, car rentals, shared minivans and accommodation until Saturday.
It is not a secret that Israel’s democracy is plagued by difficulties that seem unresolvable, especially when they arise from the need to protect the state from the constant security threats it faces. But when it comes to an aspect that does not seem to threaten the safety of the state, such as basic public transportation on Shabbat, then the debate is even more complex, because emotions, tradition and religion all come into play. The answer is, as I was bluntly told by Minister Yair Shamir recently, “we want a Jewish state” (or as we say in Latin America, “Saint The-discussion-isover”).
Center-left parties Hatnua and Yesh Atid officially support minimum public service on Shabbat, and 63 percent of Israeli Jews agree with them – according to the organization Hiddush’s Annual Israel Religion and State Index.
After six months of living in Israel, I can say that my whole experience has been affected by the constant lack of mobility during the weekends, and it is only logical to assume that my situation is shared by the elderly and poorer populations in Israel that don’t have access to a private car. I therefore ask myself: How is it possible that the lack of such crucial public services has remained the status quo? The United Nations HABITAT Forum – mandated to promote socially and environmentally sustainable towns and cities with the goal of providing adequate shelter for all – is taking place this year in my native Latin America, in the city of Medellin, Colombia. The city has earned it. Among other developments, it has created an integrative transportation system that includes cable cars, metro, public bicycles and even escalators for cities on hillsides.
In 2013 The Wall Street Journal crowned Medellín as the “Innovative City of the Year.” The key? Accessibility. This is an example of the global trend to find creative solutions to the problem of overcrowded cities, road congestion and access inequality. Again, three major issues that Israel also deals with, but that by default is neglecting.
According to the Taub Center, Israel has half the number of vehicles per person than the OECD average, but two and a half times more road congestion. And the number of vehicles per person is increasing quickly. Surely it is logical to discourage people from using cars, rather than creating a situation where they have to own a car in order to travel on the only day of the week that almost everyone is free from work.
I am not advocating for open shops, or even regular public services on Shabbat. Only the minimum required so that citizens, residents and tourists will not lose their capacity to move further than walking distance for 25 hours every week.
Religion, even one as rich, interesting and flourishing as Judaism, is but a system of beliefs, which cannot be logically evaluated. It is not moral to impose and force them onto others.
The Jewish/democratic dichotomy promotes – as a former Knesset Member we met with told us – the misconception that this society needs to decide between one of them.
A misconception that suggests that either this country embodies Judaism and all the rich tradition, idiosyncrasy and knowledge that come with a 2,000-old nation – making democracy the dark wolf of progress that comes to take away our uniqueness and values; or Israel stands on a foundation of democracy, protecting equality, humanist values and universal moral parameters – in which case religion becomes the medieval, irrational belief system that only pushes us backwards.
I do not think that the Jewish state needs to choose between these two options. I trust in its ability to transform and enrich itself by taking and leaving the elements from each that would best suit the needs of the nation.
Public transportation is one of those items long since forgotten by national pundits, but it should not have been.
It is necessary that basic public services remain considered as a right to those who need them and not as a disputed subject.
This problem must be speedily addressed. Not for the sake of progress, nor of democracy, but because it is a logical, fair and feasible way to concretely improve the lives of many residents.
Sometimes the key is in the definition of the problem.
Confronting this matter as a Jewish vs. democratic dilemma is a mistake. For as a state, the question of common sense and practical quality of life should always come first.
The author is a licensed psychologist and a participant in the Israel Government Fellows Program of the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, where she is interning at the Ministry of Welfare and Social Services. She has co-authored and published academic papers on deontology, bioethics and mental health in her home country, Argentina.