Cultural prism: Let go of the status quo

The call for public transport on weekends is not a political issue, but an expression of fundamental rights and genuine needs.

April 16, 2015 23:08
train tracks

train tracks. (photo credit: AMIT BAR-YOSEF)


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The decades-long debate over the separation of religion and state in Israel recently erupted over the issue of public transportation on Shabbat.

This year, the seventh day of Passover began on Thursday night, leading to a two-and-a-half-day forced curfew on the unfortunate who don’t own cars.

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Activists leading the campaign for allowing public transportation on Shabbat targeted Transportation Minister Israel Katz via Facebook.

Instead of explaining the complexities, Katz arrogantly brushed off the criticism with cynical comments, and claimed that this was a “leftist” political campaign intended to attack the Likud party. As to the issue itself, he said that the policy of the government, which he personally supports, is to “preserve the status quo.”

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Debates on the national status of Shabbat took place as early as the 1930s, as exemplified by resolution 42 of the 18th Zionist Congress, which stated that in the future Jewish state, it would be “mandatory to cease all labor on Shabbat.”

In 1947, the General Assembly of the United Nations established a Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP).


Wishing to promote the establishment of a state, the Jewish organizations attempted to consolidate a united position which would be presented before the committee.

After long negotiations, an agreement was reached and its outline was formulated in a letter sent by the Jewish Agency to the World Agudath Israel, relating to policy on religious matters in the future state, such as Shabbat, kashrut, family laws and education. It was signed by David Ben-Gurion, then head of the Jewish Agency, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Fishman and Yitzhak Gruenbaum.

It stated that the Jewish Agency had no authority to predetermine the future constitution of the Jewish state, and that the agreement merely reflected the position of the Jewish Agency Executive. In a general and vague reference to Shabbat, it was written that “it is clear that the legal day of rest in the state of Israel will be Shabbat.” Nothing was said about public transportation, or about any other form of Shabbat desecration.

After the establishment of the state, Prime minister Ben-Gurion made the same principles a cornerstone of a coalition agreement with the United Religious Front – an alliance of all the religious parties.

The “status quo” was born.

Ben-Gurion’s commitments lack any legal or formal status, yet almost 70 years later, we still cling to the status quo as if it were a sacred constitution.

The Latin term “status quo” means “the existing state of affairs.” It does not mean “perpetuating it,” but politicians use it as a means of deliberate ambiguity, allowing them to avoid dealing with hot potatoes, and to “kick the can down the road.”

Throughout the years, desecration of Shabbat by state officials or national institutions has repeatedly led to debates and coalition crises.

In 1976, Prime minister Yitzhak Rabin resigned after the National Religious Party left his coalition (by abstaining in a no-confidence vote) in protest of a reception ceremony for new F-15 planes, which occurred on Friday afternoon, consequently leading to ministers making their way home on Shabbat.

In 1999, the haredi party United Torah Judaism left Ehud Barak’s coalition after a large Israel Electric Corporation turbine was transported during Shabbat in order to avoid disrupting weekday traffic. Similar debates have recurred over the years.

There have been several attempts to reevaluate and redefine the relationship between religion and state. Notable examples are the 1998 Meimad-Beilin Covenant, and the Gavison-Medan Covenant in 2000.

But these beautifully articulated ideas never reached legislation.

In today’s political arena, the platforms of the Zionist Union, Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beytenu all relate to Shabbat as a national day of rest, but call for introducing public transportation in a measured manner.

On the whole, it is perceived that religious people are those who strongly oppose public transportation on Shabbat.

Since they themselves observe Shabbat, it is apparently an example of a minority enforcing its way of life on the majority, enabled by the coalition leverage our political system gives them.

Secular Israelis must understand how fundamental public observance of Shabbat is to Orthodox Jews. Those who oppose altering the status quo feel that there is great significance to the national character of the Jewish state. They believe that public transportation will diminish the very meaning of “Jewish state” and reflect national contempt for the holy day.

Moreover, since transportation is staterun and subsidized, enabling it on Shabbat would make them, as tax-paying citizens, accomplices to Shabbat desecration.

On the other hand, Orthodox people must understand that the call for activating public transportation on weekends is not a political issue, but an expression of fundamental rights and genuine needs.

The state now in fact forces everyone to bend over backwards to purchase cars, even though many Israelis cannot afford their high prices and derivative expenses.

Families without cars find themselves in forced lockdown. They are deprived of the ability to go to a movie, to the beach, or to visit family and friends. They cannot visit loved ones who are hospitalized or in old age homes, unless they can afford to pay for a taxi.

Israeli lifestyle has been forged by this reality.

Those who spend the weekend away from home must wait until after 8 p.m. or later (in the summer) on Saturday night for a bus back home, resulting in much inconvenience.

Even families with cars are influenced, as they must always reach a collective decision on where to go.

Young adults such as students and soldiers are under extreme pressure to buy cars, even though they cannot afford them and their routine does not justify it. Without cars it is as if their wings are clipped. So they take their parents’ cars, and many of them consequently drive under the influence of alcohol.

Continuous public transportation would allow many people to give up ownership of a car, and the result would be fewer cars on the road, less pollution and fewer accidents.

The negative ramifications of the status quo range from annoying and awkward, to painful and even life-threatening. It simply does not make sense to perpetuate this situation in a modern country with a predominantly secular population.

In this day and age, the ability to travel affordably, easily and safely should be seen as an inherent civil right.

There is another dangerous dimension, and that is growing resentment toward religion and the religious community, and a growing rift to the point of a cultural war. If the character of the state concerns those who wish to uphold the status quo, they must understand that religious coercion is counterproductive, and has a crumbling effect on the fabric of society.

Therefore, I believe that it should not be only secular activists who spearhead the struggle for redefining the relationship between religion and state, but also rabbis and religious MKs, who should take the initiative and diffuse this tinderbox before it blows up in our face.

I believe that creative and courageous rabbis can construct religious reasoning why it is wrong to object to basic public transportation on Shabbat. Not only because coercion is pointless and may lead to losing out on more important goals, but perhaps also because, in the complexity of our modern lives, there are elements of necessity and even Pikuach Nefesh involved (the principle that preservation of life overrides most religious considerations).

It should be noted that not only religious leaders advocate banning public transportation on Shabbat. Prominent secular politicians such as Zionist Union MK Shelly Yacimovich are concerned about workers’ rights and the spirit of our national day of rest, but they agree that partial and moderate solutions are called for.

What should be done?
A public committee should be established, including all segments of society.

Their task would be to establish the minimum pattern of public transportation that would enable basic accessibility, without disrupting predominantly religious neighborhoods.

Naturally, there are different needs during the weekend, such as access to hospitals, tourist attractions and recreational areas, but not industrial areas.

A key consideration should be minimizing the public footprint, and utilizing the minimal number of employees. For instance, activation of individual buses requires less manpower than activating the entire railway apparatus.

It is critical to ensure the rights of all employees by prohibiting any discrimination toward those who choose not to work on Shabbat (or toward people of other faiths, on their day of rest).

In the United States, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion. With narrowly defined exceptions, Sabbath-observant Jews may work as public transportation drivers and expect their employers to make the appropriate accommodations, such as allowing flexible shift swaps between drivers.

If it can be done in the US, it certainly can be done here.

I have addressed only the issue of public transportation, but it is time to reevaluate all forms of religious impact in the public sphere.

I do not expect religious people to rejoice at the thought that their fellow Jews are taking the bus to the beach on Shabbat, but they should accept that a carefully thought-out separation of religion and state is the best course of action for a just society.

The writer is a former IAF pilot and founder of Cross-Cultural Strategies Ltd.

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