Free to ride

The routes being considered would not impact or affect religious residents of the city, and will not pass through neighborhoods that have a large religious population.

A landscape view from the Tel Aviv-Yafo municipality building (photo credit: COURTESY TEL AVIV MUNICIPALITY)
A landscape view from the Tel Aviv-Yafo municipality building
(photo credit: COURTESY TEL AVIV MUNICIPALITY)
There is no denying the inherent tension between the Jewish nature of the State of Israel and its democratic ideals. The trick is finding the balance.
One prime example is the conflict over public transportation on Shabbat. On the one hand, there is the ever-present need to maintain the spirit of the Sabbath as it has been practiced since God commanded the Jews to rest on the seventh day.
At the same time, there is a simultaneous need to maintain the ideal expressed in the state’s national anthem, “Hatikvah”: To be a free people in our land.
Being free requires allowing those who do not observe the laws of Shabbat to celebrate the day as they wish. That means allowing for freedom of movement for all Israeli citizens who want to go to the sea, to visit their grandparents, or even to go to the hospital.
The issue of operating services on Shabbat, such as public transportation and mini-markets, has long been a source of division in Israel between the religious and secular communities.
The conflict between the two competing needs has been ongoing since before the creation of the state, following the “status-quo” agreement reached in 1947 between David Ben-Gurion and the haredi Agudat Yisrael movement, which addressed the ultra-Orthodox community’s concerns over the status of religion in the state-in-the-making.
While public transportation on Shabbat is not legally permissible in most cities owing to that status-quo agreement, the Ramat Gan Municipal Council initiated a pilot program in June of two bus lines running on Friday nights and Saturdays.
The initiative is possible since the buses do not charge passengers for the service – which is funded entirely by the municipality – and thus, the provision is not technically defined as public transportation and does not require the Transportation Ministry’s authorization.
As expected, there was an immediate outcry from the United Torah Judaism Party. Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman and Knesset Finance Committee chairman Moshe Gafni issued a joint announcement saying: “To our shame and disgust, the mayor of Ramat Gan has taken a disgraceful and ignominious step that damages the status quo of many years standing, while ignoring the feelings of tens of thousands of the city’s residents who observe the Jewish commandments and tradition.”
Their statement stood in opposition to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, who said that mayors should be allowed to make their own decisions on the issue.
We concur.
Tel Aviv is now considering a similar plan to provide free public transportation on Shabbat for its residents, either by making the rides free or by setting up a system whereby passengers would pay an annual or quarterly fee instead of paying on the bus itself, with the operation being paid for by City Hall.
The routes being considered would not impact or affect religious residents of the city, and will not pass through neighborhoods that have a large religious population.
While coalition talks are continuing now in a bid to form a government, it is important for all to remember that the current policy of political inactivity that has gone on for years – deciding not to decide – cannot continue.
What is clear is that Israelis want public transportation on their day off – and their day off is Saturday. A compromise must be found that bridges the gap between the competing needs of society.
According to a survey taken by the Hiddush religious pluralism organization in 2018, over 70% of those polled said they backed limited public transportation on Shabbat, and 66% favor decisions on these matters being left up to the local authorities and not to the interior minister.
There is no denying that Shabbat is one of the foundation stones of Judaism, and that value should also be a foundation stone of the Jewish state.
At the same time, consideration must be given to all of Israel’s citizens, especially those who are most affected by the lack of transportation: teenagers, adults without a driving license, people lacking the means to buy a car, sick people, tourists and non-Jewish citizens.
People need to be allowed to travel freely. It is time they are allowed to do so in Israel.


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