(photo credit: REUTERS)
Maintaining Israel’s Jewish character lies at the heart of the ban on public transportation on Shabbat. The status quo agreement reached between the religious parties and David Ben-Gurion during the establishment of the State of Israel included restrictions on public transportation on Shabbat. And to this day the large transportation companies respect the ban because a large proportion of their clientele happens to be haredi or national religious. These groups would boycott in protest if Egged or other public transportation firms dared to operate on Shabbat.
Over the years there have been concessions to the special needs of cities like Haifa and Eilat with large non-Jewish and secular populations. And shuttles, or “sheruts,” run in and between some cities based on the claim that they address a vital transportation need, as allowed in the Transportation Ministry regulations.
But NGOs demanding freedom from religious restrictions continue to fight for the right to operate public transportation on Shabbat. This week the High Court of Justice dismissed a petition on the issue by liberal groups and Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg, but hinted that it might rule in favor of allowing public transportation on Shabbat if a transportation company were to petition the court.
“We are missing an agent here, which is the [public transportation] operator,” said Justice Hanan Melcer. “You might have a good argument if you have an operator. There is a missing link here.”
The Basic Law: Freedom of Occupation protects the right of businesses to operate on Shabbat under certain conditions.
Even the employment of Jews could be justified under the Work and Rest Law, which protects the right of Jews to have off on Shabbat, because employing drivers facilitates the physical and spiritual enjoyment of Shabbat as a day of rest, by allowing those without cars to visit parks and recreation sites as well as family and friends. Shabbat serves social goals not just religious goals.
As noted already, however, many of the large public transportation companies refrain from operating on Shabbat, because they do not want to lose Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox clientele. The number of Shabbat travelers would never make up for the lost business. The haredi community uses public transportation disproportionately more because many families either don’t have a car or are too large to be accommodated by a single vehicle.
A number of alternative public transportation initiatives have been launched. In Jerusalem, a private bus service called Shabus has run since 2015. By working as a collective, the group circumvents the requirement that it be licensed by the government. Noa Tnua is another initiative that is similarly structured.
Another option is to deregulate the transportation market.
One important step would be to break the monopoly of taxis and allow Uber and other companies that use ride-sharing apps to operate freely. Companies like Uber would not only lower transportations costs while providing tens of thousands of people with additional income, they would meet the need for public transportation on Shabbat.
Car owners willing to work on Shabbat would make themselves available for people without cars who need to travel on Shabbat. Neither side is being coerced to do anything they do not want to do. We have argued in the past for allowing Uber and other ride sharing companies to operate in Israel. Ways need to be found to compensate taxi drivers who paid large sums of money for their taxi badges. Thought needs to be given to issues such as safety rules, insurance and background checks on drivers as well as to their right to unionize.
We are sympathetic to taxi drivers’ concerns, but 44,000 people must not be allowed to prevent millions from enjoying cheaper transportation, additional income and Shabbat transportation.
A large proportion of Israelis support public transportation on Shabbat. A survey commissioned last year by Hiddush, a group that promotes religious pluralism, found that 72% support keeping at least some buses and shuttles running between Friday afternoon and Saturday evening.
The best way to promote public transportation on Shabbat is not through petitioning the High Court but rather through deregulation of the transportation sector. Allowing Uber and companies like it to operate in Israel would not only push down costs as it has in other countries, it would offer a solution to public transportation on Shabbat.