Can Michaeli bring public transportation on Shabbat to Israel?

Following the transportation minister’s announcement over the weekend that the Tel Aviv light rail will operate on Saturdays, the question of whether or not that’s actually her call to make remains.

 TRANSPORTATION MINISTER Merav Michaeli attends a news conference at the new Allenby underground station of the light rail red line in Tel Aviv, in June. (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)
TRANSPORTATION MINISTER Merav Michaeli attends a news conference at the new Allenby underground station of the light rail red line in Tel Aviv, in June.
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)

Over the weekend, Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli announced her intention to ensure that the Tel Aviv light rail system will operate on Shabbat, beginning at the end of November.

While this would answer the prayers of many who wish to travel over the weekend, it has left some wondering whether or not Michaeli can actually make it happen, or whether the announcement is just a piece of political lip service.

CAN MICHAELI ACTUALLY DO IT?

The primary question is whether or not Michaeli can actually enact such a policy, despite elections looming at the beginning of November – and the answer seems to be a pretty straightforward “yes.” According to Michaeli herself, the ball is wholly in her court, as transportation minister, to do with it as she pleases.

“It is my decision and I reached it taking into consideration all the important implications… brought before me,” she told Channel 12 on Friday.

“It is my decision and I reached it taking into consideration all the important implications … brought before me.”

Israeli Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli
Transportation Minister Israel Katz speaks at an event marking the beginning of underground construction work of the Tel Aviv light rail’s Red Line (credit: REUTERS)Transportation Minister Israel Katz speaks at an event marking the beginning of underground construction work of the Tel Aviv light rail’s Red Line (credit: REUTERS)

In actuality, it also comes down to the light rail’s operator, the Metropolitan Mass Transit System Ltd. (NTA in Hebrew), which would need to okay the move and agree to operate on Saturdays as well. A ministry spokesperson clarified that Michaeli deliberated with NTA, and following both parties giving the go-ahead, it now comes down to enacting it on the operational level.

NTA plans to begin running the light rail on Saturdays beginning at the end of November.

WILL THE DECISION LAST?

Even if the Shabbat light rail change does go according to Michaeli’s plan, there’s no certainty that the move will stay in effect following the upcoming elections. In theory, the next iteration of the government could appoint someone who could easily overthrow the decision.

The ministry spokesperson noted that such a cancellation would be harmful to much of the public, as it “does so much for so many people across such a wide cross section.”

Those who stand to benefit from a seven-day-a-week light rail operation include people who don’t have cars, who want to use public transport as an alternative to using a car, who can’t operate a car due to physical disability, and more than a handful of college students who want to have their weekend fun and get home without a DUI (driving under the influence) charge.

“That’s a very, very big chunk of Israeli society supported by a massive majority in Israel: 70%,” the spokesperson said. “That means it’s not just a niche issue. It means that all sorts of people support it [on the] Left and Right, secular, religious – even those who don’t use it themselves. They just want to live in a country where there’s freedom to use public transport on Shabbat – just like you can drive on the roads on Shabbat or take a flight on Shabbat.”

HOW RELIGION FACTORS IN

Religious Zionist MK Bezalel Smotrich responded to Michaeli’s announcement by calling her a “failed minister,” and vowing that any future right-wing government that he is a part of will “make sure to cancel any decision that harms the Jewish character of the country and we will preserve the Shabbat and its sanctity as the national day of rest.”

Whether or not public transportation on Shabbat undermines the Jewish identity of Israel is certainly a debatable topic – and indeed, the debates have certainly been raging on. While some have boiled this argument down to a matter of “religious vs. non-religious,” Rabbi Yair Silverman of Kehilat Moed Zichron Yaakov provided some clarity on the issue, first and foremost by admitting that “it’s complicated.”

“Both sides agree that a society that is 24/7 obsessed with productivity without moments of rest is not a society we’re interested in creating here. They both have profound appreciation of the core values of Judaism,” Silverman said. “We should be blessed with a stable government that’s able to address the needs of Shabbat and a societal day of rest, without putting an unfair burden on the weaker socioeconomic stratas of society [who rely on public transportation].”

“I think that election sound bites are probably the worst possible way to advance change and growth for Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”

Rabbi Yair Silverman

It’s simply not a cut-and-dried story, but as Silverman deftly concluded: “I think that election sound bites are probably the worst possible way to advance change and growth for Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”