The Shabbat express

Meretz party has been agitating for municipal bus service on the day of rest. Will it be able to change the status quo?

Meretz Bus 521 (photo credit: Courtsey Meretz)
Meretz Bus 521
(photo credit: Courtsey Meretz)
In the early days of Israel, David Ben-Gurion’s Labor Zionist government determined that rather than tackling the issue of religion’s role in the newly formed Jewish state, the status quo, constituting the patchwork of rules and standards implemented across the country, would be maintained indefinitely.
Hoping to push off this divisive issue until a constitution, hammered out among the country’s various factions, could be enshrined in law, Ben- Gurion thought that he had, temporarily at least, found a solution. More than 60 years later, however, there is still no constitution and the issue of religion and state has continued to be one of the primary sources of debate in Israeli politics.
As a result of Ben-Gurion’s policy, bus service in cities such as Haifa, in which municipal transport ran on Shabbat prior to the declaration of independence, was legally allowed to continue while the same service in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem was forbidden.
Although many Israelis hold on to the status quo, defending it vigorously, there are many others, both religious and secular, who oppose it. Former Ashkenazi chief rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, in his autobiography, called Ben-Gurion’s plan “absurd” and the secularist Meretz party agrees, though probably for different reasons.
It is Meretz that is now spearheading the latest challenge to the religious status quo with efforts to force the government to establish public transportation on Shabbat. The party, headed by MK Zehava Gal-On, an ardent advocate of the separation of synagogue and state, has begun providing free bus service, on privately owned vehicles, to residents of Tel Aviv, Herzliya and Kfar Saba.
Meretz politicians on the Tel Aviv city council have enlisted the support of Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai of the Labor Party and together have passed a city ordinance supporting public transport on Shabbat. This, supporters say, will provide an incentive for Tel Avivians who own cars to begin relying on bus service, thus reducing both aerial and noise pollution. As the situation in Tel Aviv stands now, they say, many people are keeping their cars out of the knowledge that they have no other way to travel on Shabbat.
This is one of the arguments raised by Tel Aviv councilwoman and Meretz activist Tami Zondberg, who adds that the poorer residents of Tel Aviv are stuck at home on Shabbat due to the dearth of available transport. Taxis, she says, are too expensive for many people of a lower socio-economic class.
Reform Rabbi Uri Regev of the NGO Hiddush, which deals with issues of religion and state from a non-Orthodox perspective, agrees, saying that “the lack of public transportation on Shabbat causes less usage of public transportation even on weekdays, because people feel that they cannot rely on public transportation alone.”
Regev quoted a study that Hiddush had conducted, saying that there is “63% of the public support [for] public transportation on the Sabbath. [Support] in full [stands at] 27% [and partial support stands at] 36%. This is a significant increase from 58% in winter 2010.”
There is a whopping 93% level of support among the secular public, Regev says.
While Tel Avivians overwhelmingly support public transportation on Shabbat, all public bus lines must be approved by the Transportation Ministry, and Minister Yisrael Katz (Likud) recently shot down requests by Meretz and the Tel Aviv Municipality to roll out Shabbat buses in favor of the status quo.
Following Katz’s decision, Meretz MK Nitzan Horovitz brought a petition to the High Court of Justice to have the ministry decision overturned. As the case is still pending, the Transportation Ministry declined to comment on the issue of Shabbat buses and its opposition to their use.
IN THE meantime, Meretz continues to run free buses to and from Tel Aviv and within the city itself on Shabbat and, as of last week, in Jerusalem as well.
Without permission from the ministry, that is all they can do, as for-profit bus lines require a license to operate.
However, not all Tel Aviv residents are supportive of the plan.
Ashley, a local resident, says that while he does not observe Shabbat, he “actually appreciates the fact that buses don’t run on Shabbat. It creates a day of difference for a different people, and that is something more important to me than being able to ride the No. 5 to north Tel Aviv. I also think it’s a good thing for Israeli society to encourage individuals not necessarily to follow certain practices, but to consider them and their meaning.”
“To see buses running on Shabbat would somehow sadden me,” he says, “and strike me as even a bit coarsely indifferent to Jewish history and heritage, though I do understand that some people want or need to be places over the weekend.”
Supporters of the status quo, such as Tel Aviv councilman Binyamin Babayof of Shas, have said that part of their opposition to the law stems from the nature of Shabbat in a Jewish country.
Aside from their belief in the holiness of the day and its importance in maintaining at least a minimal Jewish character for the State of Israel, supporters of the current status quo believe that Shabbat laws can be compared to the “blue” laws in American states such as New Jersey, in which people are legally afforded a day of rest through the closure of businesses on Sundays. There are both religious and social aspects, Babayof, like Ashley, believes, which are important to the maintenance of Israel’s Jewish identity.
“Thank God we succeeded in this,” he says, referring to the ministry’s blocking of the Tel Aviv mayor’s request for buses on Shabbat.
“Shabbat is the greatest gift that the Holy One has given us,” he continues.
“Shabbat doesn’t belong only to the religious but belongs to the entire Jewish people.”
“Political elements” are engaging in “provocations,” he says, referring to Meretz’s Shabbat buses. This, he says, is a way of creating political turmoil and hatred of the haredim, who oppose changes to the current religious status quo.
Babayof says that the institution of Shabbat was revolutionary in that it showed that man was not meant to work seven days a week and that it gave dignity to the working man. As an indispensable part of Jewish tradition, he says, it must remain part and parcel of the public life of the Jewish state.
Moreover, the secular founders of Tel Aviv saw Shabbat as integral to the public life of the city, he claims.
No one is seeking to impose Halacha on secular Jews, he says – but a certain amount of Judaism is appropriate for the public sphere in a Jewish state.
Lau, who is now the much-adored (by the secular and religious alike) chief rabbi of Tel Aviv and is widely seen as a bridge between the different sectors, issued a statement following the municipality’s decision to endorse mass transit on Shabbat.
In a written statement, Lau notes that “This recommendation affects the history of Tel Aviv [which] was founded 103 years ago [as] the first [modern] Hebrew city. Prominent figures from its beginnings such as Meir Dizengoff, the first mayor, [Zionist thinker] Ahad Ha’am and [poet] Hayim Nahman Bialik did much for the preservation of Shabbat so that it would be maintained in the public domain. The recommendation of the city council also affects the status quo, based on Israeli government policy, since the establishment of the state until now prohibits public transportation on Shabbat and religious holidays.”
“This is a severe blow to the sanctity of the Sabbath,” the rabbi writes.
THE DEBATE over just how much of the public sphere must remain in consonance with Halacha is an issue dealt with by Mickey Gitzin, one of the supporters of the Meretz initiative. A leader of the Israel Hofshit [“Free Israel”] NGO, his organization has been very active in cooperation with Meretz in pushing for public transportation on Shabbat, even as he expresses a more nuanced approach to the issue than that of his collaborators.
Saying that a large part of his Shabbat celebration, like that of many secular Tel Avivians, involves visiting family or going to the beach, Gitzin says that he believes making bus services available on Shabbat is crucial for residents of Tel Aviv.
However, he says, such services should be kept out of religious neighborhoods and fewer buses would be required on Shabbat than during the week.
People travel less on Shabbat, he says, asserting that there would be less public desecration of Shabbat if people had the option of buses rather than cars or taxis. There would certainly be less noise, he noted.
While the official position of the Tel Aviv Municipality is that buses should be run on Shabbat, not everyone there agrees with Mayor Huldai’s assessment.
Moshe Tiomkin, the head of transportation for the city, believes that there can be an effective compromise between the two sides. There is no need to “break the vessels,” the secular Tiomkin said, in a reference to Lurianic Kabbala, a form of Jewish mysticism.
There are currently several lines of sherut taxis that run in Tel Aviv. If these taxis, which run on regular routes and are privately operated, could expand their operations by even a few routes, there would be no need to run public buses or upset the status quo.
People need transportation, but Shabbat is important as well and there is no need to shatter a status quo that has stood for decades, he explains.
BUT SHATTERING the status quo around the country is exactly what Meretz intends, activists affiliated with the movement say. The biggest proof of their assertions is the party’s activities this past weekend in Jerusalem.
This past Shabbat, Meretz activists, joined by Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Pepe Alalu (Meretz) held a small political event in which they inaugurated a free bus that picked up residents from the neighborhoods of Kiryat Hayovel, Beit Hakerem, Rehavia and Nahlaot and dropped them off in the city center at some of the few bars that are open on Shabbat.
While many in Tel Aviv would support public transit on Shabbat, it is doubtful that such a move would go over well in Jerusalem, with its growing Orthodox population.
According to Horovitz, the buses are “an essential service that is very important for both environmental and social reasons – allowing anyone who has no car or cannot drive to get around and minimizing the traffic on the roads.”
Alalu agrees. In a telephone interview, he said that given Jerusalem’s “low socio-economic level,” it is especially important to provide public transportation on the Sabbath.
Many of Jerusalem’s poorest residents, however, are haredim who have previously fought tooth-and-nail to prevent municipal parking lots and private businesses from opening on Shabbat.
While engendering widespread public support in Tel Aviv, it is uncertain that Meretz’s efforts would do anything but ignite a powder keg in Jerusalem.
A secular resident named Efrat said that while she is currently opposed to changes in the status quo in Jerusalem, she may change her mind once her young children are old enough to travel by themselves.
Nissan Hirsch, a modern Orthodox resident of Jerusalem, said that public transit is “no problem by me, as I live in mixed parts of city anyway.”
Adina, a new immigrant to the city, objected to the proposal, saying that Meretz should advocate for a referendum on the issue. “I think it’s insensitive on Meretz’s part to flaunt their views in other people’s faces,” she says. “I think they should just raise it as a ballot issue and let the people decide by popular vote, and everyone lives with it.”
Another secular resident notes that Shabbat buses are “not a new idea, as there were communal taxis on Shabbat back in the ’60s and ’70s that would bring you from Kiryat Hayovel to town or to the pool in the German Colony.
No one objected then,” she says.
Louis Snyder, a young Jerusalemite, expresses deep reservations about Meretz’s intentions when he says that, “if public transportation is allowed to operate on Shabbat, it will allow the ultra-secular fringe to destroy the principles of the state.”
David, a religious Jew who commutes daily to the capital, is worried for the Egged bus company’s drivers. “People do not think of the bus drivers who will be forced to work on Shabbat,” he says.
Jerusalem city councilman Shlomo Rosenstein of the haredi Degel Hatorah party also objects to mass transit on Shabbat, summarizing his party’s position several months ago when stating that “The beauty of Jerusalem is honoring the status quo. No group can force the city to be its own way – not the haredim who don’t want anyone to drive on Shabbat and not the secular residents.”
Given the religious nature of Jerusalem and the prominent role that haredim play in the city’s politics, the Jerusalem Municipality has taken a different stance than that of Tel Aviv.
While municipality spokesman Barak Cohen declines to elaborate too much on the city’s position, he does state that “the Jerusalem Municipality supports maintaining the status quo in Jerusalem.”
While the issue of public transit and, by extension, the nature of Judaism in the public domain in Israel, has gone to the Supreme Court, it is not certain at all that the issue will be resolved any time soon. Moshe Tiomkin of the Tel Aviv Municipality expresses severe doubts as to foreseeing a speedy resolution to this issue of the status quo that has endured longer than many Israelis have been alive.
Meretz’s initiatives seem deeply worrying to religious residents of Jerusalem even as they are welcomed in Tel Aviv.
However, Israel’s democratic tradition seems just as strong as its Jewish one in many ways, prompting Mark, a former Jerusalemite who still works in the city, to note that “Although I think it’s beautiful that there are no buses in Jerusalem on Shabbat and I hope it stays that way and I wish it were that way all over Israel, I think Meretz has a right to protest as long as it’s not provocative. At the end of the day, I think it’s up to the residents of the city.
Perhaps there should be a vote, if there is a majority who want buses on Shabbat and/or Egged to decide if it’s in their best interests to provide it. If the people want it and Egged doesn’t provide it, Meretz can run some private buses.”