Storm erupts over public transport on Shabbat

Lau deeply disappointed by vote; Gal-On appeals to A-G over Transportation Ministry's refusal to consider request.

Tel Aviv bus 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Tel Aviv bus 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Political, religious and social activism leaders traded blows on Tuesday following Monday’s decision by the Tel Aviv Municipality to advance a request to the Transportation Ministry to operate city public transportation on Shabbat.
Following the approval of the proposal, a spokesman said the ministry “[would] not infringe [upon] the status quo which has been in place for decades regarding all aspects of public transport on Shabbat.”
In response, Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On called on the attorney-general to explain to Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz (Likud) that he is obliged to use professional considerations alone in weighing such requests.
“The status quo regarding religion and state has no legal validity, and the refusal of the minister to grant a license would not stand up to examination by the High Court of Justice,” Gal-On said.
The secular majority in Tel Aviv wants public transportation on Shabbat, as indicated in the hearing and vote yesterday, she said, calling the issue a matter of social justice, environmental concern and freedom of religion. “The secular community will not force those who observe the commandments to get on buses, but the need and desire of people without private vehicles to get about on the weekend must also be respected,” she added.
The “status quo” refers to an understanding created in 1947 between David Ben- Gurion and the Agudat Yisrael movement, which represented the period’s ultra-Orthodox community, that addressed the community’s concerns about the status of religion in the putative state.
Since then, the so-called status quo has preserved the statuses – as they were in 1947 – of many religious issues, including public transportation.
In general, establishments providing leisure activities and food may stay open on Shabbat, while most other shops are closed.
Many restaurants nevertheless close because the rabbinate will not provide a certificate of kashrut if they open on Shabbat.
Limited bus service runs in Haifa on Shabbat as per the status quo, which was originally put in place to account for the needs of the city’s large non-Jewish population.
Meretz councilwoman Tamar Zandberg, who proposed the initiative, said on Tuesday that the time has come to open up the issue for public debate.
“This is something which has not been approved by the public, and the public has never chosen in a democratic way to implement it,” Zandberg said.
She added that a compromise was preferable, allowing the city to operate a basic but substantial public transport system with the option of excluding some neighborhoods.
In a recent study examining the level of Jewish religiosity in Israel conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute and the Avi Chai Foundation, 59 percent of respondents said they were in favor of public transportation on Shabbat and 68% said that weekday activities, such as going to cinemas, cafes and restaurants, should be available on the Sabbath as well.
The Shabbat transportation request will be presented formally in the coming days to the ministry’s commissioner of public transportation, who is legally authorized to approve such requests in cases where a municipality considers such services to be essential.
If it is rejected, activists say that they will seek to establish an independent bus company to operate on Shabbat.
Mickey Gitzin, director of the Be Free Israel secularist movement that worked in conjunction with Zandberg to advance the proposal, said the organization will now encourage other municipalities to make similar requests, in order to bring the issue to the national and legislative level.
Yisrael Meir Lau, chief rabbi of Tel Aviv and former chief rabbi of Israel, wrote to Mayor Ron Huldai on Tuesday, calling on him to reverse the decision.
“A feeling of deep disappointment and pain filled me when I heard about this decision,” Lau wrote. “[It] would be a serious injury to the sanctity of Shabbat – which is a reminder of the creation of the universe, a reminder of the Exodus from Egypt, a day of rest for all workers and a day of spiritual elevation and family togetherness.”
Lau called on the interior and transportation ministers to reject the request.
Several religious MKs also weighed in on the issue. MK Uri Orbach from the national- religious Habayit Hayehudi party called the move a “cheap provocation” and said the mayor should ensure that transportation during the week is good enough before dealing with Shabbat.
In a Channel 2 interview, MK Nissim Ze’ev (Shas) said Israel is “first and foremost a Jewish state, and after that a democratic one. Tel Aviv can’t behave in a different manner than other cities in the country.”
The Tzohar national-religious rabbinical association also called on the municipality to refrain from damaging Israel’s Jewish character without a broad public debate.
“Because we live together, and the importance of maintaining the state's Jewish character, I believe that any decision that affects all residents – religious and secular – needs to be made through public discussion and consensus rather than unilateral action,” said Tzohar chairman Rabbi David Stav.
Rabbi Uri Regev, director of the Hiddush religious freedom lobbying group, said the transportation minister should “respond to the will of the public, and not surrender to pressure from the haredi [political] parties.”