The status quo

Should a simple vote be enough to do away with a longstanding tradition of keeping Shabbat in the public sphere?

Tel Aviv bus 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Tel Aviv bus 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Halting public transportation from sundown Friday until Saturday night falls under what is known as “the status quo.” A modus vivendi between religious and secular, the status quo, which dates from the pre-state era, essentially set down the limits for religious encroachment into civil and public life in the fledgling Jewish state.
Marriage and divorce in accordance with Halacha, the serving of kosher food in all state institutions, the establishment of state-funded religious education and the exemption of women – and a small, elite group of male Torah scholars – from military service are all included in what is loosely referred to as the status quo.
Many mistakenly believe that the status quo is the result of haredi political extortion. According to this false narrative, the haredim threatened to join forces with anti-Zionist British foreign secretary Ernest Bevin against the creation of Israel unless David Ben-Gurion and other leaders of the Yishuv caved in to their demands for a “more Jewish” state.
In reality, as sociologist Menachem Friedman has shown, the status quo is the result of a mutual understanding among the secular Zionist leadership and haredi rabbis and politicians that finding a means of coexistence was essential to fostering the unity and social cohesion needing to meet the many challenges facing Israel, from fighting the War of Independence and absorbing hundreds of thousands of immigrants to building the first Jewish sovereignty in nearly two millennia.
Still, initiatives are launched from time to time to change the status quo, which technically dates back to a June 1947 letter written by Ben-Gurion to Yitzhak Meir Levin and other leaders of Agudat Israel promising “consideration” for religious sensibilities. The most recent example was a decision Monday by the Tel Aviv City Council to ask the Transportation Ministry for permission to operate public transportation in the metropolis on Shabbat.
Tamar Zandberg, the Meretz councilwoman who proposed the motion – passed in a 13-7 vote and supported by Mayor Ron Huldai – argued: “It is unacceptable to continue living in accordance with an arrangement dating back over 60 years that determines such a significant part of our lifestyle.”
Indeed, cogent arguments can be made in favor of permitting public transportation in Tel Aviv, a predominantly secular place with a unique cultural character setting it apart from other cities. Since before the establishment of the state, Haifa and Nazareth – including Upper Nazareth – have operated public transportation due to their large Arab populations. The same is true for Eilat, probably due to its tourism town character and the fact that it is isolated from the rest of Israel. Similarly, the “Tel Aviv bubble” is unique for its consciously secular orientation and its high proportion of foreign workers and migrants.
If a poll were conducted, the vast majority of Tel Aviv’s residents would probably vote in favor of public transportation on Shabbat. A nationwide poll conducted in 2010 by the Smith Institute for Hiddush, an organization fighting for separation of state and religion, found that 63 percent of Israelis favored public transportation on Shabbat, including 93% of secular Israelis.
Nevertheless, permitting public transportation in Tel Aviv – dubbed “the first Hebrew city” – would mark a deviation from tradition as enshrined in the status quo.
Should a simple vote be enough to do away with a longstanding tradition of keeping Shabbat in the public sphere? Should even Tel Aviv – a cosmopolitan bastion of secularism considered to be the best gay travel destination in the world – abandon that modicum of Jewishness that only serves to accentuate its eclectic uniqueness? How much do Tel Aviv’s residents truly suffer due to a lack of public transportation on Shabbat? Is alleviating this suffering worth doing away with a cultural and religious fixture?
Unfortunately, it is unlikely that a soul-searching public discussion of these issues and others – such as the environmental benefits of halting public transportation one day a week – will ever take place.
In part, this is because Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz has quashed debate by announcing that he would veto the Tel Aviv City Council’s initiative, effectively using coercion to protect the status quo. Public discourse on such issues tends to be so polarized that true dialogue is impossible. We can only hope that the day will come when a truly free and open debate – and reevaluation – of the status quo will be possible.