What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is mine

Banning public transportation on the Sabbath is part of an existential confrontation over the soul of the State of Israel.

MEN OUTSIDE Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea She’arim protest against public transportation on Shabbat, in December 2019. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
MEN OUTSIDE Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea She’arim protest against public transportation on Shabbat, in December 2019.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
It is no surprise that the bill for allowing public transportation on the Sabbath was defeated at the Knesset this week.
This is only a first example of the new government’s approach to the ongoing gulf between its traditional surrender to the dictates of the ultra-Orthodox parties and the clear will of the majority of the Israeli public, including the voters for the civil coalition parties. This is not just about public transportation on the Sabbath, which the majority of the Israeli public supports. Rather, it is part of an existential confrontation over the soul of the State of Israel. The rejection by the ministers and Knesset Members of the demand that they, too, should be banned from using state vehicles on the Sabbath only demonstrates how hypocritical the government’s position is. This is much like the “evil” person in Ethics of the Fathers: “What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is mine.”
Deputy Minister Uri Maklev [UTJ] claims that the Jewish character of Israel requires that public transportation be prohibited on the Sabbath. He implies that a “Jewish” state needs to perpetuate religious coercion, which goes against the majority will of the Israeli public and the Jewish people. The same gulf exists over Maklev’s and his colleagues’ demand that a “Jewish state” must exempt tens of thousands of Yeshiva students from sharing in the country’s defense.
Providing public transportation on the Sabbath is a vital issue in Israel. It consistently enjoys great levels of support among Israeli citizens. Representatives of the ultra-Orthodox and Likud parties repeatedly parrot that most of Israel’s Jewish public is religious or traditional, wants to keep the Sabbath and prefers the religious “status quo.” Do they believe these falsehoods or is this a cynical manipulation? The facts are the opposite, as evident from a host of surveys and studies done over years by the Central Bureau of Statistics, Israeli Democracy Institute, the Jewish People Policy Institute, Hiddush and others.
THERE ARE three main pillars to the findings of Hiddush’s numerous surveys conducted by the Smith Polling Institute:
1. A consistent majority of over 70% of Israel’s adult Jewish public supports public transportation on the Sabbath, at least in limited scope. This percentage would increase if Israel’s non-Jewish population were taken into account.
2. Included among these are 95% of the Blue & White voters, 68% of Likud voters, 94% of the secular Jewish public, 82% of the traditional-non-religious public and 59% of the traditional-religious public. Clearly, the majority of Israel’s traditional Jewish public too supports allowing of public transport on the Sabbath!
3. A large majority of the public holds that these issues should be decided by local municipalities, which know their residents and the characters of their various neighborhoods.
The Knesset vote goes against the will of the public rather than representing it. It was driven solely by continued shameful surrender to the ultra-Orthodox parties, which could care less about public will. It proves how hollow the rhetoric of politicians against the Supreme Court is. They claim that only they genuinely represent the will of the public, not the unelected judges. However, all studies highlight the public’s pitifully low trust in the Knesset, the government and the Chief Rabbinate, with much greater confidence in the Supreme Court.
Particularly disturbing is the case of Blue and White. Their platform promised to allow local municipalities to make decisions regarding public transportation on the Sabbath. However, the Justice Minister (from Blue and White), chairing the Ministerial Legislative Committee, led the process resulting in the coalition’s opposition to the bill. It lost by a wide majority. Science Minister Izhar Shai’s (Blue and White) response is emblematic. He said, “[Tamar] Zandberg’s bill is provocative. Public transport will [only] operate on Saturdays at agreed locations; and it is impossible to pass a coercive proposal without dialogue and consent.”
This bill would not have coerced the ultra-Orthodox. Rather, the ultra-Orthodox, who dictate the current policy, are coercing the rest of society. Blue and White’s platform rightly states that “the ‘status quo’ has become a sign of stagnation, sometimes harming the individual freedoms of some Israeli citizens and harming the status of Judaism within Israel.”
If Blue and White thinks that change should come only with the consent of the ultra-Orthodox politicians, then (in the words of Justice Solberg) we are doomed to “wait until Elijah comes.” Such consent has never been granted and will not be granted in the future. Blue & White maneuvered itself into a position in which it would not be able to actualize nor advance any of its promises regarding religion and state. The vote on the public transportation bill on the Sabbath is but the first on a long list. The party’s MKs will have to vote in opposition to their platform, their consciences and their voters’ expectations.
However, Blue and White’s partnership with the Likud also holds a potential blessing. Although the party cannot advance its initiatives in the area of religious freedom and equality, it can prevent new bills advanced by the ultra-Orthodox parties! It can take advantage of the veto granted in its coalition agreement with Likud. Unlike Likud, it is not bound to maintain the “status quo” on religious affairs, particularly not regarding legislation against the Supreme Court. Just this week, Minister Deri spoke about his demand to Netanyahu to pass a law that would circumvent the Court and limit recognition of conversions to those authorized by the Chief Rabbinate.
Thus, when the Supreme Court rules on pending issues like public transportation on the Sabbath, “Who is a Jew?,” the Western Wall, etc., Blue and White could save the day. It holds unique power, allowing it to prevent legislation that does not meet its approval – and just as importantly, it can prevent the passage of an “Override Clause,” which the ultra-Orthodox parties and other extremist political figures have been pushing to undermine the rule of law in Israel, erode the separation of powers, and block judicial review, the essential safeguard for preserving democratic values!
Public transportation on the Sabbath is important in and of itself, but it also illustrates the increasing challenge facing the State of Israel: will it succumb to the political pressures that aspire to bring Israel closer to a Torah state, or will it proceed on the path promised by Israel’s Declaration of Independence and thereby regard freedom of religion and conscience as a blessing, rather than a curse.
The writer is a rabbi who heads Hiddush – for Religious Freedom and Equality, a trans-denominational Israel/Diaspora partnership