Haifa, Eilat have Buses on Shabbat: Is Tel Aviv Next?

Tel Aviv is taking the first steps in a battle to provide public transportation in Tel Aviv on Jewish holidays and Shabbat.  For the last two  Shabbatot Israel Hofshit has been staging protests at bus stops around town. Protesters stand waiting for buses that never come, bearing signs demanding that Tel Aviv provide its citizen with the option of public transportation.  When Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai saw the first of the protests, he began sharing them on his Facebook page making supportive comments.   Last week, Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai came out publicly to the media in support of the idea.   Then on Monday night the Council voted 13-7 in favor of a proposal to set up a Shabbat bus service.

Pro and Con

Those in support of the proposal have cited several reasons:

  • It forces Shabbat observance on those who don’t want it, or who chose to celebrate Shabbat in non-traditional ways than the Orthodox.   Any appearance of unity ignores the very real frustration of those who cannot use their one day off of work as the wish.
  • It is ecologically unsound because it encourages people to own and use cars as a replacement for public transportation.
  • It is a form of economic discrimination: those who have cars can go on trips or drive to areas where shops are open on Shabbat, but those who do not have cars cannot.
  • It sets Israel apart from other major cosmopolitan and diverse cities in the world. No other major world city lacks public transportation on so many days out of the year. When both holidays and Shabbat are included, Tel Aviv lacks public transportation 16% of the year. (Advocates say 25%, presumably they are counting each Shabbat and Holiday as a day and a half of lost transporation?)
  • Claims that the status quo can’t change are hypocritical coming from those in favor of state sponsored seggregated buses.  They and the Ministry of Transportation have already tried to change the status quo (mixed buses) by introducing seggregated bus lines.

Those against the bill include the deputy mayor of Tel Aviv and council members from religious parties.  Objections to Shabbat bus service include

  • concern about forcing bus drivers to work on Shabbat
  • fear that increased bus transportation on Shabbat will be the first slide down a slippery slope leading to open stores and an active commercial life on Shabbat.
  • the loss of a Jewish character in the city.  Other expressions of Jewishness or alternative Shabbat observances will not be enough to maintain the Jewish feel of the city.
  • changing what has always been and making it hard for the more observant to live together with the less observant.

Binyain Babyof, The Shas party representative on the Tel Aviv city council, called the decision outrageous. He also insisted that the council was out of touch with the needs an expectations of Tel Avivians:

I live in southern Tel Aviv, where the character of the Sabbath is certainly felt… That’s also true for the northern neighborhoods, although it might not seem like it. There are many traditionalists who live there. Out of 440 thousand residents in Tel Aviv, 80 percent are traditional. The members of Meretz are an insignificant minority who are trying to make headlines. (Source: Arutz Sheva)

The last claim that Tel Aviv has a sizable population (80%) who would oppose buses is puzzling in light of both facts on the ground and also the recent Avi Chai survey of belief and practice in Israel.

The Avi Chai survey found that 46% of Israelis identify as secular and only 32% see themselves as traditional. Even in an average Israeli city, 80% of the population identifying as traditional would be unusual. However, Tel Aviv has a reputation of being a largely secular city compared to the rest of Israel. Most of its restaurants lack kashrut certificates and many have menus with distinctly non-kosher food. Someone is eating at those restaurants.

But even if 80% of TelAviv did self-identify as “traditional” despite appearances to the contrary, that does not necessarily imply strict Shabbat observance. Only 8% of those who identify as “traditional” describe themselves as meticulously observant. A full 50% say they either observe nothing or observe to some extent, but not to a great extent.

Finally, personal observance does not necessarily mean that one opposes freedom for others. According to the Avi Chai study 59% of Israelis thought there should be public transportation on Shabbat. Since only 46% defines itself as secular, that means that at least a quarter of the non-secular population agrees with the idea of public transporation on Shabbat.

A Spiritual Loss?

Prior to the vote,  Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Lau has refused to comment on the matter.  However, on Tuesday morning he sent a letter to the major expressing his deep dismay over the Council decision and asking the mayor to reverse it.  He wrote that something vital will be lost to the city, both in terms of its spirit and its history:

This is a severe blow to the holiness of the Shabbat, which is a remnant of Creation, a reminder of the Exodus from Egypt, a day of rest for every worker and a day of spiritual ascension and the unity of the family,”

He observed that Tel Aviv is known as the “first Hebrew city”. Its early founders worked together to ensure the public observance of Shabbat.

Will It Succeed?

The push for bus service will likely be a long process with an uncertain end.   The vote authorizes the city’s management committee to discuss the proposal and plan for its implementation.     Before any further action can be taken,   the city’s management committee must approve the plan.  If the committee approves it, which is likely, then the City Administration must prepare a detailed proposal for the Ministry of Transportation.

However, it is unlikely that this proposal will succeed. Although the ministry of transportation has the right to authorize cities to provide Shabbat bus service, it has already sent out signals that it plans to deny the request and maintain the status quo which allows for buses at the start and end of Shabbat but not during the middle of the day. According to a Ministry of Transportation spokesperson:

There are lines which are allowed to operate before Shabbat comes out and lines allowed to operate after Shabbat comes out. The Transportation Ministry maintains the status quo according to the Knesset decision and regulations on the matter of operating bus lines on Shabbat and rest days. (Source: Ynet)

Zehava Gal-On (Meretz)  says that the Ministry of Transportation’s decision will not stand up if it is challenged in the Supreme Court.  Even so,  a Supreme Court challenge may not be enough to force the Ministry of Transportation to take action.    Israel has a long history of ministerial foot-dragging.   The continuing problems of segregation on buses are just one example within the Ministry of Transportation itself.  Forced segregation on buses was ruled illegal last year, yet the problem of informal forced segregation on buses is still on-going.  According to the most recent study,  65% of female riders were asked to enter the bus in the back or to move to another seat further back in the bus and 20% of those reported verbal violence or worse if they refused.

Alternatively, or in addition,  proponents could try to pass a Knesset bill to force the Ministry of Transportation to allow bus service. However, such a bill is unlikely to pass with the current ruling coalition. Ultra-Orthodox MKs play a key role and they are not happy with the idea of Shabbat bus service. Moshe Gafni (Degel haTorah), head of the Knesset finance committee, was unreservedly critical:

This is a reckless and populist decision. We shall not allow this deliberate and hurtful harm to the status quo and to the sanctity of the Shabbat. This decision offers nothing with the exception of a stain on the Tel Aviv city hall itself. (Source: Ynet )

Tel Aviv is also considering options that would by-pass the Ministry of Transportation, for example, getting permits to expand a mini-bus service that is currently operating during the day on Shabbat and holidays or even setting up an independent bus company.


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