Tel Aviv — The long-simmering culture war over public transportation on the Sabbath here has a winner, but maybe not for long.
Given Israeli politics and the pull that religious parties can have in any ruling coalition, the announced move by the Tel Aviv municipality to launch free public bus service on Shabbat, which begins this weekend, could be a short-lived victory for the city’s secular residents. After all, Israel’s religious establishment has been trying to prevent it for decades.
For now, though, some Tel Avivians are rejoicing.
Rosa, a Filipina caregiver, practically jumped for joy last weekend when she heard the news that buses will carry people to and from a handful of nearby cities.
“This will make my life so much easier,” she told The Jewish Week. “Now I won’t have to rely on the family that employs me,” said Rosa. She lives and works in a suburb six days a week, but commutes to Tel Aviv on Shabbat to spend time with friends and attend a Catholic prayer service.
She said the government-approved but privately owned “sherut” (shared taxi) service that runs between Tel Aviv and a handful of municipalities doesn’t serve her city, and that the lack of public buses on Shabbat and Jewish holidays hurts not only non-Orthodox Jews but also the tens of thousands of foreign workers and asylum seekers who cannot afford to buy even a used car.
“The Israeli government encourages foreign workers to move to Israel and care for the elderly, but doesn’t take our needs into account,” said Rosa, who has a valid work permit but declined to share her last name or where she lives because police have started deportation proceedings against some Israel-born children of Filipino workers.
“I know it’s important to Israelis to observe their Shabbat, but what about everyone else?” she asked.
As it stands now, Israeli law bans public transportation on Shabbat and Jewish holidays in all but a few locations. In Tel Aviv and environs, people who want or need to travel must do so via privately owned taxis, sheruts or bus companies, which offer hit-or-miss service to a limited number of locations.
The Tel Aviv initiative will allow public buses to operate on weekends during hours when regular public transport isn’t available, and will be free during its initial phase.
But it could stall out if the next government contains charedi parties, the fervently religious who would almost certainly be against public buses on the Sabbath. The Knesset might then try to legislate a ban, but even if that doesn’t happen, it’s difficult to imagine the municipality being able to fund free transport indefinitely.
Shuki Friedman, director of the Center for Religion, Nation and State at the Israel Democracy Institute, said the initiative is rooted in both pragmatism and politics.
Sixty percent of the Jewish public thinks that public transportation should be allowed on Shabbat throughout the country, except in areas where there is a religious or charedi Orthodox majority, an August 2019 IDI survey found. “For many years Tel Aviv has been leading secular trends and the demand for a more open, more equitable, more pluralistic society,” he said.
Friedman said Tel Aviv is the only city that has changed its bylaws to permit the operation of some commercial entities on the Sabbath, like minimarkets and shopping centers.
Commerce aside, “people who don’t own a car have limited options” if they want to go to the beach or visit a relative in a hospital, Friedman said.
Friedman said he believes Tel Aviv’s secular officials shrewdly capitalized on the political limbo the country finds itself in, after the leading parties were unable to form a government following two 2019 elections.
The bus service will be free, he said, “because paid public transportation on Shabbat must be authorized by the Ministry of Transportation. The Orthodox parties in the last government wouldn’t have allowed that.”
Individuals and institutions that want to trim the rabbinate’s powers praised the initiative.
Tel Aviv’s fifth-term mayor, Ron Huldai, “joins the expanding trend of mayors who understand that they have the responsibility, and the power, to fill the vacuum in services and needs that the national government does not provide” due to religious reasons, the left-leaning Haaretz wrote in an editorial.
The Chief Rabbinate did not reply to The Jewish Week’s request for comment.
While the majority of religious Jews do not want publicly funded transportation to operate on Shabbat, an IDI poll reveals, many understand the non-religious public’s frustration.
“As an Orthodox Jew and a rabbi I cannot support the violation of Shabbat, but at the same time I understand that the people need to be able to travel affordably, for whatever reason,” said Rabbi David Stav, the chief rabbi of the city of Shoham and the chairman of Tzohar, an alternative rabbinical organization.
David Weitz, an Orthodox freelance translator and English teacher who lives in nearby Ramat Gan, said he sees why so many Jewish Israelis are demanding public transport on Shabbat. His solution: a two-day weekend that would allow Israelis to enjoy a day of leisure without violating Shabbat.
“There’s a huge amount of Shabbat desecration that would be prevented by adopting Sunday as a free day, something that seems to have mysteriously escaped the religious establishment,” Weitz said.
Devora Ezrahi, a secular university student, welcomed the two-day weekend, “but it should be up to me, not someone else, when and how I travel.”
Yet even some secular Israelis are wary of public buses on Shabbat because they fear they will harm Israel’s unique Shabbat atmosphere.
“I’m not a fan of the idea of buses on Shabbat. I like having a day of quiet, and I am skeptical that the buses will be able to run frequently enough to justify taking them instead of walking,” said Lauren G. Cohen, a self-described “traditionally leaning secular cook” who lives in Tel Aviv.
The one thing that could change her mind: The fact that many of those most affected by the lack of public buses are the elderly and disabled people.
Although she is not religious, Cohen said Israelis have every right to a religion-linked day of rest.
“There’s nothing wrong with Shabbat being a rest day when half of Europe shuts down on Sundays,” she said.