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In Tel Aviv, a Heated Debate Over Transit on the Sabbath

In Tel Aviv, a Heated Debate Over Transit on the Sabbath
Reuters

Stop us if this one sounds familiar: there's a new mandate in the works that's pitting secular practice against the religious establishment. This one's got nothing to do with contraception, but it's rousing public passions nonetheless.

On Monday the Israeli city of Tel Aviv took the first step toward permitting the operation of public transportation on the Sabbath. Throughout most of Israel, buses and other transit operations shut down from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday in observance of the Jewish day of rest, as well as on religious holidays. The practice is governed by custom, not law, and the country's transportation department is allowed to authorize exceptions. Notable ones include Haifa, a city with a largely mixed Jewish-Arab population, and Eilat.

By a clear vote of 13-7, the Tel Aviv city council approved a resolution to seek permission to join this list of municipal exceptions. The proposal now moves to a city administrative committee, which is expected to approve it as well. From there it will go to the state's Ministry of Transportation for final consideration.

The proposal was initiated in conjunction with Be Free Israel, an activist group that recently organized a campaign in which people stood at bus stops on Saturday holding signs that read: "Waiting for the bus on Shabbat," according to Y Net News. The city's mayor, Ron Huldai, has emerged as a strong supporter of the proposal, even posting encouragement on Facebook. 

Huldai has approached the problem with a pretty urbanist mindset. According to Y Net News, he's wondered how residents without cars are supposed to get around on Saturdays and holidays, and gone on record as saying the custom prevents "the public's ability to give up their expensive and polluting private vehicles." The Jewish Forward offered a strong reason in favor of a change, explaining that Israel has a six-day work week, meaning Saturday is the only chance people have to "visit friends and family."

On Monday Huldai expressed further support, according to the Jerusalem Post

“Whoever doesn’t want to get on a bus on Shabbat doesn’t have to,” the mayor said after the vote.

Not everyone thinks the matter's so straightforward. The city's chief rabbi called the proposal "a severe blow to the holiness of the Shabbat," reports Haaretz, and the Ministry of Transportation issued a statement that it does not intend to alter what it calls the "decades-old status quo regarding operation of public transportation on Shabbat." City councilman Binyamin Babayof, who opposes the resolution, considers it a first step down a slippery path that threatens the very character of Israel:

“We must maintain a Jewish identity on Shabbat,” he said. “First we start with buses, and then they'll call to open stores on Shabbat. They want us to be like the U.S.”

Babayof adds that 80 percent of Tel Aviv residents are "traditionalists" who don't want public transportation on Saturday anyway. That assertion seems misleading. For starters, Tel Aviv is a tourist-friendly city that's generally considered quite secular. And the country as a whole may be sympathetic to the move. The blog Jacob's Bones, which posted a good summary of both sides of the debate, points to a 2009 poll [PDF] showing that 59 percent of Israelis support public transit operation on the Sabbath:

The city seems intent on making a change regardless of the Ministry's ruling. According to the Associated Press, "Tel Aviv’s city hall said it will establish an independent transportation company to run the buses," in the event the proposal is rejected. In other words, the debate's just getting started.

Photo credit: Yonathan Weitzman/Reuters

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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