Buses on Shabbat May Come to Tel Aviv

Israel's City That Doesn't Sleep Might Get Transit to Match

By Nathan Jeffay

Published March 04, 2012, issue of March 09, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Guidebooks bill Tel Aviv as a city that never sleeps. But accessing all that Israel’s most cosmopolitan city has to offer — from art galleries to jazz clubs to discotheques — can prove tricky one day a week. That’s because public city buses stop running at sundown Friday and don’t start rolling again until nightfall Saturday.

While the lack of public transportation on the Sabbath goes uncontested in most of Israel, Tel Aviv’s city government has decided that the weekly transit hiatus is incompatible with Tel Aviv’s status as a largely secular metropolis.

The Tel Aviv city council set off an intense debate February 20, when it voted 13-7 in favor of adding buses that run on the Sabbath. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government must now approve or reject the council’s recommendation.

The Transportation Ministry has told local media that it will oppose the plan because it violates the “status quo,” on the balance of power in the public domain between religious and secular.

“It should have happened years ago, but because of political arrangements it was taboo and no one would discuss it, which is absurd,” Tamar Zandberg, a Tel Aviv city councilwoman and a vocal proponent of Sabbath buses, told the Forward.

Tel Aviv’s residents are famous for working hard and playing hard. But with a six-day work week common, many of them have only a single weekend day, during which bus service is at a standstill. “By not having public transport on Shabbat, government is way too involved in how I use my private time,” said Rachel Adelman, a Tel Aviv resident who works in the hightech sector and does not own a car.

Not surprisingly, many of the city’s religious leaders are troubled by the prospect of Saturday bus service. Tel Aviv’s chief rabbi, Israel Meir Lau, who has a reputation as a bridge builder between the city’s secular and religious populations, was unusually forthright in a letter to Mayor Ron Huldai. “This decision taints the history of Tel Aviv, which was founded 103 years ago as the first Hebrew city,” he wrote, calling the vote a “severe blow to the sanctity of Shabbat — a day of spiritual uplifting and rest for all workers.”

Throughout the history of the State of Israel, there has been almost no government-funded public transportation on the Sabbath — with the exceptions of Haifa and Eilat, where, for decades, buses have run on Saturdays.

The non-Orthodox population has long been disgruntled with the lack of Sabbath transit, but only recently has there been a real appetite for waging political battles over the issue.

In large part, that’s thanks to the uproar over the attempts within Orthodoxy to segregate women in the public sphere — on buses and walkways, for example — and to keep their images out of media and advertisements. Large-scale social protests held last summer also raised awareness about the challenges that Israel’s lower-income residents face, and the lack of Saturday transportation is one of those challenges.

In addition, burgeoning environmental awareness has also brought the issue of mass transit on the Sabbath to the fore. A year ago, Tel Aviv city government started offering hourly bicycle rentals in an effort to cut down on air pollution and traffic congestion.

“If I lived in Manhattan I would never in a million years have a car,” Asaf Zamir, Tel Aviv’s deputy mayor, told the Forward. “We rely on our cars in Israel because of the one day a week when there’s no public transportation.”

It was a new campaign by Be Free Israel, a not-for-profit organization that promotes pluralism, that prompted the council to bring the issue to a vote. “There’s a very big discourse about the ‘status quo,’ but the status quo changes almost every day,” said the organization’s director, Mickey Gitzin.

Buoyed by the response in Tel Aviv, the group is now rolling out its campaign nationally.

Some 50 Tel Aviv rabbis have started a counter-campaign, distributing fliers about the “beauty” of Sabbath observance. “We’re bringing the positive of Shabbat, of observance and of unity of the family to people,” campaign initiator Yosef Gerlitzky, director of Chabad-Lubavitch in Tel Aviv, said.

This argument infuriates some non-Jewish residents. The Tel Aviv city council also represents the Jaffa neighborhood, which is home to a large Arab population. “I’m not expecting buses in Bnei Brak, but in Tel Aviv, [rabbis] should understand there are not only Jews but also Arabs who have no problem riding buses on Shabbat,” Ahmed Mashharawi, a Tel Aviv city councilman who is Arab Israeli, told the Forward. Bnei Brak is a predominantly Haredi city abutting Tel Aviv.

Seven years ago, legislation guaranteed that buildings and services would be made accessible to people with disabilities; some see Sabbath transportation as an equal access issue.

Ori, a Tel Aviv resident with Asperger’s syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder — conditions that prevent him from obtaining a driver’s license — leads an independent life, holding down a job as a cook. But come the weekend, Ori, who asked to be identified by only his first name, is reliant on family. “If my family doesn’t take me to where I need, I stay home because I don’t have another option,” he said.

Contact Nathan Jeffay at jeffay@forward.com

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.