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 firstname.lastname@example.org