A growing number of minivans have been plying the streets of the greater Tel Aviv metro area on the past few Saturdays, providing public transportation on the Jewish Sabbath. The initiative was launched last month by the municipalities of Tel Aviv and the neighboring towns of Givatayim, Ramat Hasharon and Kiryat Ono. The initiative was titled “Naim Besofash” (“Moving pleasantly on the weekends’"). This ride service operates for 25 hours, from the start of the Sabbath on Friday at sunset to the time it ends the following day. It runs along six routes, with 526 stops. The municipalities are bypassing the law requiring a special license to operate paid public transportation on the Sabbath by offering the service for free, funding it with their own budgets.
Already on its inaugural Sabbath, on Nov. 22, the service generated surprising demand, requiring the municipalities to beef up the service with additional 20-seat minivans on the following weekends. “We have over 12,000 rides on the weekends,” said Meital Lehavi, who holds the transportation portfolio on the Tel Aviv City Council. She told Al-Monitor, “We have had to boost service to meet growing demand, which illustrates the tremendous vacuum that exists in terms of public transportation on the weekend.” In fact, only Israelis who own a car or can afford taxi service can take advantage of their weekly day off.
The wholesale institutional violation of the Sabbath had been expected to generate widespread protests by the ultra-Orthodox, who regard it as desecration of the Sabbath and a severe erosion of the essence of the Jewish state. However, so far, as everyone concedes, the ultra-Orthodox have been largely silent. The lone representative of Yahadut HaTorah party on the Tel Aviv City Council did not even quit the coalition. Nonetheless, following several calm weekends, several low-key protests were held, including an attempt earlier this month to block Jabotinsky Street, a major thoroughfare leading to and from Tel Aviv that passes along the outskirts of the predominantly ultra-Orthodox town of Bnei Brak.
The signs posted on the streets of Bnei Brak urging residents to protest were unsigned, and the several dozen demonstrators who heeded the call did not appear to have any rabbinical backing. The mainstream rabbinical establishment has yet to instruct followers to take to the streets. According to Itay Gadassi, an ultra-Orthodox journalist, the rabbis' silence is strange. “The ultra-Orthodox have organized demonstrations over far less than this in past years,” he told Al-Monitor. In September 2018, for example, they organized mass demonstrations against the tunnel digging for the Tel Aviv light rail that took place on the Sabbath, Gadassi noted. “Whereas now, over public transportation above ground on the Sabbath, a roaring silence is heard.”
Gadassi attributes it to the current political instability and reluctance on the part of the rabbis to call attention to the volatile relations between secular and ultra-Orthodox Israelis on the eve of elections. “The minute they demonstrate over this, the winners will be the parties with the anti-clerical agenda. Protests could also make it harder for the ultra-Orthodox parties to negotiate on their terms on participation in a future coalition government of an uncertain nature. The uncertainty makes the ultra-Orthodox sit back and do nothing.”
In an interview with Al-Monitor, Rabbi Yitzhak Goldknopf, leader of the Committee to Observe Shabbos, reveals the differences within the ultra-Orthodox leadership over the protests. “There are discussions about it. I personally think demonstrations should be held to protest this trend, but there are rabbinical elements who argue that raising this issue and generating public discourse over ultra-Orthodox protests is not advisable at this point,” Goldknopf said. “It’s not that we think the protests will help. On the contrary, they may help the mayors with their public relations. But we as ultra-Orthodox Jews have to protest the severe desecration of the Sabbath and the continuous undermining of the status quo.”
Despite the absence of public protests, the ultra-Orthodox are definitely trying to thwart the initiative in other ways. For example, on Nov. 26, Knesset member Moshe Arbel of the Shas party appealed to Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich, himself a religious Jew, to regulate a ban on the ride service. On Dec. 9, it was reported that former Knesset member Yaakov Asher of Yahadut HaTorah party urged Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, head of the Shas party, and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon to withhold approval of municipal tax hikes for the towns participating in the Sabbath ride initiative. Those same mayors, chief among them Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, he wrote to Deri, “are taking populist measures for the sake of public relations, such as public transportation on the Sabbath, and without any moral justification directing public funds to projects that most residents do not need.”
Even before the ride service hit the road, the ultra-Orthodox parties reportedly decided that they would demand legislation outlawing the initiative as part of their conditions for joining a future coalition government. At a meeting of the heads of the right-wing and religious parties with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Deri and Yahadut HaTorah chair Yaakov Litzman reportedly raised the issue and decided to demand the banning of the initiative as part of future coalition negotiations.
Goldknopf, too, believes legislation is the most effective way to deal with such initiatives. “In principle, you can easily do away with this phenomenon through legislation,” he said. “However, these days, there is no king in Israel because there is no Knesset and no government. I think such a move has broad public support. The Sabbath is important for most citizens of Israel, and protecting it against provocative attacks is in our interest to preserve what’s left of the state’s Jewish character.”
Lehavi, on the other hand, does not regard the initiative as either a war or provocation. “There is no war,” she insists. “There is help for disadvantaged, voiceless populations that have no way of moving about on the Sabbath. The ultra-Orthodox understand this, too, and that is why they did not quit the coalition government in Tel Aviv. We did not do this to poke them in the eye. When they asked us to move one of the routes from Greenboim Street where there is a synagogue, we agreed. This is not an anti-Sabbath project. This a project for the sake of the disadvantaged and voiceless.”
Yossi Saidov, spokesman of a group calling itself “15 Minutes” that advocates for better public transportation, also wonders why the ultra-Orthodox are silent, and claims it is a case of the horses having bolted already. “This is a tremendous achievement in terms of public consciousness raising,” he told Al-Monitor. “This is a point of no return.” Nonetheless, Saidov is concerned with the social gap created by the initiative, pointing out that it is being funded by local governments and that only the wealthier ones will be able to sustain such free service over time. Poor municipalities would be unable to finance such a service. “Therefore, our happiness is not complete. We aspire to equal public transportation for all throughout the country and we are sure this move is another step toward achieving this goal. Perhaps, who knows, the ultra-Orthodox are keeping quiet because they understand they are facing a lost cause.”
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