Will There Be Public Transportation for Secular Jews on Shabbat?

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Is the insistence on preventing public transportation on Shabbat for those who would use it a lost cause - and should it even be a cause at all?

Findings from the Israel Democracy Institute’s recently published Annual Report on Religion and State in Israel, show once again that while the religious and ultra-Orthodox public will not use public (or private) transportation on Shabbat, it would be welcomed by most secular Jews, to make it possible for them to go to the beach, visit friends and family, or any other recreational activities. These findings are consistent with previous surveys conducted by other bodies that found that the vast majority of secular Jews are in favor of public transportation on Shabbat. Given this widespread support, what arguments do the opponents present? After all, a democratic state is supposed, as far as possible, to take into account the preferences of its citizens, all the more so when those most affected by a lack of public transportation on Shabbat are the weaker sectors of society who do not own cars and who cannot afford cabs, along with non-Jewish citizens and residents whose freedom to travel around the country on weekends is curtailed.

One argument that opponents could raise is that public transportation on Shabbat violates Jewish law (halakha), and therefore they cannot agree to it. However, the state of Israel is not subject to halakha, and no religious person seriously expects the streets of Tel Aviv to resemble those of Bnei Brak on Shabbat. Although religious citizens may regret that their neighbors do not observe the sabbath, if they have a complaint against the state, it is not about the very fact that it enables or is involved in the desecration of the Shabbat.

A more convincing argument would be that shutting down public transportation on Shabbat derives from its Jewish character, understood in cultural, rather than on religious terms. Proponents of this argument like to quote Bialik and Katznelson who spoke out against public desecration of the Shabbat. (As an aside, in 2019, in a protest against the decision to permit public transportation, a convoy of cars travelled along Bialik and Katznelson streets in Tel Aviv with posters citing these two leaders on the importance of Shabbat). However, that's all water under the bridge. From a democratic point of view that is respectful of citizens’ references, what Jews thought about Shabbat a hundred years ago is irrelevant today. What is relevant is how Jewish citizens feel today, and to this surveys by the Israel Democracy Institute and other organizations provide an unequivocal answer.

Moreover, in the days when hardly anyone in Tel Aviv owned a private car, shutting down stagecoaches on Shabbat might have contributed to the special atmosphere of the day. However, today, when thousands of cars fill the city, cafes are open, and music blares out on every corner, it is difficult to understand why buses (or in the near future – the light rail) would have any special or harmful influence on the “shabbat atmosphere”.

The last argument that opponents could raise against public transportation on Shabbat is that it disturbs the lifestyle of religiously observant Jews. However, no one is suggesting operating buses on Shabbat in religious neighborhoods or towns (which would anyway be unprofitable). As for religious Jews who live in mixed neighborhoods, why would public transportation bother them more than private cars, when it is quite clear that no one considers banning private transportation, even for a moment?

Given the embarrassing weakness of the arguments against public transportation on Shabbat, the fact that some religious people still raise them probably stems from the fact that they consider the fight for the Shabbat to be a symbolic one, a kind of last stand. If they lose this one, the historic struggle for the Shabbat in the Jewish state will be doomed. However, for better or for worse, the battle is already almost lost. In recent decades, the character of Shabbat in the public space has completely changed: sports and recreation centers are open without any limitations, and malls are full of shoppers. Under these circumstances, opposing public transportation is fighting yesterday’s battle. In today’s reality, it is simply pointless.

The only source of optimism is that quite a sizeable number of religious Jews – somewhere between 30-40% - and a greater number of traditional Jews, support public transportation on Shabbat. This support shows that many religious Jews have come to terms with the fact that living together requires compromises on both sides, and that both the religious and the secular have an interest in creating fair rules that respect the entire spectrum of citizens. Perhaps this voice will be heard in the next Knesset and will join with the secular voice to advance changes on the issue of public transportation on Shabbat. If you will it, it is no dream.

The article was published in the Jerusalem Post.