Mass Transport on Shabbat and the Conflict between Religion and State

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The Tel Aviv city council recently announced that it requested Transportation Ministry approval for the operation of public transportation on the Sabbath and holidays. This announcement triggered arguments about religion and state in Israel. In an interview with the IDI website, IDI Vice President Prof. Yedidia Stern set the current controversy in a broader context, and distinguished between the need for an Israeli-Jewish Shabbat (Sabbath) rather than a religious Shabbat in Israel. An English translation of this interview follows.

Q. Some people say that the decision to run public transportation on Shabbat in Tel Aviv is part of a culture war in Israel. Are we again in the midst of an argument over the place of religion in the State of Israel?

A. It's sad that members of the public are taking sides on this issue according to their personal identification as secular or religious. The automatic reflex is for rabbis and religious public figures to come out against the initiative, while members of the secular community, especially its more militant members, argue that public transportation on Shabbat is a necessity.

In my opinion, the question is much more complicated than that, and while it does not necessarily involve the question of religion and state, this issue has been cast as part of the ongoing "argument" between secular and religious Jews in the Israeli marketplace of ideas. I think that the secular have something to lose if they present Shabbat as an exclusively religious matter, and the religious have something to lose if Shabbat becomes a day that only the religious want to observe. The trick is to somehow break the vicious grip of this division.

Q. Several years ago, IDI invested a great deal of time and energy in drafting a proposal for an Israeli Constitution. As part of this effort, IDI dealt with controversial issues related to religion in state.  One of the outgrowths of this initiative was a proposal for a Shabbat Law. How does the current decision to operate public transportation on Shabbat fit in with IDI's proposed Shabbat Law?

A. IDI's recommendation for the Shabbat Law was the result of a long process of discussion that involved a diverse group of people. The proposal approached the question of Shabbat from a broad perspective, and didn't focus specifically on whether or not there should be public transportation on the day of rest, although that issue was discussed among others. The law that we drafted essentially presents a "package deal," which is intended to make Shabbat a special day in Israeli society—a day that expresses the fact that Israel is a nation state, that Israeli society is based on equality and justice, and that Shabbat resonates with Jewish historical memory that makes it a special day of the week. We focused on the question of what the nature of an "Israeli Shabbat" should be in a Jewish and democratic state, rather than the question of what should characterize a "religious Shabbat." In arriving at our definition, we tried to balance the needs of Israel's diverse populations with the way that we thought would be appropriate for the public sphere on Shabbat.

In broad strokes, our complex proposal, which can be read on the IDI website, includes the following: There will be no business and commerce on Shabbat; stores and malls will be closed. Cultural institutions, such as museums, and venues for leisure and entertainment, however, will be open on Shabbat, including some places that are closed today. In order to enable people who don't have cars and who can't afford taxis to be able to enjoy cultural activities on Shabbat, our proposal recommended the operation of a limited amount of public transportation on Shabbat. We did not intend that Shabbat become a day with full-blown public transportation; rather, we sought to create a day in which people can get to their desired destinations while the day is still distinguished from the regular days of the week. As an institution, therefore, IDI would not support the operation of public transportation on Saturdays if that were to be proposed on its own. But we would support the operation of a limited amount of public transportation on Shabbat as part of a larger agreement determining the nature of Shabbat in Israel.

Q. The current controversy seems to pit social concerns vs. religious concerns. The current legislation must strike a balance between the needs of the weaker socio-economic echelons of society—people who cannot afford cars but wish to travel on Shabbat—and the need to maintain a unique Jewish character of Shabbat in the public sphere.  What is the proper balance between the two?

A. Current statistics show that what we call a "Shabbat of rest" has become a "Shabbat of work" for many people in Israel. According to government figures, some 20% of salaried employees work on Saturday, some 27% of commercial areas are open for business on Shabbat, and approximately 2.3 million Israelis shop on Shabbat.  The big question is: Who are the people who must work on the day of rest in order to make all this commerce possible? Who is standing behind the cash register? It is clearly not the wealthy. It is not the strong members of society.  It is the people who do not have any choice but to work. It is the weaker members of society who are standing behind the counters. That's where you'll find single mothers, for example.

We must think about what happens to families in which both parents work on Shabbat. What happens to their children? When do these children have a chance to spend time in the security of their families, when they are not either in school or in after-school activities? When do they have the chance to spend time at home? Their Shabbat has been hijacked. It has been removed from the calendar of rest and recreation of many families in Israel. I think that in striking the balance, it is important to return Shabbat to these families. Parallel to the freedom that people should have to do as they please—freedom that is ultimately dictated by market forces—the State of Israel, which has social-democratic values, Jewish, national values, and humanistic values of human rights, must temper market forces when it comes to the day of rest.

I would like to add, that a proposal to make Sunday a day of rest in Israel is currently being considered by the government. That, of course, would influence the discussion of public transportation on Shabbat. If Sunday is no longer a workday in Israel, as is the case in other Western countries, and it becomes a day of rest and recreation that includes commerce, Saturday will be freed up to have a more spiritual dimension and to serve as a "sanctuary in time."

Q. Tensions between secular and religious Jews in Israel seem to be intensifying on both sides. This can be seen from the discrimination against women in the public sphere, the Supreme Court's ruling on the Tal Law, eligibility criteria for public housing that appear to favor the ultra-Orthodox,  and the current decision to run public transportation on Shabbat in Tel Aviv. Should this escalation concern us as citizens, or is it just a periodic increase that has been created by politically motivated individuals?

A. First of all, even if this is just a periodic escalation, it is concerning. There's also no doubt that as we get closer to the next election, both among the secular and the religious, the elements at the extreme ends of the political spectrum will feel the need to make their presence known by heating up the arena. Throughout the years, it is possible to document a clear connection between upcoming elections and conflict between religion and state. The religious and ultra-Orthodox communities both have an interest in stoking this controversy, as do secular parties that place secularism at the heart of their political platforms.

But beyond all this, and I believe this is the crux of the matter, I think that within the conflict between religion and state today, we are in the midst of a noticeable shift. Whereas in the past, members of the religious community were competing with other populations for resources or sought to pass "religious legislation" that would impose religious observance on others, today the conflict is over the public sphere itself. The different sectors are fighting over the nature of the State of Israel, not over what is going to happen to the religious sector, to themselves as individuals, or to their own particular group. Today the struggle is over everything. Today religion and state has become an issue that informs decisions on what the country's physical borders should be and colors peace agreements and security matters. Today there are religious positions on such things. And because of this, issues of religion and state have become more volatile than they have been in the past. We are witnessing a change in the trend.

I would like to conclude on an optimistic note. Even though the general trend is as described above, it must be admitted that Israelis see Jewish tradition—and within it, the Jewish religion—as part of their inner-identity. The arguments about religion and state emerge in those places where religion touches on politics. If we can succeed in extracting religion from politics, perhaps we will be able to make life easier for us all—religious and secular alike.