Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) said in response, “This is a ridiculous, populist decision. We will not agree to this intentional, insulting strike at the status quo and the holiness of Shabbos in Israel. This decision is nothing but a stain on the city council of Tel Aviv.”
“This is an attack against the status quo,” City councilor Binyamin Babay of of Shas said. “Presently, there are no quarrels between the religious and irreligious. Proposals like this get us nowhere. There are a few miserable people, tinokot shenishbu, who have forgotten the ways of our forefathers… They themselves are guilty of non-religious coercion. We do not close streets on Shabbos, but that is incomparable to running national public transport on Shabbos. This must not be allowed to happen… Today it’s buses, tomorrow they will demand to open shops on Shabbos. They want us to become like the United States.”
Rav Yisroel Meir Lau, past Chief Rabbi of Israel and present Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv sharply opposed the proposal.
“I was filled with deep disappointment and pain when I heard the city council decided to propose running public transport on Shabbos,” he said. “This is a serious attack against the sanctity of Shabbos that commemorates the creation of the world and the leaving of Egypt, a day of rest for every worker, and a time of spiritual elevation and family unity… Before the directory discusses this proposal, I turn to the mayor, Mr. Ron Chuldai who was voted for by thousands of Shomrei Shabbos, and ask him: Please, turn back and continue the heritage of your predecessors who prevented the extinguishing of the Shabbos lights.”
He pointed out that since Tel Aviv was established 103 years ago as the first Hebrew city, even secular leaders did much to preserve the Jewishness of the town and maintain a public Shabbos atmosphere.
The new law was proposed by the Yisroel Chofshit (Free Israel) organization and city councilor Tamar Zandberg of the anti-religious Meretz party. Their campaign began during the summer, but was pushed aside by a major consumer campaign against overpricing. Last Shabbos, the Yisroel Chofshit organized a protest photographing hundreds of the organizers volunteers waiting at bus stops holding signs that declared, “Waiting for a Shabbos bus.” On a white placard, each person wrote his personal motive for the change. “I don’t want to transport my baby daughter on a scooter;” “I don’t have money for a cab and I want to get to the beach;” “It’s my right to do what I like.”
Tel Aviv-Yafo mayor Ron Chuldai lent his support to the campaign.
“Israel is the only country in the world where there is no public transportation a quarter of the year due to Shabbos and Yomim Tovim,” he wrote. “We must ask ourselves, what should someone do if he has not the wherewithal to by a private car and wants to visit his family on Shabbos or relax at the beach?”
During the city council debate, Zandberg argued that according to a survey, 62% of the public and 93% of the non-religious public support the idea of running the busses on Shabbos, and that 40% of them do have private cars.
Two Obstacles to the Proposal
Fortunately, two obstacles to the law lie ahead. First, the law needs to be confirmed by the municipal directorship. This is unlikely since a coalition agreement between religious and non-religious parties clearly states that, “The directory of the city council will not support or be directly or indirectly involved in transport service to the sea or any other place on Shabbat or on Jewish festivals.”
Secondly, a request would need to be submitted to the Transport Ministry, which already said in response to the city’s vote: “The lines providing service on Shabbat and days of rest are arranged according to the decision of the Knesset from 1991 according to statute 386 (a) and traffic statues. According to this decision and these statutes, there are lines that are authorized to run before the end of Shabbat and lines authorized to run after Shabbos. The Transport Ministry observes the status-quo according to the decision of the Knesset and the statutes regarding the running of bus lines on Shabbos and days of rest.”
MK Nissim Ze’ev of Shas indeed threatened, “If [the Transport Ministry] does not refuse, this will be reason for a coalition crisis.”
City councilor Binyamin Babayoff of Shas is so confident the proposal will sink that he sent an ironical letter to the mayor, thanking him for torpedoing the efforts of Meretz by sending the proposal to the city directorship where it will certainly be buried.
“I thank you in my name and in the name of the religious, traditional public and the residents of Tel Aviv-Yafo,” he wrote. “I thank you for your thoughtfulness and consideration, and that your honor found it correct, at the council meeting, to remove the Meretz proposal to arrange public transport on Shabbat from the agenda. Their whole intent was to create a provocation and try and achieve their pluralistic goals… May Hashem help you continue to enhance and glorify the Torah in health and happiness.”
However, knowing that the Transport Ministry is likely to reject the plan, the proposal law included ways of getting round that. According to the proposal, the city will point out in its request to the Transport Ministry that the status quo can be wavered in certain cases, such as when transport is needed to a hospital from distant suburbs, or if the majority population of a town is non-Jewish. Tel Aviv, the proposal argues, is in dire need of public transport due to its majority non-religious population, 40% of them without private cars.
Even if the Transport Ministry turns downs the proposal, the proposal suggests increasing public transport by other means such as through the use of private companies or the expansion of limited public transport already in place.
If the proposal is authorized, chas veshalom, it will be a dangerous precedent for other cities with non-religious majorities and its proposers know that much is at stake and are not giving up.
“There is no doubt that we have made a great achievement, almost historical, in a campaign that has only just begun,” said Micky Gitzin, director of Yisroel Chofshit. “We optimistically say that politicians should know we will not be going home until there is a bus to take us. We will not let anyone bury this struggle. This Shabbat also, Yisroel Chofshit volunteers will wait for a bus in the streets of Tel Aviv and we invite the mayor and council members to join us.”
Despite the city’s agreement made with religious factions of the Tel Aviv-Yafo city council and despite the religious status quo, Israel’s Torah true Jews cannot afford to be complacent.