Members of the social pressure group Israel Hofshit campaigning in February for Shabbat buses.
Members of the social pressure group Israel Hofshit campaigning in February for Shabbat buses. Photo by Alon Ron
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The Tel Aviv Municipality has formally asked the Transportation Ministry for permission to operate seven new bus lines in the city on Shabbat, beyond the Shabbat lines already requested.

The new bid was sent by Moshe Tiomkin, head of the city's Transportation Authority, to Yehuda Elbaz, senior director of public transportation at the ministry. The requests follow a decision by the municipality two months ago calling for public transportation on Saturday.

Numerous service lines already connect Tel Aviv on Saturdays to Petah Tikva, Ramat Gan, Haifa, Tiberias, Jerusalem and other cities, Tiomkin noted. "In practice, taxi service lines are operating for years to, from and in Tel Aviv" on Saturday, he wrote. "We propose to expand the service to further lines and to more neighborhoods, and enable more people who don't own cars to be mobile on their day of rest, and reach the beach, hospital or their families. The present situation is that the rich are happy and the poor suffer."

Tiomkin added that "in principle the ministry has recognized the need and approved the operation of public transportation" on Shabbat, noting that Elbaz said as much in February before the Knesset's Economic Affairs Committee.

Policy harmony

Most of the proposed new lines would connect southern neighborhoods with those in the east and north of Tel Aviv. Tiomkin says the new lines will cover most of the city and decrease the use of private cars in favor of public transport "in harmony with the policy of the ministry, which isn't implemented for 60 days a year in Tel Aviv. The cost of the operation of these [new] lines will be covered by the passengers."

Tiomkin told Haaretz he was cautiously optimistic about the chances of the request being approved, but feared religious factors might foil the plan.

Municipality coalition leaders and Mayor Ron Huldai are set to debate the issue in two weeks. Huldai has expressed support for the plan, but is bound by coalition agreements with the religious parties that promise to safeguard the status quo.

Even if the coalition and mayor approve the Shabbat bus plan, the final decision will be made by the Transportation Ministry since it must approve any public transportation on Saturdays. After the city council voted in favor of the motion, initiated by councilwoman Tamar Zandberg of Meretz, ministry officials treated the whole affair as media spin. The ministry's reaction at the time was: "There is a decades old status quo concerning public transportation on Shabbat, and the ministry has no intention of violating it."

In response, Meretz petitioned the High Court of Justice at the start of April to order the Transportation Ministry to allow buses to run on Saturdays. The petition said Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz had already decided to reject the request before actually examining it due to his wish to maintain the status quo, while ignoring relevant matters such as the need to enable mobility to 40 percent of Tel Aviv's population who do not own cars, as well as to the city's 35,000 non-Jewish residents.

Zandberg welcomed Tiomkin's move. "It won't solve all the transportation problems, but if we manage to remove this barrier, it will constitute an enormous improvement and a step towards sustainable transportation," she said. "We're continuing this struggle with ongoing demonstrations and the petition to the High Court of Justice. Whoever believed this was spin and that the issue would disappear is in for a surprise."

Protecting the status quo

Zandberg said the public wants public transportation on Saturdays, but that "the Transportation Ministry is trying to stop it because it decided that the status quo, which for 60 years moved in all sorts of directions, should stay as it is, for political reasons." Religious and Haredi leaders say the plan is a "provocation." Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau issued a harsh response, calling on the mayor to cancel the decision, saying he was "filled with a feeling of deep disappointment and pain upon hearing of the council's decision. ... This is a severe blow to the holiness of the Shabbat, which is a remnant of creation, a reminder of the exodus from Egypt, a day of rest for every worker and a day of spiritual ascension and the unity of the family. ... [The council decision] shamed the history of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, founded 103 years ago as the first Hebrew city," wrote Lau.

The former chief rabbi of Israel quoted historic Tel Aviv figures such as national poet Hayim Nahman Bialik, Zionist thinker Ahad Ha'am and the city's first mayor, Meir Dizengoff, who all opposed violating Shabbat in the public sphere.