New Shabbat Bus Service in Israel Is an Instant Hit — So Why Now?

You wait 70 years for a Shabbat bus route, and then four arrive all at once. Thank the political logjam in Jerusalem, say secular activists

Passengers onboard the first Shabbat services in Tel Aviv, November 23, 2019.
Osnat Nir

For the first time in Israeli history, public transportation was made available to residents of Tel Aviv this Shabbat. And after the skies didn’t fall, many of those who hopped on and off buses on the Jewish day of rest couldn’t help but wonder: what took so long?

Clearly, no one ever doubted that such a service would be warmly welcomed in Israel’s secular capital. In fact, the demand was grossly underestimated and the city has since announced plans to replace the minibuses operated this past weekend with full-size buses.

An estimated 10,000 passengers rode the minibuses, which operated not only in Tel Aviv but also in nearby Givatayim, Ramat Hasharon and Kiryat Ono. Clearly impressed, three other largely secular cities in central Israel — Herzliya, Hod Hasharon and Shoham — have declared they will be next in line.

But it wasn’t enough to identify a critical mass of customers; conditions on the ground also had to be ripe.

“Right now, there was nothing to stop this,” says Uri Keidar, executive director of Israel Hofsheet (Be Free Israel), an organization that advocates for religious freedom in the country. “If we had a functioning government in this country, there might have been some attempt to push through legislation to do that. But no such government exists.”

Israel has been through two elections this year, both of which ended in political stalemate.

Tel Avivians celebrating the launch of the first Shabbat bus service in the city, November 23, 2019.
Nir Kleiner

But municipal leaders might not have had the guts to exploit the political vacuum created, adds Keidar, were it not for the fact that perceptions among the public about what is and what is not acceptable on Shabbat have altered dramatically in recent years.

“Our organization has been campaigning for public transportation on Shabbat for eight years now,” he says. “But it’s taken this long for Israelis to perceive this as something absolutely normal.”

Keidar notes that 10 years ago, the now defunct Kadima — a centrist party reminiscent of Kahol Lavan, the largest party in Israel today — did not include any mention of public transportation on Shabbat in its campaign platform. “But with Kahol Lavan, it was one of its main campaign promises — which just goes to show how much things have changed,” he says.

Another sign that something had shifted in the public mind-set, says Keidar, was the virtual absence of protest from the other side. “There has been almost no response from the religious parties in the Knesset,” he notes. “Granted, there’s not much they can do about it today. But you would have thought they would have at least made noises. In addition, in the four cities that operated public transportation this Shabbat, there was not one religious council member who resigned over this.”

Rocking the status quo

The laws regarding public transportation in Israel derive from the so-called religious status quo. In other words, whatever the rule was when the State of Israel was founded in 1948 remains in force today. Because transportation did not operate on Shabbat in major towns and cities in the pre-state days — with the key exception of the northern city of Haifa — that meant it would not operate when the state was established either. Until quite recently, this arrangement was hardly ever questioned.

A woman gets off one of the public minibuses that served routes in Tel Aviv on a Shabbat for the first time on November 22, 2019.
Tomer Appelbaum

However, in recent years a number of initiatives have emerged around the country aimed at providing Israelis who don’t own cars with other transportation alternatives on Shabbat.

The first of them was ShaBus, a Jerusalem-based cooperative launched in May 2015 that has since spanned out to Hod Hasharon, Kfar Sava and Ashdod. It served as the model for Noa Tanua (a name inspired by Galileo’s famous phrase “And yet it moves”), which began providing a similar service in Tel Aviv that same year.

Both of these services charge a registration fee as well as a separate fee for each ride. The way they get around the law that prohibits public transportation in these cities on Shabbat is by distancing themselves from the term “public” and referring to themselves instead as private enterprises.

The way the new public transportation lines launched in Tel Aviv this weekend got around the prohibition is by not charging fees at all. (Had they charged fees, they would have required a permit from the Transportation Ministry, and that would clearly have been denied.)

The success of these private bus cooperatives, says Keidar, “proved that there was a need and demand for this sort of service — and that was something the cities needed to know.”

Alex Panov, executive director of ShaBus and resident of the coastal southern city of Ashdod, agrees that these private, grassroots initiatives were instrumental in pushing the cities into action. But he believes it is the national government, not the cities, that should be taking the lead in providing public transportation on Shabbat.

“If we let every city decide for itself, then only residents of wealthy cities that are largely secular will benefit,” he says. “There’s no reason why there shouldn’t be public buses on Shabbat in cities like Ashdod or Jerusalem.”

The seeds for the uprising against the religious status quo were planted during the last round of municipal elections in October 2018, says Tehila Friedman, the former chairwoman of Ne’emanei Torah V’Avodah (a movement that represents the moderate camp in the religious Zionist community). “There were many new municipal parties that ran on a platform of providing residents with greater religious freedom,” notes Friedman, who was on the Kahol Lavan slate in the last two elections but did not get into the Knesset. “These parties won many seats, so it was clear what the people wanted.”

According to a poll published in August by the Jerusalem-based Israel Democracy Institute, 60 percent of Jewish Israelis support public transportation on Shabbat as long as religious neighborhoods are avoided. That includes more than 20 percent of those who identify as the Israeli equivalent of Orthodox and nearly 40 percent of those who identify as “religious-traditional.”

The ability of cities like Tel Aviv to continue supplying public transportation on Shabbat, says Shuki Friedman, head of the Center for Religion, Nation and State at the IDI, will depend on a number of pragmatic factors.

“Since they’re right now financing this out of their own pockets, it will depend on how much money they have,” he says. “The other issue is how soon a government will be formed and what its composition will be. If a religious, right-wing government is formed tomorrow morning, then I imagine one of the first things it will do is introduce legislation to stop this. But the longer it takes until the next government is formed, the harder it will be to roll everything back.”

Laura Wharton, a representative of left-wing Meretz on Jerusalem City Council, was the driving force behind ShaBus. She ascribes the recent revolt pertaining to public transportation to other victories chalked up by secular Israelis in the Shabbat wars.

“It’s ironic in a way, but as more and more movie theaters and malls have been opening around the country on Shabbat, the more frustrated people were getting that they couldn’t travel to them,” she says.

She also believes it’s a backlash against the growing power of the religious establishment in Israel. “The truly secular Israelis are a minority as well, but a bigger minority than the ultra-Orthodox,” says Wharton. “They account for somewhere between 40 and 45 percent of the population, and I think we are beginning to see them strike back.”