Public Transportation on Sabbath Not an Essential Need, Israel Tells High Court

The left-wing Meretz party and a raft of NGOs want much more public transportation on Shabbat, but the government cites its requirement to consider Jewish tradition

Prime Minister Netanyahu and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz on a train to Be'er Sheva, 2012.
Moti Milrod

Public transportation on Shabbat is not an essential need for Israelis, the state told the High Court of Justice on Tuesday, responding to a petition seeking much more public transportation on the Sabbath.

Current law sharply curtails public transportation on the Sabbath and holidays, and the government must interpret a provision “to the extent possible” based on Jewish tradition. The state said a Sabbath license for public transportation was therefore “exceptional and should be interpreted in a restricted manner.”

The law, however, does allow licenses for Sabbath transportation serving hospitals, remote areas, towns and villages whose residents are not Jewish, and anything considered essential to public safety.

It also allows some buses, for example, to leave or arrive before Shabbat has begun or ended.

The state also noted that increasing numbers of Sabbath permits have been issued to transportation companies in recent years, from 164 in 2012 to 373 in last year and 383 now.

It also said transportation companies that make stops at hospitals should not receive blanket approval to run on Shabbat, adding, however, that many hospitals are already served by public transportation on Shabbat, including in the Tel Aviv area, Haifa, Be’er Sheva, Nahariya and Afula. It also said there is public transportation in outlying areas including Arad, Mitzpeh Ramon, Dimona, Sderot and areas in the north.

The High Court petition was filed by MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) and three civil society groups: the Israel Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Be Free Israel and Hiddush.

Maintaining Jewish tradition, they argued, “cannot be the only consideration of the Transportation Ministry.” Instead, public transportation should be provided based on the “principles of equality, respect, freedom of movement and freedom from religion, and taking social, environmental and safety considerations into account.”