Tel Aviv Suburb Approves Pilot Program for Public Transportation on Shabbat

Controversial vote exacerbates tension between religious and secular residents following Ramat Gan's first LGBTQ Pride parade

Ramat Gan Mayor Carmel Shama-Hacohen at a TheMarker conference, June 24, 2019.
Ofer Vaknin

The Ramat Gan city council voted Tuesday to start a limited public transportation service on Shabbat, in a landmark move with potential ramifications for the Tel Aviv metropolitan and Israel in general.

The proposal calls for two shuttles to run on Saturdays, when most public transportation across Israel doesn't operate; one will run from the eastern part of the city to Tel Aviv's major attractions, and the other will depart from the Ramat Gan National Park and towards the beach.

The pilot project, approved by a vote of 15-6 with two abstentions, is only slated to run during the summer, for about three months. Mayor Carmel Shama-Hacohen said it will be canceled if demand proves insufficient. The project is expected to cost around 200,000 shekels ($56,000).

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The decision is the latest source of tension between the city’s religious and secular residents, which intensified last month due to Ramat Gan’s first LGBTQ Pride parade. Though Ramat Gan already has shuttle services available on Shabbat, those are operated by a private organization, Noa Tanua. The controversy stems from the fact that the new shuttles will be run by the municipality.

Tempers ran high during the meeting. About 20 minutes in, the chairman cut off the microphones of two opposition members, who proceeded to continue shouting through megaphones they had brought with them.

Several rabbis attended and urged the council to drop the idea. “There’s a limit to democracy and a limit to freedom; there’s a creator of the universe,” said one, Rabbi Nissan Yosef. “What right do we even have to vote [about this]?”

Councilwoman Avivit Mor Nimrodi, who abstained, assailed Shama-Hacohen. “You call the ultra-Orthodox a strategic threat, and such statements open wounds,” she said, referring to a remark he made about the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak at a conference organized by TheMarker last month.  

“And for what? Over public transportation on Shabbat that has existed here for years,” she continued, referring to the Noa Tanua shuttles. “That happened without wars, without humiliating anyone, without causing strife between the city’s residents … You could have done things differently, without poking anyone in the eye."

Opposition leader Avihu Ben-Moshe, one of the councilmen who came with a megaphone, also assailed the mayor, charging that he has sowed strife between religious and secular residents in past months. “Until now, city residents have lived in peace, without strife, each according to his own beliefs … Why are you dealing with an issue that the government and Knesset don’t want to touch? Aside from being able to make the rounds of television studios, it makes no sense.” The opposition also alleged that there had been a legal issue with the vote, a claim that the municipality will examine.

Council members defended the proposal in turn, with some saying that the new service does not represent a radical departure from the status quo, and others accusing those opposed of stirring discord for political points. Councilman Shlomi Sasson supported the proposal, calling it "a simple, cheap proposal, a simple need. And this is the first time we, the secular public, have dared to loosen our strangling bonds and say we’re here and we demand our rights, just as you [religious residents] get ritual baths, school buses and funding,” he said.

The leaders of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman and Knesset Finance Committee Chairman Moshe Gafni, issued a joint statement after the vote, blasting the city’s decision. “A red line has been crossed by the mayor, who is motivated by egotism and a hunt for headlines, and has therefore stained the city of Ramat Gan by destroying religious values and the sanctity of the Sabbath,” it said. “A vulgar move like this will exact a heavy political price from Carmel Shama-Hacohen.”