Opinion

Election Day Proved Israelis Want Public Transportation on Shabbat

People react to Benny Gantz's appearance at a Tel Aviv beach on Election Day, September 17, 2019.
Tomer Appelbaum

Tuesday was an official holiday in Israel, yet shopping malls and places of entertainment venues were open and, most important, trains and buses, which every week stop operating well before sundown on Friday and don’t get rolling again until after sunset Saturday, were operating. Anyone who was out and about on Election Day in Israel saw a normal, sane, functioning country.

Everywhere I went, there were lots of people. In the afternoon, I went to Herzliya. The coffee shops and restaurants on Ben-Gurion Boulevard were all packed. Later I walked down Allenby and Nahalat Binyamin Streets in Tel Aviv, and they were busy too, with long lines in many clothing stores. The sight of the bus stops outside Dizengoff Center was a real thrill: The sidewalks were thronged, evidence of the great demand for public transportation on vacation days. Friends and acquaintances, some of them car owners, traveled by train with their kids from Tel Aviv to Haifa or Acre or Jerusalem, or from these cities and others to Tel Aviv, for the day.

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For years it’s been claimed that there’s little demand for public transportation on Shabbat.

“The public needs to decide whether or not it wants public transportation on Shabbat. We haven’t really seen such a demand amongst the citizens,” Yehuda Elbaz, the senior director of public transportation in the Transportation Ministry, said in a 2008 interview with Ynet News. He said his ministry had not identified an unmet desire for public transportation in the Tel Aviv area. In Haifa, he said, which has a significant Arab population, “the requests on Shabbat are clearer and so there is a public transportation service on the weekends as well.”

As then-Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz told the Knesset in 2012: “The low demand for public transportation on Shabbat does not justify the high economic burden of paying double the regular wages to drivers who work on the weekly day of rest, or the violation of the status quo.”

In recent years, private and public initiatives such as the Shabbus in Jerusalem and Noa Tanu’a, which operates in several cities, have attracted passengers on Shabbat, as has Ramat Gan’s operation of a bus between it and Tel Aviv.

On Tuesday, cultural institutions and recreation areas drew more patrons than they usually do on Shabbat. Both the Israel Museum and the Tel Aviv Museum of Art reported higher numbers of visitors, as did sites operated by the Nature and Parks Authority. Nearly 300,000 people traveled on Israel Railways, compared to 250,000-270,000 on a regular weekday. Yes, some of these were Shabbat-observant passengers who wouldn’t take the train on Saturday anyway. But the figures clearly show that Israelis want public transportation on their day off. And their day off is Saturday.

Israel has had many secular governments over the years. None of them ever changed the status quo regarding public transportation on Shabbat, mainly because it was not seen as enough of a burning issue for the public. Now public transportation has become a burning issue. The traffic jams everywhere, at all hours of the day, show that a comprehensive solution is needed. Let’s hope that the next government will be a secular government that will correct this injustice that prevents anyone who cannot afford or does not wish to own a car from going anywhere on Shabbat with their family. The path to a solution includes public transportation on Shabbat, which will free many families from the need to own a second car (or a first one, in some cases) and make Saturday in Israel a normal, sane, liberal and secular day off. Election Day proved that this is possible and that demand for it is high.