For about an hour, it’s a different country, the kind it could have been, the kind it should have been. That’s why I love this trip so much. It’s a trip of wishes come true and illusions.
Every weekend, there is a bus service in the greater Tel Aviv area that not many people know about. There are seven lines between six cities, 600 trips every weekend, carrying 18,000 passengers. The timing is like a Swiss watch, the politeness Scandinavian. Beautiful buses, with Arab Israeli drivers, the service is free. Something about this Shabbat bus fills me with such a rare feeling of normalcy and gratitude; almost every passenger who gets on or off thanks the driver, almost unheard of in Israel.
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Ostensibly it’s because of the free service and the weekend atmosphere, but it’s more than that. Everything is seemingly obvious, and nothing is. Public transportation on Shabbat, free metropolitan service, quiet on the bus, courtesy and generosity. The fact that the drivers are Arab and so are a few of the passengers creates the sweet illusion of a sane and healthy country. Of course, more Jews are needed to drive Arabs rather than vice versa, on the long road to achieving the dream of equality, but even this small binational ride is not a trip to nowhere. Few people ever notice that the drivers are Arabs. No one makes a big deal of it. Jewish thugs will never violently attack them as in Jerusalem and other cities, and that’s not something to be taken for granted either. Public transportation on Shabbat, without shouts of “Shabbes!” and without rocks flying is also no minor matter.
The Tel Aviv Municipality, along with several satellite towns, is investing 16 million shekels ($5 million) a year in this hope-inspiring project, which is marking its second anniversary. Every weekend these buses crisscross the city with their makeshift signs hung at the front, and on Friday night or Saturday morning one can enjoy an alternative reality of normalcy. I love it. Though, of course, it’s just a bubble.
The fact that none of this is obvious and that normalcy is so rare and thrilling is the important lesson here. Public transportation on Shabbat – what could be more ordinary? “A Shabbat elevator that travels horizontally,” was the phrase Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai used when promising in a Yedioth Ahronoth interview that the city’s future subway would operate on Shabbat. So much creativity and leaps of imagination are needed to promise something that should be a matter of course and probably won’t ever happen – since most Israelis want a “Jewish state.”
“Why should we be preferable over the Arabs who lived here before us, if we don’t have Shabbat?” MK Moshe Gafni asked this week in protest over the plan to operate the light rail on Shabbat, and so revealed the ugly truth: The false and racist premise that the Jews are preferable over the Arabs, and the folly of a Jewish state having its character determined by its transportation services.
The fact that not so many people use this service might indicate that Israelis don’t really want public transportation on Shabbat. A spokesman for the Tel Aviv Municipality, Eitan Schwartz, says however that the data show it to be a big success. I’m sure he’s right, but the buses I’ve been on have been half-empty – which is one more thing to savor. Not being squished and pushed. It’s another Israel, if only for a brief moment.
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The joys to be found these days are few and far between, but this is exactly the Israel I’d like to see, the one that exists on this bus: secular, egalitarian, binational, courteous and tolerant. Admittedly, it’s quite a historic reach, a pipe dream, to put all this on one bus line, but where else is it possible to weave such a dream of secularism, binationalism and equality here? And where else is it possible to taste these things, even for a single intoxicating moment, except on the bus from the Mariana Tours company in Umm al-Fahm, which quietly cruises the streets of the first Hebrew city on Friday nights?