Residents overwhelm minibuses designated to run on Shabbat in Israeli cities including Tel Aviv

Israel's election deadlock meant Strictly Orthodox parties in the government were powerless to stop the new services


When the first bus passengers on Shabbat night tried to pay with cash or their rav-kavs — Israel’s equivalent of an Oyster card — they were told by the drivers that the ride was free.

The government, with its coalition of right-wing and religious parties, was powerless to prevent the buses from running, but it could stop the organisers from charging for their service. The local authorities decided to pay the bill themselves.

In the most bizarre development to come out of Israel’s political deadlock, public transport began operating seven days a week in Tel Aviv and four neighbouring cities for the first time in over seven decades.

With the exception of Haifa, no Jewish city in Israel has buses or trains running on Shabbat as part of the “status quo” on state and religion, which prohibits nearly any public service being provided on the day of rest.

While there have been attempts in recent years to change that status quo and allow public transport in towns and neighbourhoods where secular majorities demand it, the move was blocked by the government.

Local authorities were particularly concerned that the Interior Ministry, currently controlled by Strictly Orthodox party Shas, would penalise them in funding.

However, successive elections have meant Israel has had an interim government since December. By law, an interim government has less control over budgetary matters, which are run on “auto-pilot.”

The political logjam, coupled with a widely-held expectation that the power of Strictly Orthodox parties will be much less significant in the next government, has emboldened the mayors of Tel Aviv and neighbouring Givatayim, Kiryat Ono, Ramat Gan and Ramat Ha’Sharon to take the initiative.

“The ability to travel from place to place all days of the week is a basic right,” said Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai.

“We are taking care of the needs of a large population in Israel which is deprived of public transport.”

He expressed the hope that in the near future “the government of Israel will fulfil its duty and expand this service to all citizens.”

If anything, the government was fuming. Transport minister Bezalele Smotrich, a member of the right-wing Jewish Home, said on Monday: “it pains me that there are people in Israel who don’t care for the value of Shabbat.”

Mr Smotrich acknowledged that due to the “twilight” political situation, “I can’t do anything formally about it now. I call upon mayors not to join this. I think that changes in the status quo should be made with wide consensus.”

He accused the mayors behind the project of “making a statement that the state cannot be Jewish.”

It was not clear what Mr Smotrich regards as a wide consensus. Recent surveys have shown 70 per cent of Israelis are in favour of public transport services on Shabbat.

And while it does indeed change the “status quo”, the response from Charedi politicians was less strenuous than expected.

United Torah Judaism is a member of Mr Huldai’s coalition on Tel Aviv City Council and, while its representative voted against the allocation of city funds to the project, the party remained part of the governing bloc.

“Charedi politicians are pragmatic. We don’t fight things we know we can’t stop,” said one Strictly Orthodox MK, who asked not to be named. “It doesn’t mean we’re going to accept this. We’ll try and stop it when we have an opportunity.”

But it might be too late. Minibuses were used on the first Shabbat but, as they filled to capacity, the local authorities have decided to use full-size buses next weekend, and more towns around Tel Aviv are expected to join.

Once local residents become accustomed to not having to use their cars or taxis, it is hard to see their mayors backing down.

It is too early to say whether this is the end of the “status quo.” Previously it was other matters that topped the secular agenda, such as the military draft of yeshiva students.

But the ease with which public transport on Shabbat began in Tel Aviv will give impetus to other attempts to move the needle on state and religion.

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