City council meetings are rarely dramatic, especially in Ramat Gan, which can be a sleepy town. This week, however, the Ramat Gan City Council approved by 15-6 a measure sponsored by Mayor Carmel Shama Hacohen for operating two bus routes in the city on Friday nights and Saturdays. The mayor has the authority to decide the issue by himself, but he preferred to have the city council approve it, and posted the decision on Facebook.
Shama Hacohen is not the only one. Tiberias Mayor Ron Cobi based his election campaign for mayor last October on the operation of buses on the Sabbath. He is now having trouble forming a coalition and passing the municipal budget, but one of the first things he did was to put routes run by the Noa Tanua - Transportation on Shabbat association into operation. Other mayors to move in this direction include Ran Kunik in Givatayim and Avi Gruber in Ramat Hasharon. Their decisions in recent weeks received less media coverage, but can be added to the list of cities where buses are available on the Sabbath. Herzliya also operates buses once an hour from residential neighborhoods to the beach. These mayors are unlikely to be the last to take this measure.
Ramat Gan's plan contains two bus routes: one from east to west and one from south to north. The buses will travel on main arteries and collect passengers waiting at bus stops. They will not enter religious neighborhoods, but like any other vehicle traveling on Jabotinsky Road, they will pass through the Bnei Brak area. Shared taxis have been traveling on the road on the Sabbath for decades with no outcry from haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews), but secular people are fed up with these tacit agreements.
A study in 2016 conducted by the Institute for Zionist Strategies found that while almost all cinemas and national parks in Israel operate on the Sabbath, as do many museums and cultural institutions, and even 20% of shopping malls, only 161 bus lines, 0.75% of the total, operate on the Sabbath. Half of these are in the Arab sector, and most are infrequent. The coalition agreements with the Shas, United Torah Judaism, and Jewish Home parties prevented any change in this situation. Those affected are teenagers, adults without a driving license, people lacking the means to buy a car, people whose licenses have been suspended, sick people, and tourists. Such a situation exists nowhere else in the world.
A secular civil awakening has been taking place in recent years, mainly through organizations such as Shabus and Noa Tanua. These organizations, which rely on crowdfunding, operate regional bus routes for the benefit of residents in secular neighborhoods. The Noa Tanua route in Tiberias, for example, is in addition to the routes it already operates in Tel Aviv, Modi'in, Givatayim, and Beer Sheva. Now mayors are also joining in, thereby taking advantage of the current election campaign.
Condemnation from Deri and Smotrich, but no threats
The politicians waving the secular flag in the current election campaign hurried to embrace Shama Hacohen. "Hats off to the Ramat Gan mayor for his well-considered, responsible, and proportionate decision," Israel Beitenu Party leader Avigdor Liberman said, and praised the decision to put the routes on main streets, without passing through neighborhoods and near synagogues. "This is the format that should also be applied in other cities," he added. Blue and White co-leader Yair Lapid posted on Twitter, "I support the Ramat Gan municipality. Israel should be free and respect every person as he is."
With all due respect to Liberman and Lapid, however, they are not the ones who determine what actually happens. The main problem for a mayor who wants to institute such a measure is concern about a conflict with two ministers from the religious parties: Minister of the Interior Aryeh Deri (Shas) and Minister of Transport Bezalel Smotrich (United Right). As of now, it appears that while the two ministers are condemning Shama Hacohen, they are in no hurry to take action against him, possibly because of the difficulty in doing so during the period of a transitional government, and possibly out of concern about arousing anti-religious protest that will push secular people into voting.
Smotrich did not publish a clear stance on the issue, and did not even make a tweet about it on his very active Twitter account. When "Globes" asked for his response, he answered, "Judaism and the Sabbath are the basis for our existence here. Such brutal trampling of the status quo is unacceptable. A mark of Cain is on the mayor who makes such a demagogic and bad decision against his residents, against the Sabbath, against the delicate web in which we have been living for 70 years, and against Judaism. This is an especially sad day."
Deri wrote a letter to the leaders of United Torah Judaism asking for "an urgent joint discussion following the breach of the status quo on the Sabbath in various cities. It is important that this be done jointly and a single voice in order to properly present what haredi Judaism has to say in the situation that has been created." So far, Deri has not threatened to strike down the decisions, and has not proposed legislation restricting the local authorities. He responded as the chairman of Shas, not as the minister of the interior.
The only party so far to makes threats is United Torah Judaism. Deputy Minister of Health MK Yaakov Litzman and Knesset Finance Committee chairman MK Moshe Gafni said in a joint announcement, "To our shame and disgust, the mayor of Ramat Gan has taken a disgraceful and ignominious step that damages the status quo of many years standing, while ignoring the feelings of tens of thousands of the city's residents who observe the Jewish commandments and tradition. The mayor has crossed a red line for self-seeking motives and to make headlines. Such a harsh measure will exact a heavy political price from Shama Cohen." They took issue with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, who said that mayors should be allowed to make decisions on the issue.
Shama Cohen wrote on his Facebook page, "Wake up, Litzman and Gafni. For every act of revenge by you against the city and its residents because of bus lines for leisure on the Sabbath, we will increase the frequency and add more lines. For any attempt at extortion and threats, we will throw out your educational institutions lovingly located in our city." The Ramat Gan mayor, however, knows something else: as of now, the Sabbath bus lines will operate for the 10 weeks of the summer. Afterwards, if a haredi, rightwing, and nationalistic government is formed, operation of the routes will encounter far great difficulties.
Despite everything, the initiatives are limited
Roy Schwartz Tichon founded Noa Tanua in 2015 with his IDF discharge grant. With 9,000 members, who have taken tens of thousands of bus trips, it is now the largest private transport organization in Israel, with dozens of volunteers. The organization conducted crowdfunding campaigns on the Headstart website, and will soon embark on another campaign. "We're acting on behalf of the 80% of the public that wants transport on the Sabbath," Schwartz Tichon told "Globes."
He said that over the past year, his organization had cooperated on a larger scale with local authorities, not just through Noa Tanua's independent system in various locations in Israel. A growing number of mayors are now in negotiations, still without any publicity, for providing paid transportation services on the Sabbath. Even if most of the mayors are still fearful of such a business connection, the trend on the ground is certainly evident.
In Ramat Hasharon, for example, Noa Tanua and the municipality have begun to operate two routes on weekends enabling residents of the city to travel to Tel Aviv on Friday evening and to the beach on Saturday. Gruber told "Globes" that in order to enable the routes to operate frequently, Ramat Hasharon asked the Tel Aviv municipality for financing help.
A Noa Tanua venture has been operating in Givatayim for four years, transporting people to Tel Aviv on the Sabbath on the 63 bus route, which also passes through Givatayim. The municipality is also getting into the picture now. Three new shared taxi routes will begin running in December. Kunik took care to cool the enthusiasm, writing to Givatayim resident, "The head of the local authority does not have the prerogative to operate real public transportation. A shuttle to the beach is definitely not public transportation."
In general, it appears that Kunik does not take to the style of his Ramat Gan neighbor. "Public transport on the Sabbath is a necessity, not just to the beach and Tel Aviv, but everywhere in Israel, including to hospitals and for visiting relatives. I'll do whatever I can in the matter, not through gimmicks, but by working with the local government," he told "Globes." "People in Givatayim are more secular. They all want public transportation on the Sabbath, but it's not as if there's a massive demand from the public, because we're close to Tel Aviv, and many Givatayim residents have cars."
In other cities in central Israel, there are limited local initiatives by Noa Tanua and Shabus for public transportation on the Sabbath, together with shared taxi routes. The situation in Bat Yam, on the other hand, is more difficult. City Council opposition member Kathy Piastzky (Meretz) proposed over a year ago a committee to discuss the possible operation of shared taxis for the city's residents. The decision was postponed with the support of City Council members from Israel Beitenu on the grounds that the Ministry of Transport had promised to hold a tender in the city for the operation of shared taxis on the Sabbath. The tender will not require the operators to work on the Sabbath, so a vacuum waiting to be filled has been created.
In any case, the large political issue remains. As of now, the state does not want to allow regular public transport on the Sabbath, but because we are in an election campaign, may politicians prefer to turn a blind eye to what is happening. As Kunik says, however, most of the initiatives focus on travel to the beach and recreational areas on the Sabbath. Someone who just wants to ride a bus to his parents' house on the Sabbath will have to wait. If a government composed of the Likud, the religious Zionist, and haredi parties is formed following the elections to the 22nd Knesset, even the current initiatives will be in jeopardy, and the wait for public transpor on the Sabbath will be a long one.
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on July 11, 2019
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