Sabbath buses barrel through Israel’s religious-secular rift

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In this photo made on Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019, first ever public bus operated on Shabbat, drives through central Tel Aviv, Israel. Tel Aviv has taken a major step to cement its status as Israel's secular mecca, launching a public transit system operating on Saturdays and redrawing the lines in the Jewish state's culture wars between religious and secular citizens. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

TEL AVIV – Tel Aviv has taken a major step to cement its status as Israel’s secular mecca, launching public transportation services on the Jewish sabbath and redrawing the lines in the country’s culture wars between religious and secular citizens.

The defiant move circumvents the law and upends a decades-long status quo keeping public transit largely off the streets from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday throughout most of the country. It comes amid political paralysis that has cleared the way for what could prove to be the next battleground over the country’s ethos.

“This is a revolution,” said Nitzan Horowitz, the head of the dovish, secular Democratic Union party. “We cannot maintain a modern state with the necessary demands of the public while maintaining the religion with all its rules and laws.”

For years, secular activists have pointed to the lack of public transit on the Sabbath as a prime manifestation of religious coercion in a state still grappling over its identity more than 70 years after its establishment.

Religious and traditional Jews in Israel view the Sabbath as sacrosanct and a time for rest. Observant Jews do not drive or use electricity on the Sabbath, among other restrictions. Most businesses shut down each week, and commerce comes to a standstill.

But in Tel Aviv, the country’s economic and cultural hub, the Sabbath takes on a different hue. Its sandy beaches are packed, cafes are buzzing and some shops stay open.

Since the days before Israel’s foundation, most of the country hasn’t been served by public transportation on Saturdays, aside from Arab communities as well as mixed Jewish-Arab cities such as Haifa.

In the 1990s, certain public transportation was given official approval to run on Saturdays, including in Arab areas and lines traveling to hospitals, leaving most Israelis relying on cars to get around on the weekend. Nearly half of Israel’s Jews consider themselves secular.