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Sabbath buses barrel through Israel’s religious-secular rift

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.

While some transport solutions have emerged over the years — a minivan taxi service in Tel Aviv as well as sporadic lines from suburbs into the city’s beaches — the new effort establishes a veritable network of public transit, allowing hundreds of thousands of people to crisscross the metropolis and beyond.

The earlier services, coupled with years of growing public and political support for Sabbath transit, showed there was a need and that it was legally possible to run the lines, said Uri Keidar, head of Israel Hofsheet, an organization that champions pluralism.

The city has managed to flout a 1992 law by making the minibus ride free. If it were to charge a fare, it would have required the Transportation Ministry’s approval, something that would have been nearly impossible.

“We as a city needed to play a trick,” said Meital Lehavi, a Tel Aviv deputy mayor in charge of transport. “The need is real. The people are voting with their feet and they are riding these lines.”

The network consists of six lines and 500 stops spanning from Tel Aviv to three nearby cities. The municipality plans to eventually upgrade the minibuses to full-sized buses and hopes to receive retroactive government approval, allowing it to charge a fare and sustain the service.

During its initial run last weekend, minibuses careened around the sun-soaked city, in many instances packed with passengers, many of whom rode them simply to celebrate what they called a “holiday of freedom.”

Parents brought children to mark the occasion. Tourists, many oblivious to the political baggage associated with the transportation, were ferried to beaches and secular politicians took celebratory rides.

“Just as I respect other people’s freedoms, I cherish my own freedoms and I want to be allowed to travel,” said Avigail Pekelman, a Tel Aviv resident.

The city said the maiden service was so successful, serving some 10,000 people, that it plans to expand capacity this weekend.

The bus lines appear to also be materializing as a result of political disarray following two inconclusive elections this year, and the strong likelihood of another vote early next year.

“For many months now, there is no central government that can do something,” said Shuki Friedman, an expert on religion and state with the Israel Democracy Institute, a think-tank. “The (municipality) may be violating the Sabbath but they are doing it like thieves in the night.”

The caretaker government, a holdover from the one in power before elections were called in December last year, is dominated by opponents of Sabbath transportation, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party, two ultra-Orthodox parties and a religious-nationalist faction.

But caretaker governments follow an unwritten rule of not passing major legislation. Lacking a majority in parliament, it would struggle to pass any law against the move in any case.

While the ultra-Orthodox community makes up about 10 percent of the population, their political parties have traditionally wielded outsized influence in Israel’s parliament, often emerging as kingmakers in coalition building and allowing them to extract concessions for their constituents.

That political clout, along with the tendency by many ultra-Orthodox Jews to forgo work and compulsory military service and spend their days in religious study while living on government handouts, has bred tensions with secular Israelis who see themselves as funding an unsustainable lifestyle out of touch with the modern world.

The two sides have clashed in the past over military service for ultra-Orthodox men and the opening of convenience stores on the Sabbath.

Opponents say the buses are part of a broader trend of creeping secularism.

“The minute you take steps such as these, it is a head-on collision with the country’s Jewish character,” said Amital Bareli, head of Hotam, a group that seeks to bolster Israel’s Jewish side.

Proponents say the move is irreversible and expect other predominantly secular cities to follow Tel Aviv’s lead.

“This is something that cannot be turned back,” said Roy Schwartz Tichon of the group Noa Tanua, which has worked to promote Sabbath bus lines. “The train has left the station.”