The Israeli municipality of Ramat Gan recently passed a resolution permitting public bus service on the Sabbath.
It’s a long overdue and welcome development, to say the least.
Common sense prevailed when Carmel Shama-Hacohen, the mayor of Ramat Gan — a suburb of Tel Aviv — succeeded in convincing city council to approve a resolution allowing two bus lines to operate on Saturdays from Ramat Gan to the beach and other leisure destinations. The new routes, which started on July 19, will not go through neighborhoods inhabited by religiously observant people.
Avigdor Liberman, the former minister of defence, the leader of the Israeli Beytenu Party and a staunch secularist, applauded the decision and urged other municipalities to follow suit.
Expressing a diametrically opposed opinion, Yaakov Litzman, the deputy minister of health and the head of the haredi United Torah Judaism Party, denounced the new service as “shameful and disgraceful.”
Complaining that it ignores the feelings of tens of thousands of religious Jews, Litzman said it desecrates the Sabbath and contravenes the so-called status quo, a web of conventions that regulate the relationship between secular and religious Jews in Israel.
The status quo, a patchwork of arrangements that function on the national and local levels, was conceived by Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael Party before the establishment of the state of Israel.
Ben-Gurion, a secular Jew himself, submitted to haredi pressure to ensure that the generally anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox leadership would support the formation of a Jewish state.
Under the broad terms of the status quo, the sabbath would be a statutory day of rest, marriage and divorce would be conducted according to religious law, public transportation would be banned in Jewish-majority areas, yeshiva students would be excused from conscription, and official kitchens would be strictly kosher.
Some of these provisions, such as the requirement that kosher food be served at official functions, did not offend the sensibilities of most secular Israelis. But other regulations, like the need for religious marriage ceremonies conducted by rabbis, were regarded as coercive and became a perennial source of contention and resentment.
The ban on public transportation on Shabbat its particularly oppressive because it is so blatantly discriminatory.
It clearly favors well-off Israelis who can afford cars and are free to drive to beaches or wherever else on the Sabbath. Conversely, it discriminates against economically-disadvantaged Israelis who are reliant on public buses and must dip into their merger incomes to hire expensive private buses, taxis or even rental vehicles.
This regulation is simply unfair and unjust and should be abolished as soon as possible so that all Israelis, regardless of income, can enjoy their leisure hours without a hefty financial penalty.
Given Israel’s proportional representation political system, which benefits small religious parties whose values and priorities are at odds with the majority of Israelis, a change of this magnitude will be exceedingly difficult to achieve on a national scale in the foreseeable future.
In the meantime, however, local municipalities should take matters into their own hands and do what is beneficial for their residents. Ramat Gan has taken the plunge, and so should other municipalities, as Liberman suggests.
The status quo is outmoded and serves the needs and interests of a vocal minority that already exerts too much political power and influence. If Israeli parliamentarians in the Knesset lack the intestinal fortitude to forcefully challenge the status quo, then it is plainly the duty of local politicians to act accordingly.