For more than two years, the Jerusalem Cooperative Transportation Association has been operating minibuses for its members on the weekends. It now has thousands of members, most of whom do not have cars and many of whom do not have licenses. Many are soldiers, including lone soldiers, who want to spend their weekends with friends or family they cannot otherwise reach. They rely on the cooperative to allow them to travel in places and at times when no public transportation is available, on the Sabbath. Since the transportation they provide is considered private, available only to registered members, their legal advisers are certain they are perfectly legal. Why, then, has Transportation Minister Israel Katz declared he plans to have them closed down?
Katz is bowing to pressure from several Ultra-Orthodox MKs who have declared publicly that they plan to harden their line against any government activity on the Sabbath, including what have previously been accepted as necessary, such as critical repairs on trains. These MKs certainly have no intention of allowing the transportation minister to institute public transportation on the weekend, despite the recent polls that show that 73% of the Jewish public in Israel supports it, along with the 20% of the Israeli public that is not Jewish. Although the cooperative is not public transportation, shutting it down may be a way for Katz to curry favor with his Ultra-Orthodox colleagues or placate them, at least for a while.
But apart from being a means to provide Katz with some fleeting advantages within the coalition, targeting the cooperative and the issue of transportation on the Sabbath — or rather its prohibition — is perhaps the most glaring example of the worrisome ties in the government between neo-liberal economics and religious coercion. After all, people who own cars have no problem getting around on Saturdays. Does the government care about those who do not? MKs whose cars are paid for by taxpayers, or ministers like Katz who have chauffeurs as well, have no inkling of the frustration others feel, trapped in their homes when the Sabbath comes in and left with no way of going out for more than 24 hours, every week.
The divide between people who enjoy their free time on weekends and those who feel imprisoned is not just a matter of religion but a problem of social injustice. What enables such religious coercion to persist and spread is the collusion between economic elites who neglect people who can’t buy their way out and the determination of religious extremists to enforce their way of life on others. These two groups, acting together, spawn the conflicts that are widening the divides in Israeli society. They have cemented a governing coalition that brings these groups together but pushes everyone else apart.
Similar problems are found in many other of what are commonly seen as issues of religion and state. What do non-religious Jews do in Israel if they want to get married? They can go abroad, to Cyprus or farther, and have a nice ceremony. They can pay a non-Orthodox rabbi to marry them. But if they can’t afford those, they will have no choice but to turn to the local rabbi, even if they have absolutely no religious beliefs and think what is required of them to do and declare is utterly superfluous and foreign to their way of life. On a daily basis they are forced, often unknowingly, to pay extra on virtually all food products – and on water and other household supplies as well – to support levels of kashrut that are meaningless to them. Since government spending on education in the peripheries has been dwindling, more parents send their children to subsidized religious schools that are all that parents can afford, even if their blatant proselytizing is outright offensive.
All of these situations exist because of an unholy alliance between intolerant religious representatives and economically privileged groups who are either insensitive to or simply ignorant of those who are not. Religious leaders who believe that coercion is a way to spread or encourage religious adherence are mistaken: what is forced is unlikely to be well-received. The same dish offered in an appetizing manner or forced down one’s throat will provoke opposite reactions, just as will attempts to force and enforce religious adherence. The cynical acquiescence of political leaders such as Katz, who himself is completely secular, should be made to cost him in public support.
How is this alliance to be broken? It won’t be easy. The ultra-orthodox leaders who are willing to join whatever coalition offers them the best deal make a mockery of democracy and political ideology. If they were to heed to public demands, there would be public transportation, civil marriage, and better schools tomorrow. If they had any political principles their party charters would include more than the aspiration to make Israel a halachic state. Moreover, if the government felt responsibility and accountability to all of the citizens, they wouldn’t so flagrantly ignore the existing laws – which include criteria for the provision of public transportation – as well as public opinion. They prefer to see to those that finance them rather than those that vote for them. What is left for anyone who objects to the current situation is to join together, moderates of all kinds, in solidarity. Those who object to the religious coercion in principle must join with those who can’t afford an alternative.
Try managing on a weekend without your car, don’t fly off to get married in Cyprus, and try to imagine how you would feel if the only way you could see that your child was cared for to 16:00 was to send him to a school run by Chabad. Israelis must join together, organize, and change things.
*disclosure: the author is the chair of the board (a volunteer position) of the Jerusalem Cooperative Transportation Association, a licensed non-profit organization