For many in Tel Aviv, weekends revolve around Friday nights spent enjoying the city’s thriving nightlife scene and Saturday afternoons lazing on its beaches — but, until late last year, 22-year-old Yoel Darwish’s outings had always come with a big taxi bill.
The beachside metropolis might style itself as “the nonstop city” but once the sun sets on Friday and the Jewish Sabbath begins, the greater Tel Aviv area’s roughly 1.6m residents have for decades had limited options for getting around. “We live in Israel, you have to think about every expense,” said Mr Darwish, who lives in the northern Tel Aviv neighbourhood of Ramat Aviv. “It’s one of the largest cities in the country and you can’t function here without a car. It’s wack.”
With Israel just weeks away from its third election in a year and the administration trapped in political stalemate, local governments have in recent months seized the initiative on popular, if divisive issues, such as running buses on the Jewish Sabbath.
Tel Aviv has partnered with neighbouring cities to launch a weekend bus service for their largely secular constituents, upending a decades-long public transport blackout on the Sabbath. The new buses have made a “huge” difference, said Gabrielle Richmond, a 25-year-old student in Tel Aviv. “I can go to a Shabbat dinner . . . and not have to think about getting there and spending money on a taxi,” she said.
The weekend buses are the latest front in a culture war between religious and secular Israelis that has increasingly dominated national politics and is expected to play a major factor in the upcoming March 2 elections. “If you look at elections in the past decade, they were in essence about the question of Israel’s collective identity,” said Gayil Talshir, a professor of political science at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The upcoming elections, she said, will once again be over “not just the debate over Jewishness versus Israeliness, but a debate over democracy”.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews make up just over 10 per cent of Israel’s population, but wield outsized influence as political kingmakers in governing coalitions. Many consider public transport on the Sabbath a profaning of the holy day and, as prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s staunch allies in recent years, ultra-Orthodox political parties have pushed for greater adherence to Jewish law in the public sphere.
Israel has no civil marriage, and the country’s Orthodox Rabbinate holds a monopoly on weddings and divorces between Jewish couples. Likewise, in accordance with Judaism’s prohibition on work on the Sabbath, most businesses close from sundown on Friday until sunset on Saturday, and a longstanding compromise largely bans public transportation in Israel.
But Israel’s secular Jewish majority has chafed under these strictures on public life, and increasingly are demanding liberalisation. A November survey by Hiddush, an Israeli religious freedom organisation, found that 68 per cent of Israelis polled supported public transportation on the Sabbath and 66 per cent backed broader recognition of non-Orthodox marriages.
Former army chief of staff Benny Gantz, Mr Netanyahu’s main rival and leader of the Blue and White party, has pledged to liberalise marriage laws and permit municipalities to operate public transport at the weekend.
Avigdor Lieberman, head of the secular ultranationalist Yisrael Beytenu party, broke up the last government in December 2018 over military draft exemptions for ultra-Orthodox men. This ultimately stopped Mr Netanyahu from forming a coalition with nationalist and religious parties last year. Mr Lieberman has “dragged the entire political discourse to be around religion and state”, said Ms Talshir, the Hebrew University political scientist.
With just three weeks until election day, polls suggest a similar outcome as September’s vote — namely a hung parliament — making religious freedom once again a linchpin issue in the formation of a new government.
Municipal governments have been emboldened by the fact that Israel is run by a “very anomalous caretaker government that received its authority from a Knesset that hasn’t existed for some time”, said Tomer Naor, chief legal officer of the Movement for Quality Government in Israel. The political stalemate of the past year has coincided with what Hiddush’s deputy director, Sagi Agmon, calls a “secular uprising” in local governments.
Tel Aviv deputy mayor Meital Lehavi said the six bus lines criss-crossing the metropolitan area have drawn more than 10,000 passengers each weekend, exceeding city hall’s initial expectations. By running it free of charge, city hall has ducked a confrontation with the transportation ministry, which might otherwise have tried to shut it down. “What’s clear is that there is demand, and that the public is voting with its feet and is using it,” said Ms Lehavi.
For Ms Lehavi, the Sabbath buses are not just a service to the secular residents of the metropolis on their days off, it is no less than “a struggle for the future character of Israel”.
“Will it be pluralistic, advancing and feminist, or Judaism controlled by Orthodoxy and Jewish law?” asked Ms Lehavi.
For Ms Richmond, a secular Israeli, religion’s place will be on her mind come election day. “I just don’t believe that everyone should have to follow religious laws they don’t believe in,” she said.
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