Israel’s secular founders believed they were making the state more inclusive when they ceded authority over religious observance issues to the new state’s small Orthodox community. As the country’s haredi population has grown, however, and its control over religious rules in the state have tightened, Israel’s religious establishment appears to have become more rigid, with no interest in compromise. This has prompted an unsurprising pushback from the majority less observant and non-observant segment of Israel’s population. And that reality has led us and others to urge consideration of a separation of religion and state in Israel, or at least a more tolerant, pluralistic approach.
There are always workarounds to the status quo. In Israel, those workarounds are called “facts on the ground.” On a Shabbat last month, the Tel Aviv municipal authority created precisely such facts when it launched a small Shabbat public transportation service, designed to circumvent the status quo prohibition of public transportation on the Sabbath. The new service created a network of public transit vans that enabled users to crisscross the metropolitan Tel Aviv area and beyond.
According to reports, some 10,000 Israelis rode the free public transport that first weekend, largely skirting Orthodox neighborhoods. In response to the clear demand, the city started using full-size buses that were run more frequently. For many, it was about time. For others, it was a symptom of the abandonment of the rule of Jewish law and a violation of founding principles.
More likely, the move is a reaction to the imposed Shabbat isolation of nonobservant Jewish residents who need public transportation to get around, and a symptom of the vacuum left by Israel’s moribund government after two inconclusive elections and a third one on the horizon. “For many months now, there is no central government that can do something,” said Shuki Friedman, of the Israel Democracy Institute. “The [municipality] may be violating the Sabbath but they are doing it like thieves in the night.”
There are passionate, compelling arguments on both sides of this issue. On balance, while we respect the rights of religious residents to observe the Shabbat fully in accordance with their beliefs, we also respect the rights of nonobservant residents to live their lives free of compelled religious restraint. That doesn’t mean that any religious practices of those who observe should be compromised. But it does mean that those who don’t want to observe shouldn’t be required to do so, as we see no strengthening of Israel’s Jewish character through the imposition of religious observance.
Tiberias already has a free Shabbat bus line, and Ramat Gan and Ganei Tikvah near Tel Aviv have announced plans of their own. Each new fact on the ground challenges the status quo. Rather than becoming a religious-secular battleground, we hope that the issue will be an opportunity for engagement, understanding and reasonable compromise.