Israeli city sparks religious outcry after vote to run buses on Sabbath

The city’s decision to provide public transportation to the beach and entertainment centers in Tel Aviv starting July 19 has sparked controversy.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

The Ramat Gan city council voted by a large margin Tuesday to allow public transportation on the Sabbath to entertainment centers and the beach in nearby Tel Aviv.

After a tumultuous session in which local rabbis who were invited to speak presented their objections, the vote passed 15-6. Mayor Carmel Shama-Hacohen was gracious in victory.

“We argued! From now on we are all loving and respectful brothers,” he said. “The Jewish people depends first and foremost on its unity.”

Shama-Hacohen, who considers himself religiously traditional, said that he “took full responsibility” for the move, because he had the obligation to “look the public in the eye” and give them what they want and need.

The two bus lines, which will begin running on July 19, will stick to the main roads and pick people up only at existing stops. They will run during the summer months and the mayor says if there isn’t demand the pilot program will stop.

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Buses won’t enter any residential neighborhoods in order not to disturb citizens who observe the Sabbath. The compromise, however, didn’t satisfy the ultra-Orthodox, whose reaction was highly critical.

“The Ramat Gan city council made a shameful and disgraceful move by approving the operation of public transportation on Shabbat and Jewish holidays, while ignoring the feelings of tens of thousands of religious residents of the city,” said the co-heads of the United Torah Judaism party, Deputy Health Minister Yaacov Litzman and Knesset Finance Committee chairman Moshe Gafni.

“This is a crossing of a red line of a mayor who is acting out of selfish motives and to grab headlines,” their statement continued. “[Our] faction will not let this simply pass, and will work with… jurists to prevent the implementation of the decision to harm the Holy Sabbath and the status quo.”

The city’s opposition candidate, Avihu Ben Moshe, criticized the mayor at the debate. “For two months, you have brought division and disagreement between the religious and the secular.”

However, those championing what they term “secular rights” praised the decision.

Israel Beiteinu leader Avigdor Liberman, who has made secular-religious issues the central theme of his election campaign, tweeted, “It was done in the right ‘dosage’ and with consideration [to others]. I hope that other municipalities will also go in this direction.”

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Since Israel’s founding, buses and trains don’t run in most parts of  Israel from sundown Friday through Saturday in respect for the Sabbath. The restriction has created tension among some secular elements of the population who feel that the religious are imposing their beliefs.