Israel, a country deeply rooted in ancient tradition and religion, simultaneously champions the principles of a Westernized democracy. However, the coexistence of these values often cause difficult dilemmas, especially with regard to the separation of religion and state. Indeed, unlike other Western democracies, Israel doesn’t have a constitution that clearly defines such a separation. Therefore, it is problematic to decide what to do in certain situations, like when the charedi community protests compulsory army enlistment or when citizens petition for public transportation on Shabbat. There is no doubt that it is a Jewish state, but to what extent is it really Jewish? Israeli democracy should equally safeguard the rights of all its inhabitants, whether they are religious or secular. Of course that is the case, yet the country seems to revolve around Jewish values, often leaving the non-Jewish population in the shadow. Unfortunately, as shown with issues like public transportation on Shabbat, Israel’s foundational traditions often come at odds with its democratic institutions, hampering their further westernization.
On July 9, after much debate, the municipality of Ramat Gan approved to pilot public transportation on Shabbat, with a vote of 15-6. The shuttles are scheduled to go to recreational places like the beach; they will not, however, go through regions in which there are concentrated religious communities. While the non-Jewish citizens of the Tel Aviv suburb are thrilled with the news, the approval of the trial sparked outrage within ultra-Orthodox communities throughout Israel. Indeed, public transportation on Saturdays has been a polarizing issue that’s existed for decades, and has been a hotly debated topic given the upcoming Knesset elections.
Mayor Carmel Shama-Hacohen defended the new law with the assertion that “The Jewish people depends first and foremost on its unity.” For years, secular citizens have felt marginalized by the fact that they have to abide by laws influenced by a religion in which they don’t believe. Luckily, their voices have been heard and, in addition to the pilot program in Ramat Gan, there have been previous successful efforts at Shabbat busing. In 1991, legislations were passed to alter stringencies in the Transportation Ministry’s laws, allowing a limited number of shuttles on Shabbat in largely secular areas, such as Eilat and Haifa. Furthermore, launched in 2015, a small Tel Aviv busing cooperative called Noah Tnuah has been crowdfunding to broaden its service to weekends as well. Fortunately, funds were easily acquired with the help of exasperated Tel Aviv citizens. The founder of the company, Roy Schwartz, has said that “The success of this campaign shows just how fed up people are with the situation on Shabbat,” explaining that “if you can’t afford a car in Israel, you’re stuck at home on the weekend.”
Blue and White Party No. 2 MK Yair Lapid also agrees with the law in Ramat Gan. He maintains that “Israel needs to be free and respect every person, whatever their way of life or customs.” The same sentiment is shared by Yisrael Beytenu’s MK Avigdor Lieberman, who hopes that other Israeli municipalities follow suit with similar extensions of freedom.
On the other hand, Orthodox groups such as the ultra-religious United Torah Judaism (UTJ) have condemned the new law, claiming that it would desecrate the holy day. The party, led by Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, remarked that Mayor Shama-Hacohen “is looking after selfish interests...and in so doing stains the city of Ramat Gan with the destruction of religious values and the sanctity of the Shabbat day.”
This debate symbolizes the divide between secular and religious citizens in contemporary politics. Because of it, the fabric of Netanyahu’s coalition was torn last fall—a microcosmic embodiment of the immense national divide between the traditional right wing and secular left wing. In a recent survey, 72% of Israelis were in support of allowing shuttles and buses to run on Shabbat. The major support for such a decision illustrates the growing sentiment to eliminate some theocratic aspects of the Israeli government. According to Gedaliah Borvick, Israeli real estate agent and columnist for The Jewish Link, “Thirty percent of Israel’s Jewish population identify themselves as religious, 50% identify themselves as traditional and only 20% consider themselves secular. However, over 60% of Israelis oppose religious coercion, and Shabbat is one of several issues where we see tension between the religious and secular communities.”
Truly, there seems to be no way to fully solve this quandary. To eliminate Judaism from the Israeli government is to take away from its identity; yet, to make the government completely theocratic is to strip some people of their freedoms. Borvick affirmed that while “Shabbat must hold a sacred place in Israeli society in order for the country to retain its Jewish identity,” on the other hand, “a democratic society must embrace religious pluralism and allow all its citizens—and not the government—to choose how they want to spend their weekends and holidays.” Israel was created, founded and settled for a single purpose: to serve as a refuge for the Jewish people. While that purpose is significant and should still be manifest in contemporary times, the key to Israel’s survival resides in change. The country must reform and adapt to modern political climates while still maintaining the foundation of Judaism. Finding that perfect equilibrium is a cumbersome task and is the cause of polarizing issues such as busing on Shabbat, but it is nevertheless an essential ingredient that constitutes Israel’s unique character.
By Josh Gindi
Josh Gindi is a rising senior at Rae Kushner Yeshiva Highschool in Livingston and is interning at The Jewish Link.