January 28, 2020

Israel’s Busing Revolution

Photo by Joel Carillet/Getty Images

Writing a book about Israel can be frustrating for many reasons, the first of which is that it constantly needs to be updated. Reality changes faster than people imagine. In the past few weeks, reality changed dramatically without anyone truly taking note. 

In “#IsraeliJudaism,” which I co-wrote  with professor Camil Fuchs, we write that “the question of the character of Shabbat in the State of Israel is, in fact, three separate questions.” The first concerns what Israeli Jews, as individuals, consider to be the desired character of Shabbat in Israel; the second concerns the appropriate price for preserving this character; and the third concerns “the desired level of state involvement in dictating the culture of its citizens.” 

Let’s look at one case that is under considerable transformation: public transportation on Shabbat. Traditionally and legally, the state doesn’t provide subsidized public transportation on Shabbat. But for many years, most of Israel’s public wanted this policy to change. According to recent polls, it’s about 70 percent (many of whom support a limited volume of public transportation to central locations). 

Some Israelis want transportation because they see a need for it (young people who go out to drink on Friday night, or people who don’t own cars who want to head to the beach the next morning). And there also are those who want it as a matter of principle, or to spite the political power of Orthodox parties who prevent such development.

Now consider the three questions we presented. In this context, they would be: What is your opinion about having transportation on Shabbat? Where on your list of other priorities is this issue? Is it a matter for the state to resolve or should it be a matter for private initiatives? 

It is much easier not to let people have something than it is to take away something they already have.

Asked, and recently answered. For the past couple of weeks, municipalities started providing transportation — buses — on Shabbat. These municipalities provide it because officials know that this is what residents want. These municipalities also provide it because they can.

Why now? Apparently, there are some consequences associated with not having a functioning government. When the government is busy with elections, municipalities can  establish their own policies. So your answer is: Israel wants it; for some Israelis it is a pressing priority; the government should minimize its involvement in such matters and let city halls serve their constituents.

Simple? Not really. The municipalities are forbidden (by law) to charge for public transportation, so riding the buses is free. The municipalities must budget for it. There is also the looming possibility that the government, when there is one (hopefully Israel eventually will have a functioning government), will attempt to reverse the policy. 

But here’s the important thing: The government is quite bad at reversing such trends. As our book argues, “ultimately, the public is stronger than the establishment because it decides who holds the steering wheel. So, in the long run, Israel will be roughly as traditionalist or secular as the public wants it to be.” When the public, after a long fight, forced the government into allowing movie theaters to open on Friday nights (that was many years ago), a new status quo was born from which there was no return. I suspect that public transportation on Shabbat is currently at the same crossroads. The more time that elapses with buses running from Ramat Hasharon to the Tel Aviv beach, the more difficult it will become for any government to restore the old policy. That’s human nature: It is much easier not to let people have something than it is to take away something they already have.

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.