Some 500 religious people gathered Saturday evening near the home of Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai to protest against new bus services operating in central Israel on Shabbat.
Saturday was the fourth week since the Tel Aviv municipality introduced public transportation on Shabbat for the first time, in cooperation with several other major municipalities in the Gush Dan area.
The demonstration was attended by several prominent rabbis and by Tel Aviv Deputy Mayor Rabbi Naftali Lubert, who said: “The local leadership has no business intervening in the state leadership laws.”
Rabbi David Jiami of Har Hamor Yeshiva spoke at the rally, saying: “For what have we come to the Land of Israel? To stomp with contempt on all that’s sacred to us and for which we sacrificed our lives for 3,000 years? To be just like all the gentiles?”
Yonatan Polak, one of the organizers of the demonstration, was quoted by Channel 12 as saying: “We are here for the second straight week to protest and express a clear stance that the People of Israel desire a Shabbat in the State of Israel, the Jewish state.
“One mayor cannot decide to blatantly breach the status quo and change the state’s characteristics.”
Earlier Saturday, several dozen ultra-Orthodox protesters rallied in the religious town of Bnei Brak, attempting to block the main Jabotinsky Road connecting the cities of Ramat Gan and Petah Tikva. Some clashed with police, who said 16 demonstrators were arrested for public disorder and assaulting policemen during protests Friday and Saturday.
Similar protests were held last weekend.
Channel 12 news reported that posters distributed throughout Bnei Brak in recent days had called on residents to “go out all of us to carry the cry of Shabbat which is being desecrated openly. Our Holy Shabbat will not be forsaken!”
A survey released Monday found that the Israeli public largely supports the introduction of public transportation on Saturdays.
Among Israeli Jews, 71 percent are in favor of transportation on weekends, including 94% of secular Israelis, said the Hiddush liberal advocacy group behind the poll.
Other groups that support the measure were traditional Jews who said they were “not so religious,” at 82%, and traditional Jews who were “close to religion,” at 59%. Ninety-seven percent of ultra-Orthodox Jews oppose weekend transportation programs, as do 73% of “religious” Jews, the survey said.
The survey was conducted at the end of November and queried 600 Israeli Jews from across the religious spectrum.
The public transportation program, launched on November 22 and dubbed “We move on weekends,” has so far proved overwhelmingly popular, with buses overflowing in its first weekend, and the city ramping up the number and size of buses to keep up with demand.
Some 10,000 people made use of the service in each of its initial weekends.
In Israel, buses and trains do not generally run in Jewish-majority cities on Friday night and Saturday before sundown. The practice was born of an agreement reached between the ultra-Orthodox community and Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, before the formation of the state.
Public transportation on Shabbat is strongly opposed by the Orthodox establishment, while secular Israelis have long chafed at their restricted mobility during the weekend.
The Tel Aviv program services several surrounding communities including Ramat Hasharon, Givatayim and Kiryat Ono. The routes, which cover some 300 kilometers (186 miles) in total and include 500 bus stops, do not enter primarily Orthodox neighborhoods.
Other Israeli cities recently announced their intention to begin providing public transportation on Saturdays, including Tel Aviv suburbs Ramat Gan and Ganei Tikva.
Earlier this year, a free Saturday bus line was launched in the northern town of Tiberias.
Last week the coastal city of Bat Yam decided against joining neighboring the surrounding cities in offering public transportation to its residents on Shabbat.