Activists again cuff themselves to Tel Aviv light rail to protest Shabbat stoppage

Several dozen people protest at Allenby Station on day’s last tram, causing service to stop and driver to leave; police on the scene

Activists handcuff themselves to handrails on Friday's last light rail ahead of Shabbat, in Tel Aviv, August 25, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Activists handcuff themselves to handrails on Friday's last light rail ahead of Shabbat, in Tel Aviv, August 25, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

For the second week in a row, activists in Tel Aviv cuffed themselves Friday to the day’s last light rail tram in protest of authorities’ refusal to operate public transportation during the Jewish Sabbath.

Footage showed several dozen activists tied to handrails. Some set up a table with challah bread and wine, and held what they said was a “Kabbalat Shabbat,” or Shabbat service, on the car.

The protest led Tevel, which operates the light rail, to stop the tram at Tel Aviv’s Allenby Station, ending the day’s service there. The lights were turned off in the cars, as was the air conditioning, and the driver departed, though activists remained.

Police arrived on the scene and prevented others from joining the protest at the underground station, but did not move to forcibly evacuate the activists in the rail cars. Last week, activists stood their ground for more than two hours before peacefully dispersing.

The light rail, which carries passengers 24 kilometers (15 miles) across 34 stations from Bat Yam to Petah Tikva, opened to the public August 18 after decades of planning and years of construction. The new light rail was a welcome development for residents of the Tel Aviv metropolitan era, but it also reignites simmering frustration over the lack of public transportation on Shabbat. Secular residents, who make up the majority in the area, argue that such services should be available to them, without harming the sensitivities of religious Israelis who refrain from their use on the Sabbath.

Hundreds of anti-government activists converged on stations of the new light rail last Friday to protest the government’s refusal to operate the public transportation system on the Sabbath.

While the protests focused on the specific issue of the light rail’s operating schedule, it was attended by activists who oppose the government more broadly, particularly its judicial overhaul, and represent a long-dormant liberal Israeli public that has become increasingly frustrated with the monopoly that Orthodox groups have on the country’s Jewish identity.

Successive Israeli governments have upheld the so-called status quo barring public transportation from operating on Shabbat.

Transportation Minister Miri Regev’s predecessor, Merav Michaeli, had said she intended to allow the line to run on Friday evenings and all day Saturday. Michaeli’s promise prompted outrage in the Haredi city of Bnei Brak, which has several stops on its route (though the line is entirely underground in that section). Earlier this month, Regev announced that she was reversing Michaeli’s decision.

“We will uphold the status quo, according to which the train will not operate on Shabbat. For non-religious people, Shabbat is also a day of rest. And this is a Jewish state,” Regev told journalists.

On Sunday, Ramat Gan Mayor Carmel Shama-Hacohen announced that his municipality will begin operating a weekend line of shuttles along much of the route of the light rail during Shabbat when the new train system does not run.

His announcement will likely please residents of his largely secular Tel Aviv suburb but also comes roughly two months ahead of municipal elections, when the mayor will aim to win a second term in office.

Hacohen said in a statement that the new route will be called the Red Line — the same name given to the inaugural line of the Tel Aviv light rail. The free shuttle system will run from Ramat Gan to Jaffa, stopping short of Petah Tikva, Bnei Brak and Bat Yam, which have a more religious population.

The Red Line of shuttle buses will join two other lines of shuttle buses that already exist for Ramat Gan residents that allow them to reach Tel Aviv on Shabbat. Shama-Hacohen said 8,000 of his residents used a shuttle service last week, and said the Red Line would begin operating once the municipality finishes putting up signs at the various stations.

A growing number of largely secular towns have launched such services in recent years. A majority of Israelis are believed to support public transportation services for those who would like them, but successive governments have long included Orthodox elements that have blocked any major upending of the Shabbat status quo.

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