Minister asks if Tel Aviv light rail can run on Shabbat, sparking Orthodox ire

Merav Michaeli decries system which places citizens without cars under ‘siege’; religious politicians accuse Labor leader of campaigning on back of holy day

Michael Horovitz is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel

Merav Michaeli at the new Allenby underground station of the light rail red line in Tel Aviv, June 23, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Merav Michaeli at the new Allenby underground station of the light rail red line in Tel Aviv, June 23, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli ordered the state-run company overseeing Tel Aviv’s under-construction light rail system to look into operating on Shabbat, hitting a third rail of Israeli politics and igniting a firestorm of criticism from ultra-Orthodox leaders.

The move by Michaeli, leader of the progressive Labor party, would upend longtime norms which prohibit public transportation on the Jewish day of rest in nearly all Jewish-majority cities, but comes after years of complaints by residents of the secular, liberal stronghold that the weekly shutdowns are a form of religious coercion.

Michaeli told Mia Likvarnik, who heads the NTA Metropolitan Mass Transit System developing Tel Aviv’s light rail and subway system, to look into adopting a seven-day operating schedule, given the massive investment involved in the project. The request only relates to looking at the issue on a contractual and budgetary basis.

“Israeli citizens deserve an end to the siege over weekends,” she said in a statement, noting that the move would take cars off the road and end unfair restrictions on people who want to travel over the day off but are trapped by a lack of transportation options.

“Today, more and more of the Israeli public needs public transportation during the weekend, wants it, and many of those who will not use it also support it. It is our duty to make it happen,” she added, calling on Prime Minister Yair Lapid to back her plan.

The new Allenby underground station of the light rail Red Line in Tel Aviv, June 23, 2022. Some of the mass transit system runs underground. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

There was no immediate comment from Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party has campaigned on ending ultra-Orthodox hegemony over parts of public life.

However, politicians from religious parties were quick to weigh in, bashing the plan and accusing Michaeli of using the issue to score points with voters.

“The failed transportation minister decided to trample on Shabbat in the State of Israel and to harm the Jewish identity of the state as part of her election campaign,” said Religious Zionism MK Bezalel Smotrich, a former transportation minister.

The ultra-Orthodox Shas party accused Michaeli of running a “cynical election campaign” at the expense of the sanctity of the day.

Shas MK Moshe Arbel said the party was considering filing a petition against Michaeli with the Central Elections Committee, saying she was using state bodies to campaign for votes. He dismissed claims that those without cars are stuck on Shabbat as “demagoguery,” noting that taxi vans still operate on Saturday.

“There is a status quo, and to come and change the status quo of the Jewish state, the only one in the world, and fight against Shabbat is extremely grave,” he told the Kan news outlet.

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai poses for a photograph at a launch event for new minibusses designed to work as public transportation on Shabbat, November 20, 2019. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In 2019, the Tel Aviv municipality launched an initiative that provided public transportation over the Jewish Sabbath, offering minibus services to residents of the city and surrounding areas.

Darkenu, a civil society movement that works to promote what it calls moderate voices in Israeli society commended the minister on her “progress” and expressed hope that “the right decisions will be made.”

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.

After over a decade of work and several delays, the first of three lines of the new light rail system is set to open in November. The Red Line will travel from Bat Yam to Petah Tikva via Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Ramat Gan and Bnei Brak, an ultra-Orthodox suburb where even cars are generally prohibited on Shabbat.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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