A firestorm erupted Thursday after it was revealed that the Transportation Ministry canceled numerous bus lines in the public transportation system that bumped up against the start or end of Shabbat.
The bus lines throughout the country had been getting canceled, or delayed until after Shabbat ended, in recent weeks, the Ynet news site reported.
While most Israeli bus companies do not operate bus lines on Shabbat, some lines only end after sundown on Friday or begin traveling to the start of the route before the end of Shabbat on Saturday.
A ministry source said that the decision was made due to complaints by religious travelers, and that some lines had been canceled which only came close to operating on Shabbat.
Blue and White chief Benny Gantz responded, saying: “We’ll win [the election] and amend this. Israel is a Jewish state and not a halachic state. Everyone can live in their own way.”
Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who has suggested governing Israel based on Jewish law, was accused of canceling the lines as “revenge” for Tel Aviv and surrounding areas having started to offer regular bus service on Shabbat.
“This is how a fanatical minister abuses citizens,” Meretz’s Nitzan Horowitz wrote on Twitter.
Noting the rides in question include “lines to hospitals that begin in the early evenings on Saturdays,” Nitzan said: “Shameful. We’ll fight him and kick him out.”
Responding to the report, Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman vowed that his party, as a condition for joining a coalition following March elections, would demand that the issues of public transportation, and the opening of businesses on Shabbat, be delegated to local government.
“This is about power, bullying and religious coercion. The man that wants to take us back to the period of King David, King Saul and Torah law proves again that he’s not just making empty statements,” he said, referring to Smotrich, the leader of the hard-right National Union faction.
Labor-Gesher MK Itzik Shmuli said: “We’ll fight this decision by any means necessary. The minister needs to know that revenge is not policy.”
Responding to the outcry, Smotrich sarcastically derided the critics as spin doctors posturing for elections.
“Okay, I get it now, we’re into election season,” Smotrich said, adding that he had provided his political opponents an easy opportunity for electioneering.
He defended the canceled bus lines as part of the transportation system’s status quo regarding Shabbat.
“The Transportation Ministry is acting daily, and hourly, to maximize the effectiveness of public transportation,” Smotrich said. “There are those of us who truly care about public transportation.”
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.
Secular Israelis have long chafed at their restricted mobility during the weekend.
Israel’s ultra-Orthodox have also long protested infrastructure and maintenance work on roads and rail lines during Shabbat.
In November, the Tel Aviv municipality launched a weekend public transportation initiative, which proved overwhelmingly popular with riders but was strongly opposed by Israel’s religious establishment.
The Tel Aviv municipality routes circumvent religious neighborhoods and includes transportation to surrounding communities including Ramat Hasharon, Givatayim and Kiryat Ono.
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.