The municipality of Ramat Gan in central Israel on Tuesday approved the operation of public transportation on Saturdays, drawing condemnation from ultra-Orthodox politicians who decried what they regard as a desecration of Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest.
The development came as the issue of religious freedom has become a central topic in public discourse ahead of Knesset elections scheduled for September 17.
The city council approved the measure 15-6 following a heated debate.
“The city administration will immediately act to liaise with an operator and will soon publish the routes and operation times,” Mayor Carmel Shama-Hacohen said after the vote. “We argued, but we are all brothers who love and respect each other. The Jewish people depends first and foremost on its unity.”
The plan in for shuttle buses to go to the beach in neighboring Tel Aviv as well as other recreation areas. The two planned routes will use existing bus stops and will not pass through neighborhoods that have a large religious population.
Shama-Hacohen has previously said that if the lines are little used, they will be canceled.
The ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism (UTJ) party, headed by Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, swiftly condemned the decision as “crossing a red line” and vowed to act against it.
Shama-Hacohen “is looking after selfish interests and trying to make headlines and in so doing stains the city of Ramat Gan with the destruction of religious values and the sanctity of the Shabbat day,” UTJ said in a statement. “This kind of blatant step will exact a heavy political price from Carmel Shama-Hacohen.”
“United Torah Judaism protests the shameful decision,” the statement continued. “The party will not ignore this and will act in cooperation with lawyers and jurists to prevent implementation of the decision to harm the holy Shabbat and the status quo.”
Blue and White party No. 2 MK Yair Lapid welcomed the municipality’s decision, saying on Twitter that “Israel needs to be free and respect every person, whatever their way of life or customs.”
MK Avigdor Liberman, who leads the Yisrael Beytenu party and has positioned himself as a champion of religious freedom, also welcomed the development, tweeting that it was done “to the right extent and with consideration. I hope that other municipalities will also go in this direction.”
The issue of operating services on Shabbat, such as public transportation and mini-markets, has long been a source of division in Israel between the religious and secular communities. Public transportation is unavailable and businesses are closed on the Jewish day or rest in most cities.