Orthodox Jerusalem council members savage free Shabbat minibus to Tel Aviv

After secularist Hitorerut movement offers transport service, far-right deputy mayor complains to legal adviser saying it violates election campaign laws, vows to halt initiative

A Shabbat minibus drives through central Tel Aviv on November 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)
Illustrative: A Shabbat minibus drives through central Tel Aviv on November 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

A far-right, Orthodox deputy mayor of Jerusalem has vowed to put an end to a free minibus service launched this past weekend providing transport from the capital to Tel Aviv on Shabbat, claiming the initiative by a local political party violates municipal election campaign laws.

Last weekend the “Hitorerut in Jerusalem” movement, which champions secular rights and is represented on the city council, launched a minibus service from the capital to the coastal city during Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest. Public transportation shuts down in Jerusalem during the Sabbath, as is the case in most Jewish-majority municipalities across the country, but Hitorerut said the move was made to encourage secular people to continue residing in the capital by having the means to leave over the weekends, even if they don’t own a car.

A growing list of cities in central Israel have been offering residents limited public transportation on Shabbat in recent years, mainly through the “Na’im Busofash” program.”

The development in Jerusalem came as Israel prepares for municipal elections which will be held on October 31, and some questioned the timing of the Hitorerut initiative and whether it is a serious long-term plan or a case of electioneering.

Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Aryeh King on Tuesday asked the municipal legal adviser Eli Malka to halt the initiative, which he called a “devious attempt” to disrupt the secular-religious status quo, also claiming it violates election campaign laws.

Referring to the minibus service, he said its operation at no cost to the public could be seen as gift-giving ahead of an election.

“I ask to check whether free transportation is a violation of the law and if so to prosecute for violating the law,” King wrote.

King further asked the legal adviser to “make use of your authority and issue a restraining order against the ‘Hitorerut’ faction that would prohibit it from financing and operating public transportation on Shabbat.”

תחבורה שיתופית בשבת בירושלים! ביחד איתכם – הבאנו את הבשורה!????תודה לעשרות ירושלמיות וירושלמים שנרשמו למיזם ׳סופ״שבת שלום…

Posted by ‎התעוררות בירושלים‎ on Saturday, August 12, 2023

Hitorerut chairman Adir Schwartz said in a statement: “We are seeing an attempt at religious coercion and intimidation to prevent a large sector of the public from doing as they see fit on Shabbat, along with making false accusations.

“I call on the municipality to operate a public transportation service on Shabbat for the benefit of those who need it — and if it does not do so, we will do so. Hitorerut will continue to act without fear for the benefit of a Jerusalem for everyone,” he added.

King has a long history of incendiary comments against Palestinians, LGBTQ individuals, non-Orthodox Jews and Christians.

Meanwhile, city council member Yehuda Freudiger sent a letter of complaint to National Unity MK Chili Tropper on the matter. According to the local Kol Hair outlet, the National Unity party has recently been cooperating with Hitorerut in preparation for the municipal elections.

Noting that Tropper, who served as culture minister in the previous government, is religious, Freudiger wrote: “Please do not lend a hand to the transformation of the Hitorerut movement into the flagbearer of extreme secularism in Jerusalem.”

Hitorerut operated just two minibuses over the weekend, on Friday night and Saturday morning, though it claims hundreds signed up for a waiting list for the service.

Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Aryeh King (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

On the internet sign-up page for the service, Hitorerut wrote: “We don’t want to live in a city that young people leave. We also don’t want a city that is closed to everyone on weekends. We only ask that everyone live in their own way — not at the expense of the other, but alongside the other.

“Public transportation on Shabbat is a very effective tool to encourage non-Shabbat-observant people to stay and live here,” the movement said.

An Israel Democracy Institute report last year found that Israel is increasingly seeing significant gaps between regulations limiting certain activities on Shabbat and the reality in the Jewish state.

It found that of the 2,913 active bus lines in the country, 284 (10%) run on Shabbat. Among those, 210 operate frequently and 74 run only shortly after the start of Shabbat and shortly before it ends.

Thirteen percent of bus lines operating on Shabbat run through Jewish municipalities, with the majority active in Arab or mixed communities.

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