State says buses on Shabbat not vital, rebuffing petition

Ahead of High Court hearing on issue, state prosecutors say argument for public transportation not backed by current regulations

Illustrative: People wait for the bus outside Jerusalem's Central Bus Station on January 4, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Illustrative: People wait for the bus outside Jerusalem's Central Bus Station on January 4, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Israel said it is not required to provide public transportation on Saturday as there is no “vital need” for it. The state set out its position in a response to a High Court petition seeking to put buses on the road during the Jewish day of rest.

Trains and public buses do not run in most Israeli cities with a Jewish majority, which secular residents have complained for years is a form of religious coercion impacting their quality of life.

The petitioners, which included a number of liberal groups and MK Tamar Zandberg of the left-wing Meretz party, argued that standards of “equality, dignity, freedom of movement and freedom from religion” should require the state to provide transportation on Shabbat.

But the the State Prosecutor’s Office said in a letter to the court Tuesday that “the attempt by the petitioners to establish a claim whereby public transportation is a vital need does not succeed.”

In its response to the petition, the state cited a current regulation allowing for public transportation on the Jewish day of rest for “essential” reasons, saying the petitioners argument did not meet the standard of “essential.”

“The state is of the opinion that this regulation, which relates to the granting of a license to operate [bus] lines on days of rest that are essential in terms of existence of public transportation services, is meant to allow enable adequate public transportation, for example after the start and before the end of Shabbat,” the state said, adding that the petitioners “interpretation [of the regulation] is not consistent with the intent of the legislature or the substance of the law.”

As part of its opposition to providing public transportation on Shabbat, the state also said there are currently enough means of transportation available to the public on the Jewish day of rest and that the number of licenses allowing for the transport of individuals on Shabbat has increased.

The High Court is expected to hold a hearing on the issue next week.

Opposition MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) addresses the Knesset during a plenum session on January 25, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In response to the state’s letter to the court, Zandberg said the state’s legal argument was “delusional” and did not truly consider the need for public transportation on Shabbat.

“The interpretation that was given for some of the law’s clauses is no less than delusional and constitutes a direct continuation of [Transportation] Minister [Yisrael] Katz’s contempt for the thousands of Israelis for whom public transportation on Shabbat is an essential need,” she said.

The Israel Hofsheet movement, which was one of the signatories to the High Court petition, said the state’s response did not properly address the matter.

“The state’s response continues the Transportation Ministry’s ongoing tradition of linguistic and legal gymnastics on such a vital issue that is relevant to every citizen of the State of Israel,” the group said.

Israel’s prohibition of public transportation on Shabbat is based on an understanding created in 1947 between future-prime minister David Ben-Gurion and the Agudat Yisrael movement, which represented the ultra-Orthodox community of that period. That status quo decision became the basis of many religious-life decisions in Israel, including the issue of public transportation on Shabbat.

Despite the state’s opposition to allowing public transportation Shabbat, a Channel 2 survey indicated that 73 percent of Jews in Israel support public transportation on the Jewish day of rest in some form.

AFP contributed to this report.

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