The entire matter came to the fore when the Tel Aviv City Council voted 13 to 7 to begin running city buses on the holy day of rest, and Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai insisted that the controversial change in policy would take place. “We must determine if we want to live in a democratic, Jewish state or a solely Jewish state – which will be similar to Iran,” Huldai told Army Radio in Israel. “The citizens have the right to visit their relatives on Shabbat or go out for a trip,” he added.
The mayor was responding to a statement released the day before by Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, along with several religious members of Knesset and the Tzohar national-religious rabbinical association, who all called on the municipality to reverse the decision. “A feeling of deep disappointment and pain filled me when I heard about this decision,” Lau wrote. “[It] would be a serious injury to the sanctity of Shabbat – which is a reminder of the creation of the universe, a reminder of the Exodus from Egypt, a day of rest for all workers, and a day of spiritual elevation and family togetherness.” Rabbi Lau added that he considers the decision to be contradictory to the century-plus history of Tel Aviv, which was established as the first Jewish city in the region, and is synonymous with such renowned societal figures as the first mayor, Meir Dizengoff, and Chaim Nachman Bialik, who exerted great effort to maintain the character of Shabbat in the city.
The Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi concluded by saying, “I turn to Mayor Ron Huldai, who was supported by thousands of Shomer Shabbat voters, please, reverse your decision and don’t contribute to extinguishing the Shabbat candles. I also turn to the ministers of the interior and transportation to prevent this serious breach towards continued shmirat Shabbat.”
Speaking separately with Israel Radio, Rabbi Lau was asked by the interviewer if he could offer any transportation alternative to the many Israelis who do not own a car. In response, he explained that “We must do something to earn calling Israel a Jewish State, and this entails not running public transportation on Shabbat.” Rav Lau explained that in Paris, one does not find a club operating on Sunday. “Each state has its character and one who moves to Tel Aviv knows in advance there is no public transportation. We must define what the state is and this includes defining what is meant by a Jewish state”.
On the same day that the religious leaders released their statement of protest, a Transportation Ministry spokesman indicated that the ministry would not approve Tel Aviv’s request to initiate Shabbat bus service. The Transportation Ministry will “not infringe [upon] the status quo which has been in place for decades regarding all aspects of public transport on Shabbat,” the spokesman said.