Public Transport in Jerusalem: win-win, or loose-loose?

On a recent stroll along Jerusalem’s Emek Refaim St a young Israeli friend asked me if I favored Jerusalem’s ban on public transportation on the Shabbat. I thought. On one hand the atmosphere of Shabbat is one of Jerusalem’s spiritual civic treasures, not only for its devout citizens but for native Israelis and visitors alike. It creates a palpably unique atmosphere, a tranquility in public space, as rare in our cyberized globe as virgin forest.

 On the other hand, the ban is frustrating to non-Jewish tourists who are forced to take taxis in the absence of public transportation or, worse, curtail their visits to our Holy City to avoid the inconvenience. And then there are the non-Sabbath-observing Israelis who experience the suspension of bus and light rail service as another example of the loathed kfiah datit, religious coercion. Moreover the lack of public utility translates into the increased use of private vehicles, augmenting—instead of curtailing—the aggregate Sabbath violation.

After my pause, I offered a radical, perhaps whimsical, suggestion. Have the buses and trains operated by non-Jews—Arabs and immigrant non-Jews.  And make transportation free from sunset on Friday until after sunset on Saturday. Everyone boarding a bus or train will be reminded that it is Shabbat—but reminded in a way calculated to bring a smile and  a nod. Secular Israelis, who perhaps are edging toward an appreciation of Tradition’s greatest treasure, can avail themselves of Shabbat programs and invitations—while going cashless. The level of Halachic violation—since all of the actual forbidden activity will be performed by our non-Jewish fellow citizens—will be vastly reduced. Every automobile left at home is a triumph for the Shabbat aura! And like well-raised observant children who are taught to anticipate Shabbat by means of special “treats,” Jerusalem’s guests and not fully observant citizens will learn to associate ‘the day of rest’ with a welcome difference from ‘the days of work’.

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