How Jewish is Israel? The Shabbat test
How Jewish is Israel? The Shabbat test

Two events happened over this past Shabbat in Israel, two events which were diametrically opposite in every possible way.

One in the greater Tel Aviv region, the foundation of modern secular political Zionism, the heart and the very epitome of secular left-wing progressive Israel; the other in Hevron, the oldest Jewish city in the world, the foundation of Judaism and Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel, the heart and very epitome of religious Jewish identity.

Following the Mishnaic dictum that “we begin with the disgrace and conclude with the glory” (Pesachim 12:4), we begin with the recent innovation in Tel Aviv:

The Tel Aviv municipality has recently decided to provide free public transportation on Shabbat.

What is known as the 'status quo' (on Jewish observance), going back to well before independence, to the days of British colonial rule, is that public transportation (busses and trains) does not operate on Shabbat. Taxis do operate: they are classified as private vehicles.

And the Tel Aviv municipality has decided to challenge and eradicate that status quo. For legal reasons, the bus companies cannot operate services for a fee in predominantly Jewish cities in Israel.

(Haifa is a glaring exception: due to its charismatic and almost violently anti-religious mayor Abba Khushi in the early years of independence, 1951-1969, Haifa’s buses have always operated on Shabbat. But I digress.)

The Tel Aviv municipality found and successfully exploited a loophole in the legal status quo: no, they can’t operate fee-paying public transport on Shabbat. But they can – and just did! – operate free buses on Shabbat.

And so, this last Shabbat, free bus services operated in Tel Aviv and its satellite-towns of Ramat Gan, Ramat Ha-Sharon, Givatayyim, Holon, and Kiryat Ono. These free bus routes, covering some 300 km (185 miles), ran from 4:00 on Friday afternoon (the beginning of Shabbat) until 2:00 a.m. Shabbat morning, and again from 9:00 Shabbat morning until the end of Shabbat.

A free public bus service should be immensely popular. And these free bus routes service some 1,000,000 people a day during the week. One would expect, therefore, that these buses would effect a veritable revolution among the good folk of the greater Tel Aviv region.

In fact, according to the Tel Aviv municipality, a mere 6,000 people rode on these free buses.

Not all that popular, after all.

(And possibly discriminatory, because observant Jews cannot take advantage of these free buses and are forced to subsidize something they cannot utilize. One could make a case, in that case, for forcing the buses to be free all week.) 

And now for the glory:

The same Shabbat, 70 km (44 miles) south-east of Tel Aviv, in the ancient Jewish city of Hevron, well over 40,000 Jews gathered. Jews of all ages, Jews from all over Israel (and no doubt beyond), Jews from every conceivable walk of life. The majority of them religious, but by no means all.

It was Shabbat Chayyei Sarah, the Shabbat on which Jews the world over read the Torah-portion recording how our father Abraham purchased the Machpelah Cave in Hevron as the first-ever Jewish land-holding in the Land of Israel (Genesis Chapter 23).

It is an indescribably inspiring and spiritually uplifting experience – hearing the Torah’s account of Abraham’s buying the field and the cave within it, while standing on the self-same spot, in the structure covering the very cave which Abraham bought as a burial-plot for his beloved wife Sarah.

And so, myriads of Jews made the effort, expended their resources, in order to spend this specific Shabbat in Hevron and do so every year.

Unlike the free transport in Tel Aviv and surroundings, travelling to Hevron takes time, effort, and money. It’s an hour’s drive from Jerusalem, an hour’s drive from Beer Sheva, two hours from Tel Aviv, two-and-a-half hours from Netanya, and over three hours from Haifa.

Many of those more-than-40,000 visitors stayed in neighbouring Kiryat Arba, a 20 minute walk at least, maybe half-an-hour’s walk, maybe an hour’s walk, from the Machpela where all the action was.

Thousands of others spent the Shabbat in tents in Hevron, in the immediate environs of the Machpela. Hevron is high in the Judean Hills, some 930 metres (1,050 feet) above sea level; so even though it lies 30 km (19 miles) almost due south of Jerusalem, it gets chilly at this time of year, with the night-time temperature falling to about 10º C (50º F). Not exactly ideal camping weather.

Yet with all this, the ancient attraction which Hevron exerts over Jews pulled in at least eight times (!) as many Jews as those free buses of Tel Aviv with their purposeful Shabbat desecration.

Two opposite poles: Tel Aviv and Hevron. In the one, a concerted effort by the local municipality to encourage Jews there to desecrate Shabbat by offering free buses. In the other, Jews making their own efforts to celebrate an exceptionally meaningful Shabbat in the most ancient Jewish site in the world.

The results of the Tel Aviv municipality’s efforts were underwhelming. A mere 6,000 people availed themselves of this free Shabbat-violation. (And that figure is probably an over-statement, coming as it does from the Tel Aviv municipality itself).

And meanwhile, the Jewish masses in Israel showed how many make the effort to celebrate Shabbat and to forge their ever-deeper connexion with the Torah.

The Tel Aviv municipality is investing millions of shekels in providing these free buses on Shabbat. But popular demand, popular sentiment, clearly shows that the masses in Israel want Hevron and Shabbat, and all that those represent, and not the cheap glitz and ticky-tacky of Tel Aviv with its secularism and modernity and passing fads.

Far, far more Jews in Israel want the connexion to eternal, authentic Judaism, to Jewish heritage and tradition that Hevron epitomises, than want the shallow hedonism that Tel Aviv represents.

So how Jewish is Israel?

Let the people decide. We do, after all, pride ourselves on being a democracy, do we not?