JERUSALEM — In the latest salvo in Israel's simmering cultural war between religious and secular Jews, municipal authorities in the bustling metropolis of Tel Aviv have outraged the country's religious establishment with a decision to launch bus service on the Jewish Sabbath.
The effort — likely to be blocked by the government — comes as the country's powerful religious minority faces increasing pressure over what many perceive to be attempts to impose religious tenets on the rest of the country.
Recent months have seen a growing uproar over issues such as the segregation of men and women on buses and sidewalks by ultra-Orthodox Jews and the group's non-participation in the workforce, relying instead on government subsidies.
Religious life in Israel is dominated by a strict Orthodox establishment, which wields significant power over issues such as marriage and burial. It typically resists alterations to the so called "status quo" on religious issues, agreed upon when Israel was established in 1948.
As part of this arrangement, there is no public transportation in most Israeli cities — mixed Jewish-Arab Haifa being a notable exception — from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday and on Jewish holidays. But the city council of largely secular Tel Aviv voted late Monday to draft a request to Israel's Transportation Ministry to allow lines to operate on the Sabbath.
"Israel is the only country in the world in which there is no public transportation in one out of four days, on Saturdays and holidays," Mayor Ron Huldai said in a statement Tuesday. "We must ask ourselves — what does a person who can't afford to buy a car and wants to visit his family or go to the beach do?"
The national transportation ministry had no comment.
Public transportation is decided on the national level, so the city has no power to enforce such a move. But should the bill be rejected, as expected, Tel Aviv's city hall said it will establish an independent transportation company to run the buses.
Israel Meir Lau, the city's chief rabbi, said Tuesday he felt "great pain and deep disappointment" with the plan and called on the mayor to reverse it.
"This is a severe blow to the sanctity of the Sabbath," he said in a statement. "The city council recommendation harms the status quo upon which the policies of all Israeli governments are based."
Despite Israel's secular majority, ultra-Orthodox rabbis strictly govern Jewish practices such as weddings, burials or conversions and only allow them for those who meet Orthodox definitions of a Jew. Israel grants citizenship to any Jew — Reform, Conservative or Orthodox — but once in Israel, many who consider themselves Jewish cannot get married or have a Jewish burial.
The plight of an 8-year-old girl who was recently spat upon by ultra-Orthodox extremists for dressing "immodestly" drew new attention to the simmering issue.