Op-ed: Democratic and Religious: The dichotomy holding back common sense | Masa Israel

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Op-ed: Democratic and Religious: The dichotomy holding back common sense

Posted April 8th, 2014
While living in Israel, Masa participants engage in all facets of Israeli society. This is one intern's take on the nature of the Israeli policy.
By Celina Nieman, Israel Government Fellows
It is Friday at three in the afternoon in Har Hatzofim, Jerusalem. I’ve missed the last bus into the city. For the sake of religion and tradition, a public service has been shut down. The entire country is now deprived of affordable and reliable regularly scheduled transportation for twenty-five hours.
As part of a ten month fellowship program sponsored by Masa Israel in conjunction with the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, I live in the university residences located on the French Hill, while interning in a governmental ministry. The other Fellows and I work and partake in seminars during the week, and have Friday and Saturday to explore the country and relax.
However, once I miss that last bus, this is no longer possible. From Friday afternoon onwards a student’s entire weekly budget can be spent on those two days on taxis, car rentals, shared minivans and accommodation until Saturday. 
 It is not a secret that Israel’s democracy is plagued by difficulties that seem unresolvable, especially when they arise from the need to protect the state from the constant danger it is exposed to, not only in terms of verbal threats but also physical reality. 
But when it comes to an aspect that at a first glance does not seem to threaten the safety of the state, such as basic public transportation on Shabbat, then the debate is even more complex, because emotions, tradition and religion all come into play. The answer is, as I was bluntly told from a right wing member of Knesset, "we want a Jewish State" (or as we say in Latin America, "Saint The-discussion-is-over”). 
After six months of living in Israel, I can say that my whole experience has been affected by the constant impossibility of mobility during the weekends. I therefore ask myself:
How is it possible that the lack of such crucial public services has remained the status quo?
The United Nations HABITAT Forum is taking place this year in the city of Medellin, Colombia. The city has earned it. Among other developments, they have created an integrative transportation system that includes cable cars, metro, public bicycles and even escalators for cities on hillsides. 
In 2013 the Wall Street Journal crowned Medellín as the “Innovative City of the Year.” The key: accessibility. A clear path towards development, by enhancing the inhabitant’s potential of mobility. Meanwhile, once a week, Israel lies on the antipodes.
I am not advocating for open shops, or even regular public services on Shabbat. Only a minimum so that citizens, residents, and tourists will not lose their capacity to move further than a walking distance every week for twenty-five hours. 
Religion, even one as rich, interesting and flourishing as Judaism, is yet a system of beliefs, which cannot be logically evaluated. Therefore it is not moral to impose and force it onto others; neither its costs nor its benefits.
The Jewish/democratic dichotomy promotes, as another Member of the Knesset told us once, the misconception that this society needs to decide between one of them: 
Either this country embodies Judaism and all the rich tradition, idiosyncrasy and knowledge that come with a two thousand year-old nation, -making democracy the dark wolf of progress that comes to take our uniqueness and values away-; or Israel stands on the foundation of democracy, protecting equality, humanist values, and universal moral parameters, in which case religion becomes the medieval, irrational belief system that only pushes us back on the path of history.
 I do not think that the Jewish state needs to choose one of the two options; instead I trust in its ability to transform and enrich itself by taking and leaving the elements from each that would best suit the needs of the nation.
Public transportation is one of those items long since forgotten by national pundits, but it should not have been. It is necessary that basic public services remain considered as a right to those who need them and not as a disputed subject.
This problem must be addressed with celerity. Not for the sake of progress, or of democracy, but because it is a logical, fair and feasible way to concretely improve the lives of many residents.
Sometimes the key is in the definition of the problem. Facing this matter as a Jewish vs. democratic dilemma is a mistake. For as a state, the question of common sense and practical quality of life, should always come first.
Celina Nieman of Argentina is currently spending ten months living in Jerusalem and interning at the Israeli Ministry of Social Affairs, as a part of Masa Israel Journey's Israel Government Fellows program.


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