Israel – First Cars

Cars came late to Eretz Yisroel. Close to World War I, few Yerushalmim had ever seen such a contraption. Those among them who never traveled abroad could barely imagine a world where the donkey, horse, and camel did not reign supreme.

The First Crack

One of the first cracks in the wall of old-fashioned mobility split open in 1912, when a member of the billionaire Rockefeller family came for a visit from the US. Of course, he did not forget to bring along the essentials of his lifestyle that included a car to tour the country in speedy comfort. When word spread that the petrol powered contrivance would be leaving the millionaire’s residence at the Grand New Hotel sited just inside the OldCity’s Yaffo Gate on Shabbos afternoon, huge crowds gathered in front of the building long before the appointed time. Latecomers lined Yaffo Street that extends westward outside the OldCity gates. The latecomers were disappointed. For after emerging from the OldCity, instead of heading up Yaffo Street, the millionaire turned left towards Beis Lechem.

After the outbreak of World War I, cars became common as German soldiers drove in cars and trucks all the way from Constantinople via Syria and ever since then, the internal combustion automobile never looked back. After the war, one of the most important innovations of the British Mandate government was the building and renovation of a network of roads throughout the country, which spurred the increasing use of cars and buses. One aspect of transportation remained as it had been under Turkish law. Traffic continued to move on the right side of roads as is customary in most countries of Europe and the US and did not switch to the left side in accordance with British practice.

Since then, Israel, like the rest of the western world, has become a country on wheels. The use of private cars has increased to the extent that the percentage of people using public transport dropped from 64% in 1972 to 30% by 2005. At the same time, the number of private vehicles jumped from 66 cars per thousand Israelis, to 342 cars per thousand. There’s still a way to go. In the US, by way of comparison, there are over 600 private vehicles per thousand residents. Armies of cars are busily relieving the restlessness of the masses.

Disrupting the Atmosphere of our Dear Town

The disadvantage of cars and buses was that they led to a new type of public chillul Shabbos. By 1935, we find the chief rabbis of Tel Aviv-Yaffo, Rav Shlomo Cohen Aaronsohn and Rav Ben Zion Meir Chai Uziel, writing to the city council to complain not so much about private cars that were restricted to the wealthy, but about the increasing prevalence of cabbies brazenly plying their trade on Shabbos.

“The increase of chillul Shabbos, mainly due to small cars, is getting worse from week to week,” they wrote. “Dozens of cars wait for customers at the square next to the Mugrabi Opera House and in Hachashmal Street, publicly transporting Jews from place to place. Brazenly, they call out the names of the destinations they take people to. All this is done before the eyes of hundreds of religious Jews returning from shul when they are filled with holy sentiment. Their rest and tranquility is rudely broken by the noise of the cars and the announcements of the brazen drivers…”

The letter ends with a request to outlaw the practice:

“We are aware that these drivers have organized themselves and are applying to the city council for official taxi stands. We think this opportunity should be utilized in order to stop, finally, the continuation of this disgraceful sight that so terribly disrupts the atmosphere of our dear town and offends the feelings of the majority of its populace to the extent that quarrels break out between Jew and Jew.”

In the end, the Shabbos transport question was left hanging in the air by a status quo agreement forged shortly before the founding of the State of Israel. According to its terms, buses are generally disallowed on Shabbos except in Chaifa, which has a large Arab population, and Eilat. In religious neighborhoods, even private cars are proscribed from traveling through the streets.

Of course, observant Jews were not happy with a situation that preserved blatant Shabbos desecration on Israel’s roads. Regarding the situation in Chaifa, Chief Rabbi Yitzchok Eizik Halevi Herzog said at a speech at the Technion College in 1945 that the fact that Chaifa was famous as Palestine’s hardest working town was no excuse for its public degradation of Shabbos.

“We are ashamed of this burning disgrace that Chaifa, the beautiful city of the future, has a terrible breech such as public transport (tachburah) on Shabbos,” he said. “This is not tachburah [a word that also means connection] but a separation between Yisroel and their Father in heaven. The Torah honors and cherishes work, writing, Six days you shall work, and ‘greater is he who benefits from the effort of his hands than he who fears heaven.’ But this is only if the work is the means to a purpose, a holy purpose, and not an end in itself. To turn it into an idol, to create a separate camp whose religion is work, cannot be. It will not happen!”

The status quo did not always resolve the question of what happens when major roads run through religious neighborhoods. One questionable area involved the streets around Kikar Shabbos at the beginning of Meah Shearim. Army vehicles traveling to the Shneller army base in Geulah Street (the westward continuation of Meah Shearim Street) passed through the area, and during summer months when Shabbos finished late, trucks brought milk to the Tenuvah dairy in the area before Motza’ei Shabbos. At one stage, the Badatz even issued a cherem against Tenuvah because of this practice.

From the beginning of the 50s, demonstrations against traffic in the area continued for years. At times, the level of violence rose to alarming levels such as on August 12, 1950, when three truckloads of Shomer Hatzair kibbutz members and Palmach fighters drove in to take a violent part in the struggle. On another occasion, kibbutz members broke into the Chevron Yeshivah near Kikar Shabbos and beat a number of its talmidim. Most tragic of all was one Shabbos in 1956 when police beat a protester, Pinchos Seglov, so brutally that he died on the spot.

Thanks to the frequent demonstrations, traffic in the area lessened and was practically non-existent by the time Mayor Teddy Kollek officially closed it to traffic in 1965.

Another controversial thoroughfare was Bar Ilan Street that serves some of Yerushalayim’s northern suburbs built after the Six Day War. Although Shabbos traffic was illegal in the religious suburbs next to the street such as Arzei Habira, cars passed through on Shabbos to reach different parts of town. After quiet protests began in 1988, Teddy Kollek closed the street for the first time in 1991 in honor of the Satmar Rebbe’s visit to Yerushalayim. At present, by rule of the Supreme Court, Bar Ilan Street is officially open on Shabbos except for davening times. In practice, alternative roads built in the meanwhile have encouraged motorists to take another route and avoid the gauntlet of disapproving Shabbos observers. Shabbos traffic there is minimal.

During the battle over Yerushalayim’s streets, secular Jews appealed to Israel’s Supreme Court, arguing that denying them access to public thoroughfares on Shabbos was tantamount to religious coercion. In this issue, the Supreme Court took the side of the religious Jews who demanded closing them on Shabbos. The court argued that closing streets to traffic is not religious coercion as non-religious people are not being forced not to drive, but only not to drive in certain places. Thus, they are not being coerced to do anything that contradicts their non-religious outlook. The judges added that consideration for religious feelings is no different than taking into account people’s commercial or cultural considerations. In another ruling, the Supreme Court explained that “protecting this [religious] interest is not the forcing of a religious lifestyle onto someone who does not want it, but protecting the lifestyle followed by someone who cleaves to it.”

The Ashkelon Grand Prix

One of the most sensational struggles involving chillul Shabbos in Israel was catapulted by the grandiose idea of having part of the 1970 Grand Prix car race in Israel. The opening day of the event was set for November 21, a day that happened to be Shabbos. This blatant trampling on the Shabbos day created a national uproar. On November 11, MK Shlomo Yaakov Gross of Agudas Yisroel delivered an impassioned protest against the crime in the Knesset.

“Never has there been in Israel an act of Chillul Shabbos as public and of the international extent as the Ashkelon car race planned to take place on Shabbos, if this, chas veshalom, takes place,” he said. “If we had the least self-respect, national honor, and decency towards ourselves and towards Shabbos, we would be incapable of doing such a thing.”

A few days before the event when a number of European participants had already arrived together with their cars, the protests of religious Jewry reached such an extent that the German organizers of the Grand Prix shifted the first day of the race to Sunday. But the event was doomed. The racing had barely got underway when the 1970 Ashkelon Grand Prix was canceled due to the unruly behavior of spectators who could not quite grasp the fact that the place of an audience is in the viewing stands and not on the track. The Grand Prix organizers left in disgust and never returned.

(Sources include: Yitzchak Shiryon, Zichronos, Defus Weiss, Yerushalayim, 5703. Das, Chevrah, Umedinah B’yisroel, chapter 13, Shabbos Kodesh o Yom Menuchah. Wikipedia.)

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