Why is public transportation a question in Israel? And how are cooperatives an answer? [ssba]

Why is public transportation a question in Israel? And how are cooperatives an answer?

In most countries, public transportation is taken for granted. In Japan commuter trains are known to be crowded, in Brazil buses can be dangerous, but no one questions whether they should run. In Israel, a country whose founding fathers sought normalcy, transportation is indicative of anything but that.

Public transportation in Israel is limited by religious dictation. Although polls show that more than 70% of the public supports transportation 24/7, Israel politicians, cowering at the religious and mostly ultra-religious demands, restrict public transportation according to the hours of the Sabbath. Public transportation in Israel shuts down well before the Sabbath begins and resumes only well after it has left. The result is that people cannot visit friends and family and can’t reach centers where activity is permitted (movie theaters, for example, and other forms of entertainment are open and running on weekends). These restrictions are a huge source of resentment and anger both at the religious establishment that demand the enforcement of prohibitions and at the politicians who submit to them.

Recently, a number of grassroots initiatives have challenged this situation. Rather than merely venting frustrations, activists in several cities, first in Jerusalem, have begun offering alternatives. “Shabus” is a cooperative, the creation of a group of social activists who were determined to establish a practical, accessible and fully legal mode of transportation in Jerusalem on weekends. Since it is private, the Ministry of Transportation hasn’t raised objections to it. Since it is a non-profit, it is made easy for anyone to join.

The creators of Shabus sought a way to help the many people of all ages – particularly the young and elderly — without cars or licenses who feel trapped on weekends. |For apart from the religious confrontation, the prohibition on public transportation creates a great social gap: although the slightly older and more financially secure population is able to enjoy the burgeoning urban life, tens of thousands of Jerusalemites, including the forty thousand students in the city, thousands of soldiers, the elderly, as well as young people (most of whom do not own cars) are denied the opportunity to enjoy their leisure time as they please. Shabus is particularly important to people who live in the periphery of Jerusalem for whom the only alternative is taxis, which are prohibitively expensive, and to people with disabilities for whom a long walk or a bicycle ride is not a feasible option.

Video Caption: “I want to visit my grandmother on the other side of town on Saturday,” “I want to take my daughter to the Biblical zoo but I don’t have a car…” Shabus! Have you had enough? We too, so a few of us met and created Shabus, a weekend transportation service. 

Furthermore, the founders of Shabus sought to promote public transportation all week long. Many people would happily forgo their cars, thereby minimizing the congestion and improving the air in the city, were public transportation available on weekends. Especially since the advent of the light rail, an increasing number of Jerusalemites express willingness to make use of greener ways of getting around town, but knowing they’ll be stranded on weekends discourages them.

Finally, Shabus is a great answer to the growing problem of drinking under the influence of alcohol. Most riders of Shabus are under the age of 25, with a majority being soldiers home for the weekend. Soldiers commonly drink on their evenings home and are usually overtired. Shabus has become a popular means of insuring their safety. On Shabus, soldiers on leave can meet, socialize, drink, and be brought home safely — without endangering themselves or others by driving without necessary caution.

Shabus and its sister cooperatives need to continue to grow to reach the volume which will enable them to be financially self-sustaining. In the meantime, they rely on donations and ideological supporters to help them cultivate a wide enough base to bring about the change they seek: making themselves obsolete by finally prompting politicians to do what the public expects of them by allowing public transportation on weekends. When they do so, these cooperatives will not only be making mobility a possibility for all but will be helping break the extremist monopoly and taking one step further in allowing Israel to become the pluralist and just society that most Israelis and Jews hope it will be.

Update on ‘Shabus’ cooperative for Shabbat transit, and how you can help [ssba]

Update on ‘Shabus’ cooperative for Shabbat transit, and how you can help

Jerusalem is beginning to show signs of a cultural revival. The city is growing, as is tourism. More and more centers of entertainment, restaurants and cultural institutions are opening.

But many of these are confronted by opposition: religious extremists opposed and brought about the canceling of a series of concerts in churches on weekends. Recently a proposal was brought up to close the zoo on Saturday, its busiest day. Ultra-Orthodox protesters appeared outside a number of new coffee shops open on Saturdays and tried to force their closure. A dance studio was told it had to keep all its curtains drawn because religious passers by might be offended by the sight of women in leotards.

Shabus

Shabus logo

Moreover, the government insists on enforcing a ban on all public transportation on Friday nights and Saturdays, despite Jerusalem’s hilly topography and the great distances from outlying neighborhoods to the center of town. Jerusalem is the poorest of Israel’s large cities, and less than half of the city’s households own cars. Because of the ban, tens of thousands of Jerusalemites, including the forty thousand students in the city, thousands of soldiers, the elderly, as well as young people — most of whom do not own cars — are denied the opportunity to enjoy their leisure time as they see fit and to play an active role in defending and developing Jerusalem’s cultural and entertainment centers on Saturdays.

We believe it is important to encourage and cultivate the audience for cultural and leisure time activities as well as the institutions that provide them. In order to do so, friends and I formed the Cooperative Transportation Association of Jerusalem that offers a perfectly legal alternative for transportation on Friday evenings and Saturdays. Private minibuses are run by the cooperative for its members; we call the project, “Shabus.” Anyone can join the cooperative and enjoy its services. Read More »

‘Shabus': Toward a Pluralistic Shabbat in Jerusalem [ssba]

‘Shabus': Toward a Pluralistic Shabbat in Jerusalem
laura_wharton_head_shotJerusalem is a wonderful, multicultural city and I feel lucky to have been a resident for almost twenty years, as well as to have served on the CIty Council for the last six. For any of you who haven’t yet visited, I encourage you to come.
Unfortunately, we do have a generous share of problems. One is that a small, aggressive minority of religious extremists is trying, with some success, to dictate the way of life for all the rest of us.
We are lucky to have a growing community of people who believe that the city should be freer, more open to culture of all sorts, and more accessible to all — including on Saturdays. Although liberal religious circles recognize the need for such openness (see the Gavison-Medan Covenant), religious coercive pressure enforces a ban on public (government supported) transportation.  In order to enliven the city’s culture and deepen an atmosphere of freedom, friends and I have formed a cooperative — the Cooperative Transportation Association of Jerusalem — that will be offering a socially aware and perfectly legal alternative for transportation on Friday evenings and Saturdays. We call the project “Shabus”. Read More »

Jerusalem First [ssba]

Since the beginning of the Oslo talks, the negotiations have tended to take place, quite understandably, behind closed doors. After a brief period of euphoria under Rabin, an even briefer one under Peres, the Israeli public witnessed a long freefall into conflict starting with Netanyahu’s first term. Both sides utterly lost confidence in the other and the public at best witnessed occasional gestures of good will, such as release of prisoners or friendly speeches. At worst, random killings or outright wars have brought Palestinian -Israeli relations to new nadirs. Even when reports indicated that progress was being made, the public was never privy to the details and rarely if ever saw any evidence that real peace was any closer. Moreover, some of the hardest issues, notably Jerusalem, were always said to be being left for later stages.

Perhaps this approach is wrong. Certainly negotiators cannot update the public on the details of their positions on a regular basis, and not until agreement has been reached, but the fact that so little is known makes the public reticent. Apart from the dismatlement of some checkposts, the Palestinians have seen little or no improvement in their situation and Israelis are little aware and take for granted the success of the cooperation that has brought about a sharp decrease in terrorist activity, apart from attacks by individuals in the months since the summer’s war.

Perhaps it is time to try a new approach. Instead of trying to re-open talks on border issues that will reach the public only in the distant future, Israel and the Palestinians could try tackling was has been said to be one of the harder subjects but would make any progress visible.

Jerusalem is not now and never has been a united city; to anyone familiar with it this is obvious. Since the summer the divide in the city has become all the clearer as police and border troops blocked the entrances to several large Palestinian neighborhoods and effectively put them under siege. Rather than continuing to postpone addressing the issue of Jerusalem, Palestinians and Israelis should start discussing practical ways to prepare for reseparating it and providing the basis for a two state solution.

Seeing is believing. Both sides could make a real difference in re-starting the peace process by tackling the most visible problem in a practical way. Palestinian neghborhoods could be given independence from Israel’s Jerusalem municipality in a way that would have little or no effect on West Jerusalem but would give everyone a lot more confidence in one another and therefore — also in peace.

 

Lessons We Can Learn for the Day After [ssba]

My website: http://www.laurawharton.com/

We’re in our fifteenth day of war, and things are looking quite sad. I’ve already been to two funerals of fallen soldiers, and they were heart-breaking. Two young men who were called up to defend their country sacrificed their lives doing so.  I know that on the other side of the border people are hurting as well.

As a leftist, it is painful to feel our responsibility. On both sides people failed to convince their leaders and their communities that there are better ways to settle thing than through war and destruction. But amidst all the grief and frustration I think we must try to learn some lessons, already, that may help us in the aftermath of yet another round of violence.
We should not be drawn into the temptation of seeing things in black and white.  Just as we thought we must struggle from within Israel to find friends across the border, so we must struggle to find partners within Israel. Some people on the extreme left have been voicing their objections to the war with zealous outrage no less dangerous than those on the right: calling our soldiers murderers, calling the war a slaughter, questioning our right (and obligation) to defend our citizens, and rioting. This is not the way to bring the war to an end, and not the way to create a healthier or more tolerant society.
We must see that at the same time that there are sickening outbreaks of racism in Israel now, with protests and attcks on innocent Arab citizens, there are endless examples of heartwarming generosity.  I’ve been involved daily with friends and organizations, some already existing and some now sprouting up, organizing help, volunteers and contributions to families in the south, for soldiers called up, for families of fallen soldiers, and for small businesses who have been closed because of the situation. The soldiers in Gaza are mostly driven by truly positive and admirable feelings — the desire to serve and protect their country and their families. 
As we on the left are recovering from the war, we must find ways to reach out to people who do not necessarily agree with us on everything.  We have to find ways not only to protect all of us from violence, but to work together better also in times of quiet. That will provide the best security against another war and help us advance the peace.

The Bright Side [ssba]

In Israel these days it’s pretty easy to feel down.  The peace talks — which, with Netanyahu as prime minister, never seemed very likely to get anywhere anyway — have indeed collapsed. Social gaps continue to grow. The government is so hopeless and divided it has taken more than six months to decide who should chair the most important committee in the Knesset, the Foreign Affairs and Security Committee. So what gives one hope for something better? What gives me hope is the young people.

Thousands of Israeli youth do a year’s national service after they finish high school. This is not the army but in addition to it! They get a minimal stipend from the government, room and board, and live

My daughter with other 18 year-olds last year, in national service with underprivileged youth.

in some of the most difficult neighborhoods in the country, where they teach, tutor, and help troubled teenagers in every possible way.  A growing number of Arab Israelis, and even several hundred Ultra-Orthodox men, also volunteer for this kind of service. It’s a kind of domestic peace corps, a VISTA Corps, that attracts more volunteers than can be accepted; young people compete for selection and learn both about problems in Israeli society and how to solve them.

Most Israelis are drafted into the army after high school. Although a significant percentage of 18-year-olds — largely Ultra-Orthodox men and women — do not serve, nor do almost any Arab Israelis (who, except for members of the Druse religious community, are not drafted), most Israeli young people give two, three or more years of their life to the army.

It should be emphasized that both men and women serve — a rarity — which gives an important boost to equality between the sexes. It was only recently that the first woman was appointed to the rank of major general, but there are fewer and fewer posts in which women do not serve.  Recently I had the honor of seeing my daughter march in formation shoulder to shoulder with young men as she finished basic training — something one rarely saw when I served, a couple of decades ago.

In addition, it is important to note that army service is not just combat service: huge numbers of soldiers also teach, help underprivileged soldiers fill in gaps in their education, and perform countless other tasks that serve the civilian population, in peace as much as in war. In no other country today are citizens called upon to devote so much of their lives to national service, and while I am indeed sorry they must be called upon to do so, I am proud of the way they take it in stride and are so deeply instilled with group responsibility.

Furthermore, in recent years there has been a flowering of awareness of social issues and problems. Almost a half a million Israelis, mostly young people, took to the streets to call for social justice in the summer of 2010. Since then, countless organizations have been formed to promote social issues and address the socio-economic gaps that are ruining the country. Today I attended a conference for members of cooperatives, and was inspired to learn how many have been formed in Jerusalem, and to see how many young people are involved in them (I think the average age was  under 30). Representatives of the international cooperative union who organized the gathering explained how rapidly the movement was growing in Israel.

Israel is now saddled with numerous problems: settling its borders and other issues with its neighbors, rebuilding its collapsed education system, confronting the growing problem of domestic violence and family tensions, and much more. However, knowing and working with the young people of this country makes me think that they just might be able to pull us out of the mire. Here’s hoping.

Parks as Weapons: New Strategy of Right [ssba]

It is no secret that the Israeli government has always been concerned with demographics. It is in no way special in this; even relatively reputable academics such as Samuel Huntington have written unabashedly about the “threat” of the growing Hispanic population in the U.S., which he claimed neither speaks nor wants to learn English and is tipping the balance of population from Protestants to Catholics. The Russians took care to settle its nationals in every republic in the Soviet Union, managing to form a majority in Kazakhstan and a large minority even in the Baltic states, especially Estonia. French limits on immigration and Australian policy towards the Aborigines, I’ll only mention. Yet there are legitimate concerns, legitimate means — and then there’s the latest policy in Jerusalem.

On the one hand, Israel has always wanted very much to enlarge Jerusalem and develop it as its capital. On the other hand, it wanted as few Palestinians (who refused Israeli citizenship) and as high a percentage of Israeli Jews as possible within the municipal boundaries. The size of Jerusalem tripled in territory after the Six-Day War — and efforts were immediately begun to build new Israeli neighborhoods in the area available: not surprising.

Mount Scopus Slopes National Park

Since then, Israel has continued to build for Israelis and persisted in making acquiring building permits as difficult as possible for Palestinians, if not impossible. A variety of means have also been developed to make it difficult to acquire permanent residency status — but easy to lose it. Yet despite its best efforts, the percentage of Palestinians residing in the city has continued to climb (it now stands at 37%) while the percentage of Israeli Jews has correspondingly dropped. This, apparently, has prompted an inventive new weapon in the demography battle: the transformation of all possible land available to the Palestinians into national park land. Apparently the hope is that with virtually no chance of building on park land, the Palestinians will simply move out.

Thus, the Jerusalem Municipality has been promoting a plan to develop the slopes of Silwan into a park it calls, “The King’s Garden” which will entail the bulldozing of about 44 Palestinian homes. The area is to become a park, a tourist attraction, to lure visitors from the old city and what is now called “the City of David” into the neighborhood of Silwan — but under a different name, and with the dubious advantage of making the displaced residents relocate (to be fair, the municipality claims it will help them build new housing — elsewhere). In an area of East Jerusalem between the neighborhood of Wadi Joz and A-Tur, a small national park has been established (Emek Tzurim) that makes it impossible for the surrounding neighborhoods to expand but makes the area a comfortable spot for tourists and for the ultra-right wing NGO “Elad” to bring tourists (for a profit). Now an even more grandiose plan is underway: to take a huge swathe of land  (700 dunam) between A-Tor and Issawiya and make that, too, a park (Mount Scopus Slopes National Park)– although even the Minister of the Environment and the Society for Protection of Nature in Israel agree there is absolutely no special flora or fauna of note to justify such a decision. This area is a barren region of slabs of rock and unremarkable shrubbery that might have been used to build the schools and public buildings of which both neighborhoods are in need, but the Minister of Building prefers to block it off.

According to international law, East Jerusalem is occupied territory. That means that Israel has a responsibility to maintain the land and see to the needs of its residents. But someone who thinks that Israel is now the legitimate sovereign of East Jerusalem must also acknowledge that it must see to the needs of the people of East Jerusalem, be they permanent residents or citizens or anything else. The developing policy of seizing land in East Jerusalem for fictive parks, simply to make it unavailable for Palestinian housing, is a cynical and unjust policy that should be condemned and stopped.

Those Leaving Haredi Fold Need Our Help [ssba]

In the last week there has been a flood of media attention directed at the plight of people leaving the Ultra-Orthodox (“Haredi”) and Orthodox communities. Sadly, much has dealt with a series of recent tragedies: two young people took their lives and a number of others made similar attempts. People who leave these religious communities are often completely shunned both by their own families and by most of those surrounding them. Unlike people who make the opposite move, there are few supports, direction, or efforts — certainly none by the government — to help them adapt. There are no rules, training, guidebooks, and until now, virtually no funding to bring them into the new community.

These brave souls are doing what most of our grandparents did. They have been evaluating their way of life and have made a decision to try a new one.  Spinoza, in the seventeenth century, was completely ostracized and officially banned by his congregation; whereas most of the young people I am referring to have made far less dramatic turns in their lives and have a new world far closer at hand, they are leaving some of the most rigid and isolated sub-cultures in the Western world. For many, televisions and radios were utterly forbidden, social contact was strictly limited and — most damaging — their education was limited to religious studies. All this means they come into free society lacking basic knowledge or understanding of where they live, the world around them, how to function, or even the fundamental skills (math, science, or English) necessary to find employment. 
MK Zehava Galon just reintroduced a bill she initially proposed some time ago granting these young people the rights of new immigrants.  As they themselves described to me in a gathering I attended last week, they are a lot like people falling to earth from another planet. They are unfamiliar with simple social conventions and have no connections or social supports. They don’t even know how to find them.
Israeli society has to take responsibility for them and help them in every way possible, in such fields as education, job training, housing — areas in which the Ultra-Orthodox themselves are currently receiving preferential treatment. They are looking to become part of the larger society and with great drive to do so. They were abandoned by the government for most of their lives, left to study in schools with no approved curriculum and left to the will of religious extremists who regularly violated basic freedoms and rights of modern society. They have lost a lot and we all, together, have much to gain from their successful integration. We now have an obligation to help them and the many like them who are apparently waiting behind.  

Say No to Racist in Jerusalem Mayor’s Coalition [ssba]

In the recent municipal elections, Nir Barkat was re-elected (by a slim 51%) for a second five-year term as mayor of Jerusalem.  But the make-up of the city council is somewhat different from the previous election.  First, there are two more Ultra-Orthodox representatives: one more for Shas (Sephardi Orthodox party), most likely due to extra votes in sympathy for the recently deceased Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and one new representative of a one-man opposition slate to the traditional United Torah Judaism (Ashkenazi Orthodox).  Second, Barkat’s own party lost two seats and Meretz lost one — but they were re-distributed among other more or less pluralist parties.

Third, a new national religious party got two seats (which together with the “Bayit Hayehudi” meant the three seats held previously by the National Religious Party were maintained but distributed differently).  But the new religious party includes a representative by the name of Aryeh King, who belongs to the extreme right and spent most of his life — and campaign — talking about how to keep Arabs out of the city, or how to force them to leave.

King publicized the fact that he has the “blessings” of Rabbi Shmuel Eliahu, who has been accused of racist activity and gave a psak halacha saying that it was forbidden to sell or rent apartments to non-Jews. Eliahu also called for the Arab students in the Tzfat College (where he lives) to be chased out of town. King also founded a fund to try to buy land in Palestinian neighborhoods and settle Israelis in them. He is responsible for the eviction of countless Arabs from their homes by a variety of business and legal maneuvers, including an exercise that gave title of houses back to the heirs of Jewish homes from before 1948; if expanded without racist preference for Jews, it opens up cross claims by Arabs for properties all over Jerusalem. Until this round of legal work, all legal title went back only to 1948.

Shockingly, Nir Barkat has decided to include Aryeh King in his new coalition.  In fact, his
agreement with King’s party was one of the first signed to establish the new coalition.  Parties that openly backed Barkat or have worked with him in the past have not yet settled on agreements with the newly re-elected mayor, whereas parties that supported his opponent or remained unaligned have already been signed on.  “United Jerusalem,” for example, did not endorse Nir Barkat — but was immediately courted by Nir and is now to be part of the municipality’s governing coalition.

Meretz, a left-wing party that was in Barkat’s coalition last term (and is the party I represent today in the city council, now part of a joint list with the Labor Party), asked from the outset that King not be part of the coalition. A petition to that effect has been gaining wide support on the Internet. Many people turned out to a protest today at a site where the mayor was giving a speech, calling him to remove King from the coalition.

Yet as it now stands, having to choose between a two-man party with a racist platform (“United Jerusalem”) or an activist party for social justice (Meretz), Barkat has chosen the racist partner. It is quite a blow to the mixed and pluralist city that Jerusalem is to have such a party in the city management, and it is a stain both on the mayor and on his other coalition partners that a party to the right of France’s Le Pen is accepted without contest.

One can only hope that some outside pressure — including perhaps some readers of this blog? — will help Barkat realize how damaging and dangerous it is to legitimize a man like King. I invite you to express your opinion: http://lishka.jerusalem.muni.il/

Building New Settlement in East Jerusalem [ssba]

Yesterday I participated in a protest at a ceremony for laying a “cornerstone” of a new building project — an Israeli project, at the edge of the (East Jerusalem) neighborhood of Jabr Mukaber. It was a bizarre event, to say the least.

First of all, it was hardly possible to lay a cornerstone. The project began 5 years ago and was halted 2 years ago, after two stories of the project had already been built. The great celebration was that the minister of building, Uri Ariel, managed to extricate approval from Bibi Netanyahu and his governement to renew work on the project.

Second, the buzz in Jerusalem is that the approval is meant to compensate rightist components of the government for the decision to release a number of Palestinian terrorists from Israel prisons. That to me is a gruesome idea: I can hardly imagine that any family of any victim of a terrorist attack would find solace in that dreadful building project on the outskirts of the capital.

Third, Ariel’s performance was a pitiful and transparent attempt to disrupt the peace talks due to begin this week. He and the other guests of honor spoke to the meager crowd (outnumbered by journalists and protesters) about his plans to build everywhere “between the river and the sea”, i.e., completely disregarding the government’s supposed commitment to a two-state agreement.

Finally, the mayor of Jerusalem insisted on speaking about the building “for Jews,” even arguing with me that my opposition was racist — that according to him, he had a responsibility to build for Jews and Arabs alike.  This project, clearly, was meant for Jews. Here he not only missed the crux of the protest but showed how caught up he was in creating a religious crisis out of one over territory.  The problem with the building project is not that it is being built “for Jews” in an “Arab neighborhood.” The problem is that Israel, as the occupying power in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, is forbidden by international law to settle its citizens in the conquered territory.

It makes no difference if the tenants are Jews, Muslims, Christians, or Bahais.  If they are Israelis, they should not be settling in Palestinian territory.

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