RAMAT GAN, Israel—Mayor Carmel Shama-Hacohen’s desk is strewn with evidence of the threats against his life over his campaign to introduce public bus service on the Sabbath—an effort that put him on one side of a broader dispute that some call a battle for the soul of Israel.
Service begins next weekend between this leafy suburban city of 156,000 and the beach in Tel Aviv, after the Ramat Gan city council approved the plan on Tuesday, despite opposition from Israelis who say service on Friday evening and Saturday flouts the Bible-ordained day of rest.
The dispute was the latest in a national conflict over the Sabbath that has upended Israeli politics. It pits the most religiously conservative Jews against the secular as well as those who are strongly faithful but less observant, a segment known in Israel as traditional Jews.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempt to form a government collapsed in May over a split between parts of the secular and religious camps of the Israeli right, forcing new elections on Sept. 17. Mr. Netanyahu doesn’t have a clear path to a majority coalition, as his rival, Avigdor Lieberman, rallies secular Jews and paints the prime minister as beholden to the ultraorthodox.
Much of the tension revolves around the growing ultraorthodox population’s use of its burgeoning political power to impose restrictions on government work, business and movement on the holy day.
The Sabbath issue will be among the most important issues deciding Mr. Netanyahu’s fate in September, said Yair Sheleg, a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank.
“They feel it once a week,” Mr. Sheleg said of Israelis and Sabbath restrictions. “It’s not an abstract issue.”
Mr. Netanyahu is a secular politician, but has joined with ultraorthodox parties to form governing coalitions and has called for respecting the status quo of the Sabbath as a national day of rest.
Such secular versus religious issues deeply divide his Likud party. Almost 60% of Likud voters say public transportation should be allowed on the Sabbath in communities that want it, according to a February poll by the Jerusalem-based Israel Democracy Institute.
Since Israel’s founding in 1948, the status quo maintained by secular and religious politicians, with a few exceptions, has been to eschew public transportation on the Sabbath, preserving a cultural mainstay of Judaism. But in recent years many Israelis have grown frustrated with the status quo, demanding some kind of limited transportation.
Mr. Netanyahu has defended his secular credentials this summer. He has said Israel will never be ruled by Halakha, or Jewish law, and rejected requests from a religious coalition partner to appoint one of their own as justice minister, instead choosing a socially liberal, gay Likud lawmaker between elections to run the ministry.
The Ramat Gan mayor, Mr. Shama-Hacohen, a former Likud lawmaker, said he took up the issue of public transportation on Sabbath after it surprisingly emerged as a top issue in chats with constituents. The city has long had a mix of religious and secular residents, but the less-observant have become more vocal in advocating against ultraorthodox influence, he said.
“There is something that is happening for the first time ever in the state of Israel,” Mr. Shama-Hacohen said of the desire of traditional Jews to break the status quo around Sabbath restrictions.
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He stressed that the demand now comes not just from the regular critics of left-wing secular activists, but also from traditional Jews like himself who are often right-wing Likud voters.
The city’s Sabbath bus service will shuttle riders on the city’s main thoroughfares to the beach 4 miles away, and to other special destinations in Tel Aviv. If the shuttles are little used in the first three months, the service will be stopped, Mr. Shama-Hacohen said.
“There should be an option for everyone,” said Milay Mer, 19 years old, a waitress who said she spends weekends at home in Ramat Gan because she has no way to get into Tel Aviv, where many restaurants, bars and entertainment venues remain open on the Sabbath.
Israel’s ultraorthodox population has grown to 12% of the total up from around 5% in 1990. With households that average seven children, the ultraorthodox are projected to account for 16% of the population by 2030, according to government statistics.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews protested the Sabbath bus plan in Ramat Gan before its approval on Tuesday. On Wednesday, ultraorthodox political leaders said Mr. Shama-Hacohen “has crossed the red line…staining the city of Ramat Gan with the destruction of religious values and the sanctity of Shabbat.”
Fights over observing the Sabbath have played out across the country. The ultraorthodox have launched a boycott of a glass bottle company that operates on the Sabbath, delayed weekend construction projects and held up at least one city budget in protest.
The conflict over religious observance extends to marriage, divorce and conversion to Judaism, which are controlled by the ultraorthodox-dominated state religious authority, the Rabbinate. Many Israelis marry outside the country to have ceremonies that don’t conform with ultraorthodox views.
Mr. Netanyahu’s attempts to maintain his previous government and form one in May were thwarted in part by divisions over a proposed law to force the ultraorthodox to serve in the military. With ultraorthodox parties opposing the current draft of the law, Mr. Lieberman refused to sit in government with them.
The disputes between religious and secular Jews are fraught with emotion, as the sides try to balance the needs and norms of a modern state with the Jewish tradition at the heart of Israel’s identity.
On Mayor Shama-Hacohen desk are printouts, prepared for police investigators, of WhatsApp death threats and threatening remarks by religious leaders for his shuttle-bus plan.
His mother told him to give up the fight, fearing the consequences.
He also recalled how a Likud colleague warned him of the political ramifications of Sabbath transportation, saying: “It’s a death pit.”
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