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Reports on Religious Freedom:
Israel

(2012)


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Executive Summary

The country’s laws and policies provide for religious freedom and the government generally respected religious freedom in practice. The trend in the government’s respect for religious freedom did not change significantly during the year. The Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty protects religious freedom through reference to the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel. The declaration describes the country as a Jewish state with full social and political equality, regardless of religious affiliation, and provides for freedom of religion. However, governmental and legal discrimination against non-Jews and non-Orthodox streams of Judaism continued.

There were reports of societal abuses and discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice. Prominent societal leaders, however, took positive steps to promote religious freedom. Some individuals and groups were responsible for discriminatory practices against Muslims, Christians, and non-Orthodox Jews. Relations among religious and ethnic groups--between Jews and non-Jews, Muslims and Christians, Arabs and non-Arabs, secular and religious Jews, and among the different streams of Judaism--were strained.

The U.S. government engaged in detailed discussions on religious freedom issues with the government and religious and civil society organizations. Embassy officials raised such issues as expanding the list of officially recognized religious groups, investigating religiously motivated acts of violence against minority religious groups, and the importance of a public response to vandalism of religious places.

Section I. Religious Demography

According to the 2011 report of the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), the population is 7.9 million (including settlers living in the Occupied Territories), of which approximately 76 percent are Jews, 19 percent are Muslims, 2 percent are Christians, and 1.6 percent are Druze. The remaining 1.4 percent consists of relatively small communities of Bahais, Samaritans, Karaites, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and those classified as “other”--mostly persons who identify themselves as Jewish but do not satisfy the Orthodox Jewish definition of “Jewish” the government uses for civil procedures. The majority of non-Jewish citizens are of Arab origin.

According to the CBS report, 9 percent of the Jewish population identifies as Haredi (also known as “ultra-Orthodox”), 10 percent identifies as Orthodox, 15 percent describe themselves as “traditional, religious,” 23 percent call themselves “traditional, not so religious,” and 43 percent describe themselves as “nonreligious/secular” Jews, most of whom observe some Jewish traditions. Although not differentiated in official statistics, a 2012 Guttman Institute poll shows that approximately 500,000 traditional and secular Jews associate themselves with the beliefs of the Conservative or Reform streams of Judaism. There is also a community of approximately 20,000 Messianic Jews.

Religious communities often are concentrated in geographical areas according to religious beliefs. The country continues to undergo demographic changes due to the higher birth rate of the Haredi and Muslim communities.

There are approximately 95,000 foreigners permitted to work in the country and an additional 120,000 illegal foreign workers. Foreign workers were members of many different religious groups, including: Protestant, Roman Catholic, Orthodox Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

Although there is no constitution, laws and policies provide for religious freedom, and the government generally respected this right in practice. The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty protects freedom to practice religious beliefs, and its rulings incorporate the religious freedom provisions of international human rights agreements into the country’s body of law. The Basic Law describes the country as a “Jewish and democratic state” and references the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, which promises freedom of religion and conscience and full social and political equality, regardless of religious affiliation. Government policy continues to support the generally free practice of religion, although governmental and legal discrimination against non-Jews and non-Orthodox streams of Judaism continues.

Under laws inherited from the Ottoman and British Mandate periods, the legal system gives jurisdiction over personal status issues to each religious community. Under this system, each officially recognized religious community operates religious courts and has legal authority over its members in matters of marriage, divorce, and burial. Jewish, Druze, and Christian families may ask for some personal status cases, including alimony and child custody, to be adjudicated in civil courts. Jewish women often prefer the civil courts because they are considered to be more fair to women. However, in cases of divorce, Jewish women are subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of the rabbinical courts if their spouses file the case there first. Since 2001 Muslim women also may file cases related to custody, alimony, or property division associated with divorce in civil courts. In practice, however, societal pressures frequently prevent Muslim women from using this option. Paternity cases among Muslim citizens are the exclusive jurisdiction of Islamic law courts. Some couples who marry in the country, including Catholics, cannot get a divorce unless they change their religious affiliation to a different religious authority that authorizes divorces.

Members of unrecognized religious groups may practice their beliefs. There is no civil right to marry or divorce in the country for members of unrecognized religious communities, but an authority within one of the recognized religious communities can handle their personal status issues, including marriage, if the authority agrees.

Secular courts have primary jurisdiction over questions of inheritance, but parties may file such cases in religious courts by mutual agreement. Decisions by these bodies are subject to Supreme Court review. The rabbinical courts, when exercising their power in civil matters, apply religious law, which varies from civil law, including in matters relating to the property rights of widows and daughters.

The government implements some policies based on Orthodox Jewish interpretations of religious law. This system limits the personal freedom of individuals who otherwise would not subject themselves to the authority of a religious community. For example, the only in-country Jewish marriages the government recognizes are those the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate performs, which excludes citizens without maternal Jewish lineage since such persons are not considered Jewish according to Halacha (Jewish law). Since the state does not permit civil marriages, interfaith marriages, or marriages performed by non-Orthodox rabbis or unrecognized religious authorities, many marriages must take place outside the country in order to be legally recognized. This provision restricts the ability of individuals to choose their own religious authorities and prevents several hundred thousand Israeli citizens from marrying within the country. A 2010 law allows for civil registration of married couples only if both partners are recognized as being of “no religion,” which applies to a few dozen marriages each year.

To marry in government-recognized ceremonies, Jews must undergo marriage counseling from Orthodox religious authorities. As part of this counseling, all Jews--including the majority who do not define themselves as Orthodox or religious and those who practice Reform or Conservative Judaism--are taught to respect traditional Orthodox family roles.

The Chief Rabbinate determines who is buried in Jewish state cemeteries, limiting this right to individuals considered Jewish by Orthodox standards.

The Chief Rabbinate determines the legal validity of conversions to Judaism within the country under Orthodox rabbinic law. The Chief Rabbinate does not recognize non-Orthodox converts to Judaism as Jews and, as such, Reform and Conservative converts cannot marry or divorce in the country or be buried in Jewish cemeteries; people who converted to Reform or Conservative Judaism abroad do not have any such restrictions in the country.

The government provides funding for Orthodox conversion programs but does not support non-Orthodox programs. The government has not implemented the May 2009 High Court of Justice ruling requiring it to cease discriminating against non-Orthodox conversions. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) sponsors Orthodox Jewish conversion courses for Jewish soldiers who are not recognized as Jewish by the Orthodox rabbinical authorities.

Relatives of Jewish converts cannot receive residency rights, except for the children of female converts born after the mother’s conversion is complete.

In response to a 2005 petition by the Reform and Conservative movements, the State Prosecutor’s Office announced on May 30 that the state will recognize Conservative and Reform rabbis in rural communities and provide them with the same funding as Orthodox rabbis. However, the Ministry of Religious Services refuses to pay the salaries of the non-Orthodox rabbis. The Ministry of Culture and Sport is looking for a way to do so instead. The Chief Rabbinate opposes granting state recognition to non-Orthodox rabbis.

The law recognizes the following religious communities: Eastern Orthodox, Latin (Roman Catholic), Gregorian-Armenian, Armenian-Catholic, Syrian Catholic, Chaldean (Chaldean Uniate Catholic), Greek Catholic Melkite, Maronite, Syrian Orthodox, Druze, Evangelical Episcopal, and Bahai. Other religious communities, including major Protestant Christian denominations, have a presence in the country, but are not recognized by the government as “religious communities.” The fact that the Muslim population is not defined as a religious community is a vestige of the Ottoman period when Islam was the dominant religion, but does not prevent Muslims from practicing their religion. Four religious communities have applied for official recognition but their applications have been pending for years: Ethiopian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the Evangelical Alliance of Israel.

The Law of Return provides the right for any Jew, or any child or grandchild of a Jew, to immigrate to Israel from a foreign country with his or her spouse and children. Prospective immigrants routinely face questioning about their religious beliefs to determine their qualifications for citizenship. While Jews who are atheists or who state their adherence to other religions are conferred immigration benefits, Messianic Jews are routinely excluded, despite the Supreme Court repeatedly upholding the right of Israeli Jews who believe Jesus is the Messiah to retain citizenship. Descendants of Jews qualify for immigration under the Law of Return regardless of their religious beliefs. Following a 2011 government decision, the Ministry of Interior (MOI) now relies on the Jewish Agency’s guidance on who qualifies to immigrate as a Jew, rather than on the Chief Rabbinate. Non-Orthodox converts to Judaism are entitled to the civil right of return, citizenship, and registration as Jews in the civil population registry.

The 1967 Protection of Holy Sites Law protects the holy sites of all religious groups. All holy sites also enjoy protection under the penal law, which makes it a criminal offense to damage any holy site. Historic sites also are protected by the antiquities law. The government provides some resources for the upkeep of holy places of Muslims and all recognized religious communities, but provides significantly greater levels of government resources to Jewish holy places. The government also funds construction of Jewish synagogues and cemeteries.

A government policy since 1967, repeatedly upheld by the Supreme Court and routinely enforced by the police, who cite security concerns, denies non-Muslim worship and prayer at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. While the government ensures limited access to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif to everyone regardless of religious belief, only Muslims are allowed to pray at the site, although their access is occasionally restricted due to security concerns. The Israel National Police regulates traffic in and out of the compound and removes non-Muslim visitors if they appear to be praying.

The Jordanian-controlled Jerusalem Islamic Waqf that manages the site generally restricts non-Muslims from entering the Dome of the Rock shrine and Al-Aqsa Mosque, a practice it started in the year 2000. The Waqf does not allow non-Muslim religious symbols to be worn on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.

The Rabbi of the Western Wall, appointed by the prime minister and chief rabbis, sets the guidelines for religious observance at the Western Wall, including the strict separation of women and men. Government authorities prohibit mixed-gender prayer services at the Western Wall in deference to the belief of Orthodox Jews that such services violate Jewish religious law. According to a policy the Supreme Court repeatedly upheld, women are not allowed to pray at the Western Wall while wearing certain prayer shawls and are not permitted to read aloud from Torah scrolls because this form of prayer by women violates most Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law. Doing so is punishable under Israeli law by up to 12 months in prison or a fine of 500 NIS ($135). The court allows women and egalitarian prayer groups to hold worship services, read the Torah, and wear prayer shawls at an area south of the Mughrabi Gate adjacent to the Western Wall that the Antiquities Authority administers.

The High Court ruled in 2010 that the segregation of men and women on some public streets and sidewalks in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Mea She’arim in Jerusalem is illegal. The High Court upheld its decision this year, as local authorities attempted to give permission to erect barriers for such segregation.

Similarly, a January 2011 Supreme Court ruling found that gender segregation on public buses could not be imposed or ordered but could occur only on a voluntary basis.

The government provides resources to both religious and nonreligious schools. By law the government subsidizes 55 to 75 percent of the expenses Haredi religious schools incur if they teach an equivalent percentage of the national curriculum, which includes nonreligious subjects. However, another law exempts these schools from that requirement.

Government resources available for religious or heritage studies to Arab and non-Orthodox Jewish public schools are significantly less than those available to Orthodox Jewish public schools. Public and private Arab schools offer studies in both Islam and Christianity, but state funding for such studies is proportionately less than the funding for religious education courses in Jewish schools.

Public Hebrew-language secular schools teach Jewish history and religious texts. These classes primarily cover Jewish heritage and culture rather than religious belief. Public Arabic-speaking schools with Arab student bodies teach mandatory classes on the Quran and the Bible to both Muslim and Christian Arab students. A few independent mixed Jewish-Arab schools also exist and offer religion classes.

The government employs civilian non-Jewish clergy as chaplains at military burials when a non-Jewish soldier dies in service. The MOI provides imams to conduct funerals according to Muslim customs. All Jewish chaplains in the IDF are Orthodox.

Military service is compulsory for Jews, Druze, and the 5,000-member Circassian community (Muslims from the northwestern Caucasus region who migrated in the late 19th century). Arab citizens are exempt from compulsory service. Although the majority of Arab citizens choose not to serve in the military, some Christian and Muslim citizens, including many Bedouins, voluntarily enlist. Government policy, formalized and conditioned by the 2002 Tal Law, allows Haredi Jews to refuse to serve for religious reasons. On February 21, the High Court ruled the Tal Law unconstitutional. However, since no alternative legislation has been passed, the policy remains de facto in effect. To receive similar national benefits accorded military veterans, Arabs and Haredi Jews can perform national service for one or two years, including for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and institutions focused on improving their own local communities as volunteers in the health, education, and welfare sectors.

All recognized religious communities are exempt from taxation for places of worship, according to the annually drafted Arrangements Law. In August, following a petition from the Jerusalem Institute of Justice (JIJ), the Knesset amended the municipal and property tax law to grant a 100 percent exemption to all religious institutions that do not use their space for commercial purposes, just as it had done solely for synagogues in 2010.

The MOI has jurisdiction over religious matters concerning non-Jewish groups, while the Ministry of Tourism is responsible for the protection and upkeep of non-Jewish holy sites. The Ministry of Religious Affairs has jurisdiction over the country’s 133 Jewish religious councils, which oversee the provision of religious services for Jewish communities. The MOI’s Department of Non-Jewish Affairs oversees one non-Jewish religious council for the Druze. Legislation establishing religious councils does not include non-Jewish religious communities other than the Druze. The government finances approximately 40 percent of the religious councils’ budgets, and local municipalities fund the remainder.

Proselytizing is legal for all religious groups. A 1977 law prohibits offering a material benefit as an inducement to conversion. It is also illegal to convert a person under 18 years of age unless one parent is an adherent of the religious group seeking to convert the minor. Despite the legality of proselytism, the government generally discourages proselytizing and encourages the popular perception that it is illegal. The MOI occasionally cites proselytism as a reason to deny student, work, and religious visa extensions, as well as to deny permanent residency petitions.

While members of recognized religious communities only require approval for visas from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), visas for members of unrecognized religious communities also require MOI approval for stays longer than five years, restricting the ability of some religious communities to provide consistent leadership within the country.

The government is a member of the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance, and Research.

The government observes the following religious holidays as national holidays: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Simhat Torah, Passover, and Shavuot. Jewish holidays and the Sabbath are official days of rest, and non-Jews have the right to observe their own Sabbath and holidays as days of rest from work. Arab municipalities often recognize Christian and Muslim holidays. The law prohibits employers from refusing to hire or from firing employees who observe a different day of rest for religious observance, and employers cannot make working on a rest day a condition of employment. The Ministry of Labor and Social Services issues permits for exceptions enabling essential workers to work on their days of rest. The law gives municipalities the authority to order the opening or closing of businesses on the Jewish Sabbath.

Government Practices

There were reports of abuses of religious freedom, including arrests and detentions, and the government imposed numerous restrictions that affected minority groups.

Among the restrictions were prohibitions on prayer or types of prayer at certain holy sites. On August 19, police detained four members of the Women of the Wall, a group that organized monthly women’s services at the holy site, for wearing prayer shawls traditionally reserved for men at the Western Wall. On October 16, the police arrested the group’s chairwoman, Anat Hoffman, for the same act and released her the next day. In December the prime minister asked Natan Sharansky, Chairman of the Jewish Agency, to study the issue of women’s prayer at the Western Wall and suggest ways to accommodate all Jews.

Legal and policy restrictions on religious freedom continued. Government policy supported the generally free practice of religion, although some forms of governmental and legal discrimination against non-Jews and non-Orthodox streams of Judaism continued. The majority of Jewish citizens objected to exclusive Orthodox control over fundamental aspects of their personal lives.

Temporary partitions were installed on occasion during the year to extend gender segregation into the Western Wall plaza. Official “modesty patrols” occasionally attempt to enforce gender separation and sometimes guarded a path opposite the Western Wall designated for “men only” that was installed in 2009. The sign was removed at the end of the year.

Despite a High Court ruling in 2010 that the segregation of men and women on some public streets and sidewalks in Mea She’arim was illegal, local authorities gave permission to erect a segregating barrier again during the year. However, the High Court upheld its previous decision, stating that 2011 was the last year such a barrier would be allowed. A large sign pointing to a women-only sidewalk was still posted in October. A Jerusalem city council member overseeing the removal of such illegal signs told the press that it had been overlooked and affirmed that there was no gender segregation in practice. The High Court ruling ended a tradition of gender segregation during Sukkot.

Despite a 2007 MOI decision that ended the indication of religious affiliation on official identity cards, complaints continued that the majority of identity cards still in circulation identified non-Jews.

On October 3, a Jerusalem magistrates’ court judge noted that “the explanation that Muslims do not approve of Jews’ praying on the Temple Mount cannot, in and of itself, prevent Jews from fulfilling their religious obligations and praying on the Temple Mount.” However, the judge noted he was not providing an instruction to the police. While arrests are subject to judicial oversight, the government, not the courts, has the authority to decide matters relating to religious rights in holy places, and the Supreme Court has upheld that governmental authority.

Israeli police controlled access to and the security of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif compound with police stationed both inside the compound and outside each entrance to the site. Entrance to the Temple Mount was legally permitted regardless of one’s religious beliefs, although access was often restricted. Police cited security concerns when restricting young Muslim men from entering the site. Police often removed from the site Jewish individuals who appeared to be praying, in accordance with a government policy dating back to 1967. Some Jewish groups were prevented from entering the Temple Mount without a police escort due to security concerns, and there were reports that the police escorts at times did not detain these groups when they prayed. The Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, part of the Jordanian Ministry of Waqf, exercised administrative control over the site and prohibited from the site non-Muslim symbols, the Bible and other religious literature, and clothing deemed immodest by Muslim standards, as well as non-Muslim entrance into the Dome of the Rock, Al-Aqsa Mosque, Al-Marwani Mosque, and the Islamic Museum.

Some Muslims stated there was insufficient state funding for Muslim affairs, including for building and restoring mosques and cemeteries, although the state did provide municipalities with religious development budgets and religious institutions with operational support funds. Many mosques lacked an appointed imam, a responsibility of the MOI’s Muslim Affairs Department. The government allowed nonstate employees to be imams in mosques if the community preferred.

According to government figures, the year’s budget for religious services for the Jewish population was approximately NIS 415 million ($112 million). Religious minorities, which constituted slightly more than 20 percent of the population, received approximately NIS 80 million ($21.6 million), or 16 percent of total funding. The budgets for religious institutions for the Jewish population and religious minorities were not made public.

According to representatives of some Christian institutions, visa issuance rates for some religious workers remained low. The MOI only granted multiple-entry visas to a limited list of clergy and religious workers traveling to and between their parishes in the country and in the Occupied Territories. Other clergy who wished to return to or visit their parishes and congregations were required to apply for a new single-entry visa at Israeli consulates abroad--a process that at times took months.

According to the government, travel to hostile countries, including travel to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj, was subject to restrictions.

Palestinian religious groups faced some restrictions, such as closures for security reasons and long waits at border crossings, which often impeded travel into the country for religious purposes.

As in previous years, the Religious Affairs Ministry failed to fully implement the 1996 Alternative Burial Law, which established the right of any individual to be buried in a civil ceremony.

MOI officials continued to revoke citizenship or deny services (such as child registration, social benefits, identity cards, and passports) to some citizens based on their religious beliefs, according to the JIJ. This included cases of individuals who immigrated under the Law of Return as Jews but were discovered to hold Messianic or Christian beliefs. According to the JIJ, on July 4 the MOI granted residency to a Holocaust survivor whom it previously had refused in May 2011 due to her profession of Messianic Jewish beliefs.

In July Knesset member Michael Ben-Ari tore the New Testament out of a Hebrew language Bible the Bible Society sent to all members of Knesset. A legislative aide photographed him and sent the pictures to a newspaper. A spokesman for Prime Minister Netanyahu criticized the incident and the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land (CRIHL) called on the government to censure and take appropriate action against Ben-Ari. The CRIHL is an umbrella body of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religious institutions that includes the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, the PA Ministry of Islamic Waqf, the PA Islamic Sharia courts, and the leaders of the major Christian denominations in Jerusalem. The government took no further action.

The government operated a special department in the state attorney’s office for prosecution of incitement-related crimes.

Abuses by Rebel or Foreign Forces or Terrorist Organizations

During the year terrorist organizations, including Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and members of global Jihadist organizations, carried out increased attacks against citizens of the country, mostly in the form of indiscriminate missile, rocket, and mortar attacks from the Gaza Strip, particularly immediately prior to and during the November 14-21 conflict, when over 1,500 rockets were fired at Israel from the Gaza Strip. Terrorists’ statements often contained anti-Semitic rhetoric and appeals to Islamic religious beliefs in conjunction with the attacks, including in Hamas’ founding charter where it states that “the Day of Judgment will not come about until Muslims fight the Jews.”

Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom

There were no violent attacks against Messianic Jews and notably fewer physical assaults against Jehovah’s Witnesses during the year. The police investigated all known instances of religiously motivated attacks and made arrests when possible, including in August when the police arrested seven suspects for assault, harassment, and arson in connection with Haredi protests against the opening of an Orthodox all-girls school in Beit Shemesh.

The state formally recognized non-Orthodox rabbis for the first time on May 30 and agreed to fund Reform and Conservative rabbis appointed by rural communities.

The MOI did not arrest, detain, require bail for entry or a written pledge to abstain from missionary activity, or refuse entry to anyone due to their religious beliefs. There was no indication that the MOI collected data on alleged missionaries from antimissionary groups and used it to deny entry to the country to foreign individuals. There was no official statement that the policy had changed, but no incidents were reported since the July 2011 action of a Jerusalem district court judge who reprimanded the MOI for the illegal procedure.

On August 2, the Knesset amended legislation from 2010 to apply tax exemptions to all places of religious instruction equally.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There were reports of societal abuses and discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice. Relations between religious and ethnic groups, including between Muslims and Christians, Arabs and non-Arabs, and secular and religious Jews continued to be tense. Muslim individuals violently attacked Haredi individuals, including multiple stabbing incidents in Jerusalem. One stabbing occurred as a Haredi man was returning from a visit to the tomb of Shimon HaTzaddik on April 19. About two dozen Jewish youths beat up several Muslim Arabs in Jerusalem on August 17, leaving one unconscious. Senior government officials quickly criticized the violence, and police arrested eight suspects by August 21, almost all minors.

There were at least five incidents of vandalism of churches and monasteries in Jerusalem and Latroun during the year. Spray-painted graffiti of religious denigration marked them as “price tag” attacks conducted in retaliation for government actions to restrict settlement activity in the West Bank and designed to exact a “price” for actions settlers considered contrary to their interests. Officials quickly and publicly criticized the attacks and police opened investigations and made several arrests. There were no prosecutions as of the end of the year.

There were numerous reports of anti-Semitic acts perpetrated by members of minority religious groups. On October 5, following Friday prayers on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, Muslim worshipers threw stones in the direction of the Western Wall plaza and at soldiers and police officers guarding the compound.

Societal attitudes toward missionary activities and conversion were generally negative. Most Jews opposed missionary activity directed at Jews, and some were hostile to Jewish converts to Christianity. Messianic Jews and Jehovah’s Witnesses were harassed regularly by Yad L’Achim and Lev L’Achim, Jewish religious organizations opposed to missionary activity. During the year, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported assaults, threats of violence, and other crimes to the police. On July 22, a Beersheva resident assaulted a 62-year-old woman, breaking her nose by butting his head against hers when she and another woman shared their faith with him outside his front door. The police arrested the perpetrator at his house on August 28, the same day the victim identified him to the police.

There continued to be tension between the Haredi community and the majority of Israelis, including concerns related to housing, service in the IDF, participation in the workforce, and the increasing burden of transfer payments made to Haredi families, many of whom received government subsidies for families with five or more children. Polling by the NGO Hiddush indicated that tension between Haredi and secular Israelis was the most acute conflict within Israeli society, more important than the left-right divide, the economic divide, and the Ashkenazi and Sephardic divide.

Expressions of animosity between secular and religious Jews continued during the year. Some members of Haredi Jewish groups acted in a discriminatory and intolerant manner toward other Jews. As in past years, there were instances of Haredim throwing rocks at passing motorists driving on the Sabbath in predominantly Haredi neighborhoods, and harassing or assaulting women whose appearance they considered immodest. There continued to be numerous reports of Haredi men spitting at non-Haredi Jews and persons of different faiths, including in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood. On August 1, police indicted a Haredi man for sexual harassment and assault when he spit on a woman he accused of being immodestly dressed. The man resisted arrest by assaulting the officers. As this was occurring, a Haredi crowd attacked the police car with stones and iron rods protesting his arrest.

Several public transportation companies, including Egged, operated gender-segregated buses along inter- and intra-city routes frequented by Haredi Jews. Women who refused to sit at the back of such buses risked harassment and physical assault from male passengers. Despite a ruling by the Supreme Court in January 2011 that gender segregation on public buses could occur only on a voluntary basis, segregated buses continued to operate in some ultra-Orthodox communities, and Orthodox women in particular continued to receive some criticism if they chose to sit at the front of buses.

Interfaith dialogue often was linked to ongoing peace efforts between Israelis and Palestinians and between the country and its Arab neighbors. A number of NGOs sought to build understanding and create dialogue among religious groups and between religious and secular Jewish communities. These organizations included the Gesher Foundation; Meitarim, which operated a pluralistic, Jewish-oriented school system; and the Interreligious Coordinating Council, which promoted interfaith dialogue among Jewish, Muslim, and Christian institutions.

The Israel Council of Religious Leaders, established in 2008, is the representative body of religious leaders whose status and communities the government formally recognized. The council held its annual meeting to further interfaith understanding and promote religious freedom, and its standing committees met quarterly.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

Embassy officials engaged in detailed discussions on religious freedom with the government, as well as with religious and civil society organizations. The ambassador hosted and attended many events with Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Druze, and Bahai religious leaders, including on many of their holidays. The U.S. embassy consistently raised concerns about religious freedom with the MFA, the MOJ, the police, the Chief Rabbinate, and other government agencies. Issues included expanding the list of officially recognized religious groups; investigating religiously motivated acts of violence against minority religious groups, including Messianic Jews and Jehovah's Witnesses; investigating vandalism of mosques and churches; upholding women’s rights against religious or social coercion in public spaces and on buses; and ensuring that the practice of preventing entry into the country based on the MOI’s lists of suspected “missionaries” was indeed ended.

Embassy officials maintained a dialogue with NGOs that focused on human and civil rights, including religious freedom, and promoted interfaith initiatives. Embassy representatives also attended and spoke at meetings of such organizations and encouraged religious leaders to advance regional peace and calm local tensions. The embassy offered programs that exposed Israelis to U.S. models of religious diversity and civil society.

 


Sources: United States Department of State

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