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Reports on Religious Freedom:
Israel

(2000)


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Israel has no constitution; however, the law provides for freedom of worship, and the Government generally respects this right in practice.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

The Declaration of Independence describes the country as a "Jewish and democratic state." The overwhelming majority of non-Jewish citizens are Arabs and they are subject to various forms of discrimination. It is not clear that whatever discrepancies exist in the treatment of various communities in Israeli society are based on religion per se.

In June 2000, the Government proposed a plan to help redress some of the gaps in government spending for Arab communities. In March 2000, the High Court of Justice ruled that the Government's use of the Jewish National Fund (JNF) to develop public land was discriminatory, as the JNF's by-laws prohibit sale or lease of land to non-Jews. Evangelical Christians, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Reform and Conservative Jews suffered some incidents of harassment, threats, and vandalism during the period covered by the report; members of these religious groups complained that the police were slow to investigate these incidents. Relations between different religious groups often are strained, both between Jews and non-Jews, as well as among the different branches of Judaism.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

Section I. Government Policies on Freedom of Religion

Legal/Policy Framework

Israel has no constitution; however, the law provides for freedom of worship, and the Government generally respects this right in practice. The Declaration of Independence describes the country as a "Jewish and democratic state."

The Government recognizes religious groups that were in the country before 1948. The Government recognizes 5 religious groups, including 10 Christian groups.

Religious Demography

Approximately 80 percent of citizens are Jewish (a significant majority are non-Orthodox), approximately 16 percent are Muslims, 2 percent are Christians, and 1.5 percent are Druze. The non-Jewish population is concentrated in the north, east-central, and southern parts of the country. The population includes small but growing numbers of adherents of nonrecognized evangelical Christian groups and members of other faiths, such as Jehovah's Witnesses.

Governmental Restrictions on Religious Freedom

The overwhelming majority of non-Jewish citizens are Arabs and they are subject to various forms of discrimination. It is not clear that whatever discrepancies exist in the treatment of various communities in Israeli society are based on religion per se. Israeli Arabs and other non-Jewish Israelis are, in fact, free to practice their religions.

The Government does not provide Israeli Arabs, who constitute 20 percent of the population, with the same quality of education, housing, employment opportunities, and social services as Jews. In addition, government spending and financial support are proportionally far lower in predominantly non-Jewish areas than in Jewish areas. According to the press, an Interior Ministry report released during 1998 noted that non-Jewish communities receive significantly less government financial support than their Jewish counterparts. According to several Arab nongovernmental organizations (NGO's), recent government budget cuts fell disproportionately on Arab communities. In June 2000, the Government proposed a plan to narrow some of these gaps; however, this plan was not implemented by mid-2000. Israeli-Arab organizations have challenged the Government's "Master Plan for the Northern Areas of Israel," which listed as priority goals increasing the Galilee's Jewish population and blocking the territorial contiguity of Arab villages and towns, on the grounds that it discriminates against Arab citizens.

The Government provides proportionally greater financial support to religious and civic institutions in the Jewish sector compared with those in the non-Jewish sector, i.e., Muslim, Christian, and Druze. For example, only 2 percent of the Ministry of Religious Affairs budget goes to the non-Jewish sector. The High Court of Justice heard a case in 1997 alleging that this budgetary allocation constitutes discrimination. In 1998 the Court ruled that the budget allocation constituted "prima facie discrimination" but that the plaintiff's petition did not provide adequate information about the religious needs of the various communities. The Court refused to intervene in the budgetary process on the grounds that such action would invade the proper sphere of the legislature.

Each recognized religious community has legal authority over its members in matters of marriage and divorce. Secular courts have primacy over questions of inheritance, but parties, by mutual agreement, may bring cases to religious courts. Jewish and Druze families may ask that some family status matters, such as alimony and child custody in divorces, be adjudicated in civil courts as an alternative to religious courts. Christians may only ask that child custody and child support be adjudicated in civil courts as an alternative to religious courts. Muslims have no recourse to civil courts in family-status matters. Legislation passed in 1996 allows the rabbinical courts to sanction either party who is not willing to grant a divorce.

In civic areas where religion is a determining criterion, such as the religious courts and centers of education, non-Jewish institutions routinely receive less state support than their Jewish counterparts. The status of a number of Christian organizations with representation in Israel heretofore has been defined by a collection of ad hoc arrangements with various government agencies. Several of these organizations seek to negotiate with the Government in an attempt to formalize their status.

Other examples of discrimination against non-Jewish citizens are not directly related to freedom to worship. There were some areas of improvement. For example, in March 2000, the High Court of Justice ruled that the Government could neither allocate land on the basis of religion or nationality, nor allocate land to the quasi-governmental Jewish National Fund, since the by-laws of the organization prohibit sale or lease of land to non-Jews. The effect of this ruling, and other decisions made by the current Government to lessen discrimination against non-Jews, remains unclear.

The Government has recognized Jewish holy places under the 1967 Protection of Holy Sites Law. The Government states that it also protects the holy sites of other faiths. The Government also states that it has provided funds for some holy sites of other faiths.

Missionaries are allowed to proselytize, although the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints voluntarily refrains from proselytizing under an agreement with the Government. A 1977 antiproselytizing law prohibits anyone from offering or receiving material benefits as an inducement to conversion; there have been no reports of its enforcement. Bills that would have restricted proselytizing further were introduced and passed their preliminary readings in 1997 and 1998 with the support of some government ministers; however, no further action was taken before the dissolution of the Knesset following the May 1999 elections. They are not expected to be enacted if reintroduced in the Knesset. Christian and other evangelical groups asserted that the draft bills were discriminatory and served to intimidate Christian groups.

The Government confers automatic citizenship and residence rights to Jewish immigrants, their families, and Jewish refugees under the Law of Return. This law does not apply to non-Jews or to persons of Jewish descent who have converted to another faith.

The Government designates religion on national identity documents, but not on passports.

Orthodox Jewish religious authorities have exclusive control of Jewish marriages, divorces, and burials. They do not recognize marriages or conversions to Judaism performed in Israel by non-Orthodox rabbis. Many Jews object to this exclusive control, and it has been at times a source of serious controversy in society, particularly in recent years, as thousands of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union have brought with them family members not recognized as Jewish by Orthodox authorities. Many Jews who wish to marry in secular or non-Orthodox religious ceremonies do so abroad, and the Ministry of Interior recognizes such marriages.

Under the Government's current interpretation and implementation of Jewish personal status law, a Jewish woman is not allowed to initiate divorce proceedings without her husband's consent; consequently there are hundreds of so-called "agunot" in the country who cannot remarry or have legitimate children because their husbands either have disappeared or refused to grant a divorce. This issue does not affect citizens' right to worship.

Some rabbis are actively seeking a solution that is consistent with Jewish law. Legislation passed in 1995 broadened the civil sanctions made available to rabbinical courts in cases where a wife has ample grounds for divorce -- such as abuse -- but the husband refuses to agree. However, in some cases rabbinical courts have failed to invoke these sanctions.

Members of nonrecognized religions (particularly evangelical Christians) suffer difficulties conducting marriages and funerals, although informal arrangements provide some relief.

A group of more than 100 Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform women continued a long legal battle to hold women's prayer services at the Western Wall during the period covered by this report; in May 2000, the High Court ruled that women may pray aloud and wear prayer shawls at the Western Wall. Both legislators and the State Prosecutor's office sought to overturn the ruling; however, they were not successful as of mid-2000.

The Government generally continued to permit Muslim citizens to make the Hajj during the period covered by this report. However, for security reasons, the Government imposes some restrictions on its Muslim citizens who perform the Hajj, including requiring that they be over the age of 30. The Government does not allow them to return if they leave the country without formal permission. The Government justifies these restrictions on the grounds that Saudi Arabia remains officially at war with Israel and that travel to Saudi Arabia therefore is considered subject to security considerations.

Evangelical Christians, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Reform and Conservative Jews complained of inadequate or slow police response to incidents of harassment, assaults, theft, and vandalism during the period covered by this report (also see Section II).

There were no prosecutions of the over 120 cases filed by Jehovah's Witnesses in 1998 and 1999. Police arrested several members of Jehovah's Witnesses for questioning on the basis of complaints by members of ultra-orthodox groups during the period covered by the report.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

There were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners.

Forced Religious Conversion of Minor U.S. Citizens

There were no reports of the forced religious conversion of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section II. Societal Attitudes

Relations between different religious groups often are strained, both between Jews and non-Jews, as well as among the different branches of Judaism. Tensions between Jews and non-Jews exist primarily as a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict, as well as Israel's control of access to sites holy to Christians and Muslims. Friction between Christians and Muslims in the Arab community increased during the period covered by this report, primarily as a result of a dispute about a plot of land alleged to belong to the Waqf (Islamic religious trust) in Nazareth. The Government took steps to resolve this dispute with only partial success. Animosity between secular and religious Jews continued to grow during the period covered by this report. Non-Orthodox Jews have complained of discrimination and intolerance.

There are numerous nongovernmental organizations working on dialog between different religions. Interfaith dialog often is linked to the peace process between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

Societal attitudes towards conversion are particularly negative. Religious and lay leaders of most religions largely are hostile to missionary activity. Muslims consider any conversion from Islam to be apostasy.

Harassment of Jehovah's Witnesses declined; however, members of this group continued to complain of inadequate police efforts to investigate outstanding complaints of harassment, assault, theft, and vandalism, reportedly by two ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups, Yad L'achim and Lev L'achim. Ultra-Orthodox groups sought unsuccessfully to convince a company to fire an employee who is a member of Jehovah's Witnesses during the period covered by this report. Evangelical Christian and other religious groups suffered some incidents of often-violent harassment (also see Section I). In June 2000, a meeting hall used by evangelical Christians (who describe themselves as "Messianic Jews") reportedly was vandalized by members of an ultra-Orthodox group. Such incidents are not limited to non-Jews. Instances of ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups verbally or physically harassing Jewish citizens for "immodest dress" or other violations of their interpretation of religious law are not uncommon and increased during the period covered by this report.

In July 1999, the Baptist House Center in Jerusalem was vandalized by unknown assailants who spread tar on the front and along the sides of the building, as well as defacing the entrance to the sanctuary.

In September 1999, Kol Israel, a state radio station, agreed for the first time to broadcast advertisements paid for by the Reform and Conservative branches of Judaism in response to a Supreme Court petition.

Relative to their numbers, Israeli Arabs are underrepresented in the student bodies and faculties of most universities, and in higher-level professional and business ranks. Well-educated Arabs often are unable to find jobs commensurate with their level of education. Arab Ph.D.'s suffer the greatest problems in this regard. A small number of Israeli Arabs have risen to responsible positions in the civil service, generally in the Arab departments of government ministries. In 1994 a civil service commission began a 3-year affirmative action program to expand that number, but it had only modest results. The Government has allocated only very limited resources to enforce landmark 1995 legislation prohibiting discrimination in employment.

In practice Israeli Arab citizens who do not serve in the military and therefore cannot obtain security clearances are not allowed to work in companies with defense contracts or in security-related fields. The Israeli Druze and Circassian communities are subject to the military draft, and although some have refused to serve, the overwhelming majority accept service willingly. Some Bedouin and other Arab citizens who are not subject to the draft serve voluntarily. Those not subject to the draft have less access than other citizens to those social and economic benefits for which military service is a prerequisite or an advantage, such as housing, new-household subsidies, and government or security-related industrial employment. Under a 1994 government policy decision, the social security child allowance for parents who did not serve in the military and did not attend a yeshiva (including Arabs) was increased to equal the allowance of those who had done so.

Israeli Arab groups allege that many employers use the prerequisite of military service to avoid hiring non-Jews. For example, in 1997 a Haifa employment agency advertised for Arabic-speaking telephone operators and listed military service as a prerequisite. An Israeli Arab group noted that there was no clear justification for this requirement and threatened to file a civil suit under a law prohibiting employment discrimination and defining requirements unrelated to actual work as discriminatory. The employment agency eventually agreed to change the advertisement and run it again.

Arab children make up about one-quarter of the public school population, but government resources for them are not proportionate to those for Jewish children. Many schools in Arab communities are dilapidated and overcrowded, lack special education services and counselors, have poor libraries, and have no sports facilities. Arab groups also note that the public school curriculum stresses the country's Jewish culture and heritage.

Section III. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Embassy consistently raised issues of religious freedom with the Government at working levels with the Foreign Ministry, the police, and the Prime Minister's office. These contacts focused particularly on complaints from Jehovah's Witnesses about poor police response to incidents of violent harassment and dealt with specific incidents as well as the general problem of insufficient police response. In December 1999, Robert Seiple, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, met with government officials, religious leaders, and NGO representatives to discuss a number of religious freedom issues.

Embassy representatives, including the Ambassador, routinely meet with religious officials. These contacts included meetings with Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Baha'i leaders at a variety of levels.

Embassy officials maintain a dialog with nongovernmental organizations that follow human and civil rights issues, including religious freedom. These included the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the Israel Religious Action Center, Adalah, and many others.

Embassy representatives attended meetings of groups seeking to promote interfaith dialog, including the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, the Anti-Defamation League, and others.


Sources: U.S. State Department - Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

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