International Religious Freedom Report:
Territories are not included here.)
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 Basic Law describes Israel as a "Jewish and democratic
state." The overwhelming majority of non-Jewish citizens
are Muslims, Druze, and Christians and generally are referred
to as Israeli Arabs. Israeli Arabs are subject to various
forms of discrimination, some of which have religious dimensions.
Israeli Arabs and other non-Jewish Israelis, are, in fact,
generally free to practice their religions.
Relations between religious groups--between
Jews and non-Jews, between Muslims and Christians, and between
the different streams of Judaism--often are strained. Societal
tensions between Jews and non-Jews exist primarily as a result
of the Arab-Israeli conflict; such tensions increased significantly
during the period covered by this report.
The U.S. Government discusses religious
freedom issues with the Government in the context of its
overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.
Section I. Religious Demography
Based on its pre-1967 borders, Israel has
a total area of approximately 7,685 square miles, and its
population is approximately 6.4 million (including Israeli
settlers who live in the occupied territories). According
to government figures, about 80 percent of the population
are Jewish, although an unknown number of these citizens
do not qualify as Jews according to the definition espoused
by Orthodox Judaism. Additionally, non-Jews (usually Christian)
who immigrate to Israel with their Jewish relatives often
are counted as Jews for statistical purposes. According to
government figures, among the Jewish population, approximately
4.5 percent are Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, and another 13
percent are Orthodox. About one-third of the Jewish population
describe themselves as "Traditional." Traditional
Jews practice many Jewish traditions but do not consider
themselves religious. About half of the Jewish population
define themselves as "secular." Many secular Jews
observe some Jewish religious traditions. A growing but still
small number of traditional and secular Jews associate themselves
with the Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist streams
of Judaism, which are not officially recognized in the country.
However, these streams receive a small amount of government
funding and are recognized by the country's courts.
About 20 percent of the population generally
are referred to as Israeli Arabs. About 80 percent of Israeli
Arabs are Muslim, approximately 10 percent are Christian,
and about 10 percent are Druze. The country's Arab population
is concentrated in the north, east-central, and southern
parts of the country. There also are small numbers of evangelical
Christians and Jehovah's Witnesses.
Most Israeli Arabs are concentrated in
the north and south of the country. Many Israeli Arabs associate
themselves with the secular parties in Israel, including
the Communist Party, which has a majority Arab membership.
Other Israeli Arabs associate with parties aligned with the
Islamic Movement or with small, Arab-centered parties. Many
Jews also associate with parties representing their religious
or ethno-religious beliefs. The remainder of citizens identify
with various secular parties.
There are a number of missionary groups
operating in the country.
Section II. Status of Religious Freedom
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 state," but
also provides for full social and political equality regardless
of religious affiliation. The discrepancies that exist in
the treatment of various communities in Israeli society are
based on several variables, including the distinction between
Jewish and non-Jewish citizens. Israeli Arabs and other non-Jewish
Israelis are, in fact, generally free to practice their religions.
Due to the historic influence of Orthodox Jewish political
parties, the Government implements certain policies based
on interpretations of religious law. For example, the national
airline, El Al, and public buses in most cities do not operate
on the Sabbath; however, some private bus companies operate
on Saturday. According to the law, Jews in most professions
may not work on the Sabbath. This law generally is enforced
in the retail sector; however, it is inconsistently enforced
in the entertainment sector. Additionally, streets in some
Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods are closed to vehicles on the
The Government recognizes 5 religions,
including 10 Christian groups. The status of some Christian
organizations with representation in the country 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
The Government funds both religious and
secular schools in the country, including non-Jewish religious
and secular schools. Some secular Jewish schools have adopted
a religious education program developed by the non-Orthodox
streams. Schools in Arab areas, including Arab parochial
schools, receive significantly fewer resources than comparable
Jewish religious holidays such as Rosh
Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Passover are state holidays.
Arab municipalities often recognize Christian and Muslim
Restrictions on Religious Freedom
Orthodox Jewish religious authorities have
exclusive control over Jewish marriages, divorces, and most
burials. Many Jewish citizens object to such exclusive control,
and it has been at times a source of serious controversy
Under the Law of Return, the Government
grants automatic citizenship and residence rights to Jewish
immigrants and their families. Based on a recent decision
by the Attorney General, residency rights will not be granted
to relatives of converts to Judaism, except to children of
female converts who are born after the mother's conversion
is complete. The Law of Return does not apply to non-Jews
or to persons of Jewish descent who have converted to another
faith. Approximately 36 percent of the country's Jewish population
was born outside of the country. The Government designates
nationality on national identity documents, but not on passports.
Groups representing persons who consider themselves Jewish
but who do not meet the Interior Ministry's criteria have
sought a change in the rules or to have the nationality designation
completely removed from identity cards. Many Arab groups
also support removing the clause from the cards. In the fall
of 2000, then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak initiated an effort
to remove the clause from identity cards; however, this policy
was not enacted during the period covered by this report.
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 restrictions on its Muslim citizens who perform the
Hajj, including requiring that they be over the age of 30.
The Government does not allow Hajj pilgrims 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 the country, and that travel
to Saudi Arabia therefore is subject to security considerations.
The Government states that it is committed
to granting equal and fair conditions to Israeli Arabs, particularly
in the areas of education, housing, and employment. However,
the Government does not provide Israeli Arabs, who constitute
approximately 20 percent of the population, with the same
quality of education, housing, employment, and social services
as Jews. In addition, government spending is proportionally
far lower in predominantly Arab areas than in Jewish areas;
on a per capita basis, the Government spends two-thirds as
much for Arabs as for Jews. Although such policies are based
on a variety of factors, they reflect de facto discrimination
against the country's non-Jewish citizens.
At least two of the Israel Defense Force
(IDF) soldiers who were killed in action since September
2000 were Muslim. Additionally, one of the three IDF soldiers
kidnaped by Hezbollah in October 2000 is a Muslim. After
the family of one of the soldiers who was killed could not
find a Muslim cleric to perform his burial, the public focused
on the fact that the IDF does not employ a Muslim chaplain.
In late 2000, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered the IDF
to hire a Muslim chaplain; however, by the end of the period
covered by this report, the IDF was unable to find a Muslim
cleric who was willing to serve as an IDF chaplain.
There are approximately 130,000 Bedouin
in the Negev; of this number, about half live in 7 state-planned
communities and the other half live in 45 settlements that
are not recognized by the Government. New building in the
unrecognized villages is considered illegal and subject to
demolition. In May 2001, the High Court sustained a demolition
order for a mosque in the unrecognized village of Husseinya,
which was built without a permit in 1996. The mosque had
not been demolished by the end of the period covered by this
report. In 2000 the Ministry of Interior and the Attorney
General declared that residents of Husseinya could list their
village's name as their place of residence on their identification
Government funding to the different religious
sectors is disproportionate. Non-Orthodox streams of Judaism
and the non-Jewish sector receive proportionally less funding
than the Orthodox Jewish sector. 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 the budgetary allocation to the non-Jewish sector constituted
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. In
May 2000, the same plaintiffs presented a case on the specific
needs of religious communities regarding burials. The court
agreed that non-Jewish cemeteries were receiving inadequate
resources and ordered the Government to increase funding
to such cemeteries; the Government had begun implementing
this decision by the end of the period covered by this report.
In civic areas in which religion is a determining
criterion, such as the religious courts and centers of education,
non-Jewish institutions routinely receive less state support
than their Orthodox Jewish counterparts.
Government resources available to Arab
public schools are less than proportionate to those available
to Jewish public schools. Many public schools in Arab communities
are dilapidated and overcrowded, lack special education services
and counselors, have poor libraries, and have no sports facilities.
Israeli Arab private religious schools are considered among
the best in the country; however, parents often must pay
tuition for their children to attend such schools due to
inadequate government funding.
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.
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 inheritance cases
to religious courts. Jewish and Druze families may ask that
some family status matters, such as alimony and child custody,
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.
Orthodox Jewish religious authorities have
exclusive control over Jewish marriages, divorces, and most
burials. The State does not recognize marriages or conversions
to Judaism performed in the country by non-Orthodox rabbis.
In June 2001, the Chief Rabbinate issued new regulations
stipulating that immigrants who arrived in the country after
1990 must be investigated to confirm that they are Jewish
before they can be married in a Jewish ceremony. Many Israeli
Jews who wish to marry in secular or non-Orthodox religious
ceremonies do so abroad, and the Ministry of Interior recognizes
such marriages. However, many Jewish citizens object to such
exclusive control, and it has been at times a source of serious
controversy in society, particularly in recent years, as
thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union have
not been recognized as Jewish by Orthodox authorities. For
example, following the Dolphinarium discoteque bombing in
June 2001, which killed 21 Israelis, some religious authorities
questioned whether several of the young victims, who were
immigrants from the former Soviet Union, qualified for Jewish
burial. One of the victims ultimately was buried in a special
part of a cemetery reserved for persons whose Jewish identity
was "in doubt." Newspapers reported that the decision
caused pain to many Russian immigrants.
In August 2000, former Prime Minister Barak
announced his plans to "separate religion from politics"
by promoting a "civil-social revolution," consisting
of a number of measures including: Drafting a constitution,
incorporating the Ministry of Religious Affairs into the
Ministry of Justice, lifting restrictions on transportation
during the Sabbath, allowing for some form of civil marriages,
eliminating the nationality clause from identification cards,
and introducing a new core curriculum in all state-funded
schools. These proposals triggered a national debate on religion
and society. However, none of these proposed reforms had
been implemented by the end of the period covered by this
Under the Jewish religious courts' interpretation
of personal status law, a Jewish woman may not receive a
final writ of divorce without her husband's consent. Consequently,
there are thousands of so-called "agunot" in the
country who are unable to remarry or have legitimate children
because their husbands either have disappeared or refused
to grant a divorce.
Rabbinical tribunals have the authority
to impose sanctions on husbands who refuse to divorce their
wives or on wives who refuse to accept a divorce from their
husbands. However, in some cases rabbinical courts have failed
to invoke these sanctions. In cases in which a wife refuses
to accept a divorce, the rabbinical courts occasionally allow
a husband to take a second wife; however, a wife may never
take a second husband. Rabbinical courts also may exercise
jurisdiction over and issue sanctions against non-Israeli
persons present in the country.
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. In May 2000, the High
Court ruled that women could pray aloud and wear prayer shawls
at the Western Wall. In November 2000, an expanded High Court
reheard the case; a decision was pending at the end of the
period covered by this report. Most Orthodox Jews believe
that mixed gender prayer services violate the precepts of
Judaism, and Jews generally still are unable to hold egalitarian
(mixed gender) prayer services at the Western Wall. The Conservative
movement is experimenting with conducting services at a different,
recently excavated portion of the wall. The North American
Reform Movement has rejected such an alternative.
Some Islamic law courts have held that
Muslim women may not request a divorce, but that women may
be forced to consent if a divorce is granted to a man.
Members of unrecognized religious groups
(particularly evangelical Christians), sometimes face problems
obtaining marriage certificates or burial services. However,
informal arrangements provide relief in some cases.
The Government has recognized only Jewish
holy places under the 1967 Protection of Holy Sites Law.
However, 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.
Muslim groups complain that the Government has been reluctant
to refurbish mosques in areas where there is no longer a
A 1977 anti-proselytizing law prohibits
any person from offering or receiving material benefits as
an inducement to conversion; however, there have been no
reports of the law's enforcement. A bill that would have
restricted proselytizing further was promulgated in 2000;
however, similar bills did not reach a final vote in the
past and local observers do not believe that this bill will
be enacted. Christian and other evangelical groups asserted
that the draft bills were discriminatory and served to intimidate
Missionaries are allowed to proselytize,
although the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints
(Mormons) voluntarily refrains from proselytizing under an
agreement with the Government.
There were no prosecutions of the over
120 cases of harassment filed by members of Jehovah's Witnesses
between 1998 and 2000. There were no complaints of harassment
of members of Jehovah's Witnesses during the period covered
by this report.
There were no reports of religious prisoners
Forced Religious Conversion
There were no reports of forced religious
conversion, including 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 III. Societal Attitudes
Relations between different religious groups
often are strained, both between Jews and non-Jews and among
the different streams of Judaism. Tensions between Jews and
non-Jews exist primarily as a result of the Arab-Israeli
conflict, and increased significantly during the period covered
by this report.
In October 2000, Israeli Arabs held a number
of demonstrations in the north to protest against discriminatory
governmental policies and the Israeli Defense Force's use
of excessive force to disperse Palestinian demonstrators
in the occupied territories. Police used rubber bullets and
live ammunition to disperse demonstrators, killing 13 Arab
citizens and injuring over 300. These events, which coincided
with the beginning of the Intifada in the occupied territories
and renewed tension on the country's northern border, significantly
harmed Jewish-Arab relations in the country.
Religion generally was not a component
of the demonstrations. However, there were a number of violent
incidents between Arab and Jewish citizens following the
demonstrations, including several incidents in which religious
sites were targeted.
In early October 2000, in the Arab town
of Sha'faram, a crowd of Arab youths attacked and damaged
slightly an ancient synagogue during demonstrations held
to protest police actions in nearby towns. The mayor and
other Arab citizens of the town attempted unsuccessfully
to protect the synagogue. Following the attack, the mayor
of Sha'faram apologized publicly to Jewish Israelis.
In October 2000, a crowd of Jewish Israelis
attacked and damaged moderately a mosque in Tiberias. Police
attempted unsuccessfully to prevent the attack. On the same
day, small crowds of Jewish Israelis attempted to damage
mosques in Jaffa and Akko; however, police successfully prevented
these attacks. Jewish participants in the attack reported
that they were angry over Hezbollah's kidnapping of three
Israeli soldiers near the border with Lebanon.
In June 2001, after a suicide bomber killed
21 young Israelis at the Dolphinarium discotheque in Tel
Aviv, a large crowd of Jews attacked a mosque across the
street from the explosion while 8 men were inside. The crowd
threw stones at the mosque; however, police prevented the
participants from reaching the building. After several hours,
police used armored vehicles to evacuate the men from the
Animosity between secular and religious
Jews continued during the period covered by this report.
Non-Orthodox Jews have complained of discrimination and intolerance.
Persons who consider themselves Jewish but who are not considered
Jewish under Orthodox law particularly complained of discrimination.
Instances of ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups or individuals
verbally or physically harassing women for "immodest
dress" or other violations of their interpretation of
religious law are not uncommon.
Observant Jews also faced some discrimination.
In May 2001, the Beersheva labor court ruled that employers
could not discriminate against employees or job applicants
who refuse to work on the Sabbath. The case was brought by
an engineer who was refused a position because he did not
work on the Sabbath. The judge ruled that "an employer
is obligated to behave equally towards job seekers, including
setting conditions of acceptance that do not take into account
the potential employees' beliefs or religion, unless the
job functions require distinctions, such as work on the Sabbath."
Israeli Arab groups allege that many employers
use the prerequisite of military service to avoid hiring
non-Jews, including for jobs that are unrelated to national
Israeli Arabs are underrepresented in the
student bodies and faculties of most universities and in
higher level professional and business ranks. Arab citizens
hold only 50 of the country's 5,000 university faculty positions.
Well-educated Arabs often are unable to find jobs commensurate
with their level of education.
According to the National Insurance Institute,
42 percent of Israeli Arabs live below the poverty line,
compared with 20 percent of the total population.
Societal attitudes toward missionary activities
and conversion generally are negative. Israeli Jews frequently
are opposed to missionary activity directed at Jews and occasionally
are hostile toward Jewish converts to Christianity. Such
attitudes often are attributed to the frequent periods in
Jewish history in which Jews were coerced to convert to Christianity.
Christian and Muslim Israeli Arab religious
leaders complain that missionary activity that leads to conversions
frequently disrupts family coherence in their community.
Muslims consider any conversion from Islam to be apostasy.
In recent years, evangelical Christians,
Jehovah's Witnesses, and Reform and Conservative Jews complained
of incidents of harassment, threats, and vandalism directed
against their buildings, and other facilities, many of which
were committed by two ultra-Orthodox groups, Yad L'Achim
and Lev L'Achim. There were no such incidents reported during
the period covered by this report.
There are numerous nongovernmental organizations
maintaining dialog between different religions. Interfaith
dialog often is linked to the peace process between Israel
and its Arab neighbors.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy
The U.S. Embassy consistently raised issues
of religious freedom with the Foreign Ministry, the police,
and the Prime Minister's office. In March 2001, members of
the U.S. International Commission on International Religious
Freedom met with government officials, religious leaders,
and nongovernmental (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
NGO's that follow human and civil rights issues, including
religious freedom. These NGO's include the Association for
Civil Rights in Israel, the Israel Religious Action Center,
Adalah, and 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. The Embassy provided small grants to
local organizations promoting interfaith dialog and to organizations
examining the role of religion in resolving conflict.
Department of State, 2001, Annual Report on International
Religious Freedom, Released by the Bureau for Democracy,
Human Rights, and Labor, Washington, DC, October 26, 2001.