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Reports on Religious Freedom:
Israel

(2002)


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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 Basic Law describes Israel as a "Jewish" and "democratic" state. The overwhelming majority of non-Jewish citizens are Muslims, Druze, and Christians. Of this group, most are Arabs, and are subject to various forms of discrimination, some of which have religious dimensions. Israeli Arabs, temporary residents, and other non-Jewish Israelis, are, in fact, generally free to practice their religions.

Relations among religious groups--between Jews and non-Jews, between Muslims and Christians, and among 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, due primarily to terrorist attacks, mostly in the form of suicide bombings by Palestinians, and Israel Defense Force (IDF) actions in the occupied territories. The terrorist attacks against civilian targets in Israel impeded many aspects of daily life, including religious practice.

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 6.5 million (including Israeli settlers who live in the occupied territories). According to government figures, approximately 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 Christians) who immigrate to the country 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. The vast majority of the Jewish population describe themselves as "traditional," or "secular" Jews, most of whom observe some Jewish traditions. For example, a poll conducted during the period covered by this report found that during Passover, over 80 percent of the country’s Jewish population refrained from eating non-kosher food despite the fact that such food could be purchased in non-Kosher stores and restaurants. 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. A poll released in December 2001 found that the majority of Jews accepted the tenets of Reform and Conservative Judaism, and that the vast majority believed Reform and Conservative weddings conducted in Israel should be recognized by the State. Though they are not officially recognized by the Government, these streams of Judaism do receive a small amount of government funding and are recognized by the country's courts.

Approximately 20 percent of the population generally are non-Jewish. Of this 20 percent, approximately 80 percent are Muslim, 10 percent Christian, and 10 percent Druze. The country's non-Jewish 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.

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

Legal/Policy Framework

There is 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. Israeli Arabs and other non-Jews are, in fact, generally free to practice their religions. The discrepancies that exist in the treatment of various communities in society are based on several variables, including the distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish citizens. 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 enforced inconsistently in the entertainment sector. Additionally, streets in some Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods are closed to vehicles on the Sabbath.

The Government recognizes 5 religions, including 10 Christian denominations. 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 their status.

During the period covered by this report, relations between the Israeli Government and the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate (which represents the largest Christian community in Israel and the occupied territories) were strained by the Israeli Government’s refusal to recognize the duly-elected Greek Orthodox Patriarch, Eirinaios I. According to a senior Patriarchate official, the Israeli Government withheld its recognition in an attempt to extract legal and political concessions from the Patriarchate. Many local Greek Orthodox Christians perceived the Government's actions as interference with the internal workings of their church. Another factor for the delay in recognition is that Jewish business associates of some of the defeated Patriarchal candidates reportedly have filed High Court challenges to the election, thereby preventing the Government from endorsing Eirinaios. While the lack of recognition may not hinder the Patriarch's ability to fulfill his spiritual obligations directly, it may affect his ability to leave and return to Israel without restriction.

At least a few of the IDF soldiers who were killed in action since September 2000 were Muslim, Druze, and Israeli Arab Christian. After the family of one of the soldiers who was killed in February 2000 could not find a Muslim cleric to perform his burial, there was public debate over 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.

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 schools. During the period covered by this report, the Municipality of Jerusalem attempted to turn control of a declining Jerusalem school over to the Progressive (Reform) movement, which runs a successful school in Haifa. However, after ultra-Orthodox leaders threatened to defeat the Jerusalem mayor in any upcoming elections if the Progressives took control of the school, the offer was rescinded.

Jewish religious holidays such as Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Passover are state holidays. Arab municipalities often recognize Christian and Muslim holidays.

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 at times been a source of serious controversy in society.

Under the Law of Return, the Government grants automatic citizenship and residence rights to Jewish immigrants and their families. Based on a decision made in 2000 by the Attorney General, residency rights are not 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 until this year designated "nationality" (i.e., Arab, Russian, or "Jew," etc.) on national identity documents. Groups representing persons who consider themselves Jewish but who do not meet the Interior Ministry's criteria long have sought a change in the rules, or to have the nationality designation completely removed from identity cards, a move also supported by many Arab groups. In February 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that the Ministry of Interior must register as Jewish 24 persons who had converted in Israel to Judaism through Reform or Conservative conversions (the Government has recognized such conversions performed overseas since 1986). This decision would affect the "nationality" designation on the identification cards of such converts, but not their right to Jewish marriage or burial, which still would be denied. After the Supreme Court’s decision, several members of the Knesset announced that they would seek legislation to circumvent the Court’s ruling, while others proposed eliminating the nationality clause entirely. At the end of the period covered by this report, new identification cards were being issued without any nationality designation.

The Government has recognized only 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. Muslim groups complain that the Government has been reluctant to refurbish mosques in areas where there is no longer a Muslim population.

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.

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. During the period covered by this report, some missionaries complained of difficulties renewing their visas, though their complaints eventually were resolved.

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 imposed restrictions on its Muslim citizens who performed 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.

During the period covered by this report, many groups and individuals of all religions traveled to Israel freely. However, the Government at times denied entry to foreign groups or activists, including Jews, whom it deemed sympathetic to Palestinians or likely to pose a threat to security. In June 2002, the Government denied entry to 20 predominantly Muslim American citizens traveling to the country on a 1-week visit to meet with different religious groups.

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. 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.

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. Additionally, National Religious (i.e., modern Orthodox, one of Israel's official Jewish school systems) and Christian parochial schools complain that they receive less funding than secular schools despite the fact that they voluntarily abide by all national curricular standards. During the period covered by this report, the two groups together took their case for equal funding to the High Court.

Government resources available to Arab public schools are less than proportionate to those available to Jewish public schools. 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. Jewish private religious schools receive significant government funding. Non-Jews are underrepresented in the student bodies and faculties of most universities and in the higher level professional and business ranks.

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. 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 began to implement this decision in 2001, though some groups complained that implementation was too slow.

The Jewish National Fund owns approximately 8 percent of the country’s land area and manages another 8 percent on behalf of the Government. The JNF’s by-laws prohibit it from selling or leasing land to non-Jews, which has prevented Israeli Arabs from buying homes in JNF developed areas.

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 only may 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.

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, at least one IDF soldier who considered himself Jewish and was killed in action during the period of this report was not eligible for burial in the Jewish section of a military cemetery because he was not Jewish under Orthodox Jewish law. After considerable public outcry over the ruling that he was not eligible for a Jewish funeral, the father of the soldier announced that he was satisfied with the portion of the cemetery where his son would be laid to rest, a portion reserved for persons whose Jewishness was in question. Following the Dolphinarium discotheque 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 distressed many Russian immigrants.

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. At least one man, a U.S. citizen, has been in jail for 3 years because he refuses to grant his wife a writ of divorce. However, in some cases rabbinical courts have failed to invoke 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 never may take a second husband. Rabbinical courts also may exercise jurisdiction over and issue sanctions against non-Israeli persons present in the country.

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.

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 still 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.

There were no complaints of harassment of members of Jehovah's Witnesses during the period covered by this report; however, of the over 120 cases of harassment filed by members of Jehovah's Witnesses between 1998 and 2000, many still were pending.

There are numerous nongovernmental organizations maintaining dialogue between different religions. Interfaith dialogue often is linked to the peace process between the country and its Arab neighbors.

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees.

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 refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

Relations among different religious groups--between Jews and non-Jews, between Christians and Muslims, and among the different streams of Judaism--often are strained. Many Jewish citizens object to the exclusive control the Orthodox Jewish authorities have over Jewish marriages, divorces, and most burials. This has been, at times, a source of serious controversy in society. 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, due primarily to terrorist attacks, mostly in the form of suicide bombings by Palestinians, and IDF actions in the occupied territories. The terrorist attacks against civilian targets in Israel impeded many aspects of daily life, including religious practice.

On March 27, 2002, a suicide bomber attacked a Passover holiday seder in Netanya, killing 20 persons and injuring over 100. The bomber, who was on a list of wanted terrorists, also died in the explosion.

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 in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.

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 security.

Societal attitudes toward missionary activities and conversion generally are negative. 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. In May 2002, an unidentified person or persons drew a swastika and an epithet on the door of the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal arm of the Reform Movement. The incident occurred apparently in response to plans to turn control of a local school over to the Reform Movement (see Section II).

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Embassy consistently raised issues of religious freedom with the Foreign Ministry, the police, the Prime Minister's office, and the Ministry of the Interior.

In meetings with the Israeli officials, the U.S. Embassy in Israel and State Department officials in Washington have objected to the arbitrary and discriminatory practice of denying some U.S. citizens entry into Israel based on religious and ethnic background.

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.


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

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