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Reports on Religious Freedom: Israel


Section I. Freedom of Religion

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

The Government recognizes 5 religions, including 10 Christian groups. Each religion recognized by the Government has its own religious court system, which has considerable authority over issues of personal status. Government recognition is limited to religions present in the country before 1948.

Approximately 80 percent of citizens are Jewish (with a significant secular majority), while 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.

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 notes that non-Jewish communities receive significantly less government financial support than their Jewish counterparts. 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 Ministry's 1998 budget actually reduced the percentage. The High Court of Justice heard a case in February 1997 alleging that this budgetary allocation constitutes discrimination. The Court refused to rule on the case in 1997 and suggested that the petitioners refile the case after the passage of the 1998 budget, which the petitioners did. After three hearings during 1998, the Court ruled that the budget allocation did in fact constitute "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.

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 has heretofore 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.

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 further restricted proselytizing 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.

Evangelical Christian and other religious groups also have complained that the police have been slow to investigate incidents of harassment, threats, and vandalism directed against their meetings, churches, and other facilities by two ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups, known as Yad L'achim and Lev L'achim.

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 document, 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. Many Jews who wish to marry in secular or non-Orthodox religious ceremonies do so abroad, and the Ministry of Interior recognizes such marriages.

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

Religious affiliation plays a key role in daily life, particularly in matters of birth, marriage, divorce, and death. 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.

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 will 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.

Jehovah's Witnesses complained of inadequate police response to numerous incidents of harassment, assaults, theft, and vandalism during the period covered by this report, reportedly by two ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups, known as Yad L'achim and Lev L'achim. For example, Jehovah's Witnesses assert that police did not adequately investigate two break-ins at a meeting house in Lod in February 1998. Jehovah's Witnesses filed over 120 complaints about such incidents with the police during 1998 and the first half of 1999. There have been no indictments or prosecutions in these cases.

One member of Jehovah's Witnesses was arrested and charged with "offending religious sentiment" for allegedly distributing religious literature at Tel Aviv's central bus station on March 1, 1999. The arrest followed a complaint by a member of the Yad L'achim organization. The individual alleged that he was singled out because he had filed five separate complaints against members of Yad L'achim.

On March 30, 1999, another member of Jehovah's Witnesses was summoned to a police station in Beersheba for allegedly distributing a religious tract to a soldier. She was charged with the "unlawful distribution of a religious tract to a soldier, attempting to convert him to another religion, and assault on religious sentiments." On April 6, she again was summoned and questioned by police. On April 18, she discovered that the complaint had been filed by an ultra-Orthodox man against whom she herself had filed a complaint for harassment in mid-February 1999. The police have taken no further action in the case.

The Government makes some efforts at encouraging interfaith understanding.

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.

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 are often 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 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. This led to small outbreaks of violence in April and June 1999. 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 are largely hostile to missionary activity. Muslims consider any conversion from Islam to be apostasy.

Jehovah's Witnesses suffered verbal abuse, assaults, theft, and vandalism during the period covered by the report (see Section I).

Evangelical Christian and other religious groups suffered numerous incidents of often-violent harassment (also see Section I). For example, a meeting of self-described "Messianic Jews" in the southern city of Beersheba was broken up violently in May 1999 by a group of Jews opposed to their activities. 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 have increased during the period covered by this report.

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.

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 has 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 advertisied 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 Israel's 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 have focused particularly on complaints from Jehovah's Witnesses about poor police response to incidents of violent harassment and have dealt with specific incidents as well as the general problem of insufficient police response. Robert Seiple, Special Representative to the Secretary of State for International Religious Freedom, met in February 1999 with senior officials, including the Deputy Minister of Religious Affairs, to discuss matters of religious freedom.

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 have included the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the Israel Religious Action Center, Adalah, and many others.

Embassy representatives have 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