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Reports on Religious Freedom: Israel


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

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 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 Sabbath.

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 their status.

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.

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 been at times 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 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 cards.

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 report.

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 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. 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 Christian groups.

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 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 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 mosque.

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 Beersheba 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.

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.

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