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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.

Relations among religious groups -- between Jews and non-Jews, between Muslims and Christians, and among the different streams of Judaism -- often are strained. These tensions have increased significantly since the start of the Intifada in October 2000 and again during the period covered by this report, due primarily to Palestinian terrorist attacks, mostly in the form of suicide bombings and Israel Defense Force (IDF) actions in the occupied territories, all of which resulted in some impediments to religious practice.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialogue 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 Orthodox Jewish definition or that utilized by the Government in civil procedures. 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 as "secular" Jews, most of whom observe some Jewish 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. A 2001 poll 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 the country should be recognized by the State. Though the Government does not officially recognize them, 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 is 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 of the country, in Bedouin communities in the Negev region in the south, and in a narrow band of Arab villages in central Israel adjacent to the occupied territories. There also are small numbers of evangelical Christians and Jehovah's Witnesses. The country's 250,000 guest workers are predominantly Roman Catholic and Buddhist.

The Basic Law describes the country as a "Jewish" and "democratic" state. Most of the non-Jewish minority 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 generally free to practice their religions.

Numerous missionary groups operate 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. Israeli Arabs and other non-Jews are 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 "status quo" agreement reached at the founding of the state reflecting the 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 Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, although some private bus companies do operate on the Sabbath. 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.

Israeli law recognizes the "religious communities" as carried over from those recognized under the British Mandate. These are: Eastern Orthodox, Latin (Catholic), Gregorian-Armenian, Armenian-Catholic, Syrian (Catholic), Chaldean (Uniate), Greek Catholic Melkite, Maronite, Syrian Orthodox, and Jewish. Three additional religious communities have subsequently been recognized -- the Druze, the Evangelical Episcopal Church, and the Baha'i. The status of some Christian denominations with representation in the country has been defined by a collection of ad hoc arrangements with various government agencies. The fact that the Muslim population was not defined as a religious community is a vestige of the Ottoman period during which Islam was the dominant religion and does not affect the rights of the Muslim community to practice their faith. At the end of the period covered by this report, several of these denominations were pending official government recognition; however, the Government has allowed adherents of not officially recognized groups freedom to practice.

Unrecognized religions have no religious tribunals with jurisdiction over their members in matters of personal status; however, 1961 legislation gave Muslim Shari'a courts exclusive jurisdiction in matters of personal status. Non-recognized denominations do not receive government funding for their religious services, as do many of the recognized communities; however, the Arrangements Law provides exemption from municipal taxes for any synagogue, church, mosque, or place of worship.

The 1971 Religious Jewish services law authorizes the Ministry of Religious Affairs to establish religious councils in Jewish towns, cities, and settlements. The State finances 40 percent of the council's budget and local authorities fund the remainder. However, an Arab advocacy group charged that, for the most part, the State did not allocate funds for the provision of religious services in Arab towns and villages, except for a Druze religious council that was recently recognized by law.

During the period covered by this report, the Israeli Government continued to refuse recognition to the duly elected Greek Orthodox Patriarch, Eirinaios I. Eirinaios I was elected in August 2001, and because of the lack of recognition by the Israeli Government has been unable to conclude financial or legal arrangements on behalf of the Patriarchate for the past 2 years. In 2002 the Israeli police confiscated the passport of Archimandrite Attallah Hanna, an Israeli citizen and a priest with the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. His passport had not been returned by the end of the period covered by this report.

A reportedly small number of IDF soldiers killed in action since September 2000 were Muslim, Druze, and Israeli Arab Christians. After the family of one of the soldiers could not find a Muslim cleric to perform his burial, public debate ensued 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. However, Muslim soldiers are allowed to take home leave for all Muslim holidays.

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.

The Government recognizes the following Jewish holidays as national holidays: Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Passover. 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. Until 2002 the Government 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 have long sought either a change in the rules, or to have the nationality designation completely removed from identity cards, a move also supported by many Arab groups. During the period covered by this report, the Government began issuing new identification cards that do not carry a nationality designation to those seeking new or replacement national identity documents.

The 1967 Protection of Holy Sites Law protects holy sites of all religions and the penal code makes it a criminal offense to damage any holy site. During the year, there were no reports of damage to holy sites in which perpetrators were held accountable.

The Government permits religious organizations to apply for funding to maintain or build holy sites and funding has been provided for the upkeep of holy sites such as mosques and cemeteries. Orthodox Jewish holy sites receive significantly greater proportions of funding than do non-Orthodox Jewish and non-Jewish holy sites. Muslim groups complain that the Government has not equitably funded the construction and upkeep of mosques in comparison to the funding of synagogues and has been reluctant to refurbish mosques in areas where there is no longer a Muslim population.

Building codes for places of worship are selectively enforced based on religion. Some Bedouin, living in unrecognized villages, were denied building permits for construction of mosques. For example, in October 2002, local Bedouin began construction without a permit of a mosque in the village of Tal el-Malah in southern Israel. Without this construction, residents, numbering about 1,500, had to travel over 12 kilometers to the nearest mosque. Difficulties in reaching more distant mosques prevented some residents from engaging in public prayer, as required by their religious beliefs. In February, the Government inspector served notice to the village that the building was illegally constructed and would be demolished. The Government carried out that order in May, despite, according to one human rights NGO, the upcoming Muslim holiday of 'Eid al-Adha and entreaties from the community. In contrast, in violation of zoning restrictions, there are approximately 100 illegal synagogues in Tel Aviv, some within apartment buildings and others in separate structures.

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 during the period covered by this report.

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, although their complaints eventually were resolved.

The Government generally continued to permit Muslim citizens to make the Hajj during the period covered by this report. Because Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have diplomatic relations, Israeli-Arab Muslims are required to transit Jordan and obtain Jordanian travel documents to enter Saudi Arabia. In Jordan, they temporarily relinquish their Israeli passports for the Jordanian documents. Their passports are returned to them upon re-entry into the country. Israeli law prohibits Muslims under the age of 35 from making the Hajj and requires government permission for the trip. The Government claims that this is in order to meet quota restrictions imposed by the Saudi Government on the number of persons permitted to enter Saudi Arabia annually for the Hajj. In addition, the Government limits each person to no more than one visit, with the exception of those making the Hajj on behalf of someone handicapped or who died before being able to make the pilgrimage himself. The Government may also prohibit the travel of persons from Israel to Saudi Arabia because of security considerations. The result of this restriction is that some Muslims are unable to fulfill their religious obligations to make the Hajj.

During the period covered by this report, many groups and individuals of numerous religions traveled to the country freely. However, the Government at times denied entry to foreign groups or activists, whom it deemed sympathetic to Palestinians or likely to pose a threat to security.

The Government denied entry and residence to at least 80 Catholic clergy and seminarians assigned by the Vatican to fulfill religious obligations in Israel and the occupied territories.

The Government states that it is committed to granting equal and fair conditions to non-Jewish citizens -- who constitute approximately 20 percent of the population and who are predominately Israeli Arabs -- particularly in the areas of education, housing, and employment. However, the Government does not provide non-Jews 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 non-Jews 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. Many ministers publicly acknowledge the continuing disparities in government funding for 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-Orthodox Jewish institutions routinely receive less state support than their Orthodox Jewish counterparts. Additionally, National Religious (i.e., modern Orthodox, one of the country'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 non-Orthodox Jewish and Arab public schools are proportionately less than those available to Orthodox Jewish public schools. Quality private religious schools for Israeli Arabs exist; 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 in addition to philanthropic contributions from within the country and abroad, which effectively lower tuition costs for Jewish parents. 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, although some groups complained that implementation was too slow.

In March, the Government announced that it would dismantle the Ministry of Religion within 12 months and turn its responsibilities over to the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Interior. At the end of the period covered by this report, a deputy minister, rather than a minister, headed the Ministry of Religious Affairs.

The Jewish National Fund (JNF) 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 have prevented Israeli Arabs from buying homes in JNF-developed areas.

Issues of marriage and divorce are under the exclusive jurisdiction of recognized religious courts. 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. Since November 2001, Muslims also have the right to bring matters such as alimony and property division associated with divorce cases to civil courts in family-status cases. However, paternity cases are under the exclusive jurisdiction of the Muslim or Shari'a court.

The State does not recognize marriages or conversions to Judaism performed in the country by non-Orthodox rabbis. In 2001 the Chief Rabbinate issued 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; however, during the period covered by this report, the Government rescinded the requirement. Israeli Jews who wish to marry in secular or non-Orthodox religious ceremonies and to have those marriages recognized, must do so abroad, and the Ministry of Interior recognizes such marriages. Others hold weddings unrecognized by the Government, including Kibbutz, Reform, and Conservative weddings.

Many Jewish citizens object to the exclusive control of the Orthodox establishment, and it has been at times a source of serious controversy in society, particularly in recent years, because thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union have not been recognized as Jewish by Orthodox authorities. This affects whether an individual is entitled to be buried in a Jewish cemetery, whether they are entitled to a religious Jewish marriage ceremony recognized by the state, and to divorce matters. The 1996 Alternative Burial Law established the individual right to be buried in an alternative civil cemetery and that these cemeteries were to be located throughout the country. Several non-Orthodox Jewish and secular groups have complained that the Ministry of Religious Affairs has been slow to implement this law and that there have been an inadequate number of civil cemeteries designated. According to one organization advocating the timely implementation of the 1996 law, many persons who would prefer a civil interment are forced to finance civil burials privately through a kibbutz, which is costly. Despite the demand, the Government has not allocated adequate space or sufficient funds for the development of alternative burial sites. For example, following the 2001 Dolphinarium discotheque bombing, the Rabbinate declared some former Soviet Union Jewish victims ineligible for Jewish burial. The Government did not provide adequate alternative Jewish burial sites.

In the January general election, the Shinui Party, which ran on a platform of ending much of the Orthodox establishment's exclusive power, won 15 seats in the Knesset, making it the third largest party in the Parliament. Shinui joined the Government and was given control over the Ministries of Interior and Justice. Shinui has stated that it plans significant reforms to personal status and other questions handled by the ministries in its purview. The new Government also effectively lowered the status of the Religious Affairs Ministry by leaving it in the hands of a deputy minister rather than naming a new minister.

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," or women 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 4 years because he refuses to grant his wife a writ of divorce. At the end of the period covered by this report, he remained in prison. 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 the husband.

Members of unrecognized religious groups (particularly evangelical Christians) sometimes face problems obtaining marriage certificates or burial services. However, informal arrangements with other recognized religious groups provide relief in some cases.

In April the Women of the Wall, a group of more than 100 Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform women, lost their 14-year legal battle to hold formal women's prayer services at the Western Wall. The High Court ruled that the group could not hold prayer services at the Western Wall, and instead would be permitted to hold them at nearby Robinson's Arch. Most Orthodox Jews believe that mixed gender prayer services violate the precepts of Judaism, and Jews generally still are unable to hold 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 are numerous nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) maintaining dialogue between different religions. Interfaith dialogue often is linked to the peace process between the country and its Arab neighbors. In May, Reverend Emile Shoufani, an Israeli priest and educator, led a joint Jewish-Arab delegation to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp as part of an effort to develop interfaith dialogue. Rabbi Michael Melchior, Member of the Knesset, promotes interfaith activities to advance the peace process and discourage terrorism and violence. He also contributes to the Alexandria Interfaith Peace Process, initiated at the January 2002 interfaith summit in Alexandria, Egypt.

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 are the result of historical grievances, cultural and religious differences, and are compounded by governmental and societal discrimination against Israeli-Arabs. They have been heightened by the Arab-Israeli conflict, and increased significantly during the period covered by this report, due primarily to Palestinian terrorist attacks, mostly in the form of suicide bombings, and IDF actions in the occupied territories, all of which resulted in some impediments to religious practice. For example, in 2002 a suicide bomber attacked a Passover holiday Seder, killing 20 persons and injuring over 100.

Animosity between secular and religious Jews continued during the period covered by this report. Non-Orthodox Jews have complained of discrimination and intolerance on the part of members of ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups. 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 occur in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. At the end of the reporting period there were incidents in Jerusalem where ultra-Orthodox Jews threw rocks and garbage at passing motorists to protest that they were driving on the Sabbath.

Observant Jews also faced some discrimination. In 2001 the Beersheba labor court ruled that employers could not discriminate against employees or job applicants who refuse to 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."

Societal attitudes toward missionary activities and conversion generally are negative. Many Jews are opposed to missionary activity directed at Jews and some are hostile toward Jewish converts to Christianity. Christian and Muslim Israeli Arab religious leaders complain that missionary activity that leads to conversions frequently disrupts family coherence in their community.

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.

During the period covered by this report, mainstream newspapers periodically criticized the country's ultra-Orthodox or "Haredim" community for its majority's exemption from military service and receipt of government assistance in lieu of working.

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

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

Embassy officials maintain a dialogue with NGOs that follow human and civil rights issues, including religious freedom. These NGOs 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 dialogue, including the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the Abraham Fund Initiatives, which promotes coexistence between Jewish and Arab citizens, and have met with Israeli-Arab leaders to discuss religious freedom issues, including Adalah and the Islamic Movement-Northern Branch. The Embassy provided small grants to local organizations promoting interfaith dialogue and to organizations examining the role of religion in resolving conflict.

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