Reports on Religious Freedom: Israel
The country’s laws and policies protect religious freedom and, in practice, the government generally respected religious freedom. The government did not demonstrate a trend toward either improvement or deterioration in respect for and protection of the right to religious freedom. The Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty protects religious freedom through reference to the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, which describes the country as a Jewish state with full social and political equality, regardless of religious affiliation, and promises freedom of religion. While there is no constitution, government policy contributed to the generally free practice of religion, although governmental and legal discrimination against non-Jews and non-Orthodox streams of Judaism continued.
There were reports of societal abuses and discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice. Some individuals and groups were responsible for discriminatory practices against Israeli-Arab Muslims, Christians, and non-Orthodox Jews. Relations among religious and ethnic groups--between Jews and non-Jews, Muslims and Christians, Arabs and non-Arabs, secular and religious Jews, and among the different streams of Judaism--were strained.
The U.S. government discussed religious freedom with the government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights. U.S. embassy officials maintained a dialogue with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) focusing on human and civil rights, including religious freedom, and encouraged religious leaders to advance regional peace and calm local tensions.
Section 1- Religious Demography:
The country has a population of 7.8 million (including settlers living in the Occupied Territories), of which 5.8 million are Jews; 1.6 million are Muslims and Christians; and 322,000 are classified as “other” --mostly persons from the former Soviet Union who immigrated under the Law of Return but did not qualify as Jews according to the Orthodox Jewish definition used by the government for civil procedures, although many identify themselves as Jewish.
According to the 2009 report of the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), 8 percent of the Jewish population is Haredi (also known as “ultra-Orthodox”); 12 percent identify themselves as Orthodox; 13 percent describe themselves as “traditional, religious;” 25 percent say they are “traditional, not so religious;” and 42 percent describe themselves as “nonreligious/secular” Jews, most of whom observed some Jewish traditions. About 30 percent of the country’s Jewish population was born outside the country. Over 15,000 traditional and secular Jews associated themselves with the Conservative (Masorti) or Reform streams of Judaism, while a few held Reconstructionist beliefs. There is a small but growing community of approximately 20,000 Messianic Jews. Slightly more than 20 percent of the population are non-Jews, primarily ethnic Arabs. Of the country’s total population, Muslims (nearly all Sunnis) constitute 16.6 percent; Christians 1.6 percent; Druze 1.6 percent; and other religious groups collectively constitute approximately 0.5 percent, including relatively small communities of Samaritans, Karaites, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Baha’is.
Religious communities often are concentrated in geographical areas according to religious beliefs. The country continues to undergo demographic change owing to the higher birth rates of the Haredi community.
During the year, there were nearly 90,000 foreigners permitted to work in the country and an estimated 118,000 illegal foreign workers residing in the country. Foreign workers were members of many different religious groups, including Protestants, Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims.
Section 2- Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom:
a. Legal/Policy Framework
While there is no formal constitution, laws and policies protect religious freedom and, in practice, the government generally respected religious freedom. The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty protects religious freedom. The Basic Law describes the country as a “Jewish and democratic state” and references the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, which promises religious freedom and full social and political equality, regardless of religious affiliation.
Numerous Supreme Court rulings also incorporate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), including their religious freedom provisions, into the country’s body of law. Matters of personal status, however, are partly governed by the religious laws of the parties concerned, and to the extent that such law is inconsistent with the country’s obligations under the ICCPR, the government reserves the right to apply that law. Government policy continued to support the generally free practice of religion, although governmental and legal discrimination against non-Jews and non-Orthodox streams of Judaism continued, and some laws and policies promoted certain Orthodox Jewish values over those of other religious beliefs.
Israel inherited a preexisting body of law from the British Mandate (1920 to 1948) and Ottoman (1517 to 1917) periods, which remains the law, apart from the sections specifically abrogated by the Knesset’s (parliament) subsequent legislation. The existence of the Sharia (Islamic law) courts is a continuation from the late Ottoman period, when their jurisdiction was confined to issues of personal status, succession, and administration of waqfs (religious endowments). The institution of the Chief Rabbinate as the supreme authority on halakhah (Jewish law) and personal status issues also has continued since the Ottoman “millet” system, which made hierarchical religious authorities responsible for every individual within the empire. The jurisdiction of each religious community over its own adherents’ personal status issues continued through the provisions of the 1922 British Mandate that remain the applicable law today.
The law recognizes the following “religious communities”: Eastern Orthodox, Latin (Roman Catholic), Gregorian-Armenian, Armenian-Catholic, Syrian Catholic, Chaldean (Chaldean Uniate Catholic), Greek Catholic Melkite, Maronite, Syrian Orthodox, Druze, Evangelical Episcopal, and Baha’i. The fact that the Muslim population was not defined as a religious community is a vestige of the Ottoman period when Islam was the dominant religion, but this has not limited Muslims from practicing their religion. A collection of arrangements with various government agencies defines the status of several Christian denominations with representation in the country. The government allows members of unrecognized religious groups to practice their religious beliefs, but their personal status issues, including marriage, must be handled by an authority within one of the recognized communities, although the government does accept marriage registrations from the Karaites and the head of the Evangelical Alliance of Israel (formerly the United Christian Council in Israel), an umbrella organization for many Protestant churches in the country.
Major Protestant denominations that have been in the country for many years, such as the Assemblies of God, Baptists, and Lutherans, among others, are not recognized. Four religious communities that have applied for official recognition have had their applications pending for years: Ethiopian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the Evangelical Alliance of Israel. Jehovah’s Witnesses presented two applications for recognition as a religious congregation, in 2003 and 2008, which were rejected.
Under the Law of Return, the government grants immigration and residence rights to individuals who meet established criteria defining Jewish identity and also to certain family members. Eligible family members include a child or grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew, and the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew. The Law of Return established the right for every Jew to immigrate. Both physical descendants and religious converts have been excluded at times, however, based solely on the potential immigrant’s religious belief.
Those born to Israeli Jews remain citizens according to the state, regardless of their religious belief or Orthodox recognition, while non-Israeli Jewish descendants are routinely asked religious questions to determine whether they qualified to become a citizen. The question of whether one believes Jesus is the Jewish Messiah has been used to determine whether a Jew was qualified to immigrate. The Supreme Court repeatedly has upheld the right, however, of Israeli Jews who believe Jesus is the Messiah to retain their citizenship. The immigration exclusion was routinely applied only against Messianic Jews, whereas Jews who were atheists were accepted, and Jews who chose to believe in other religions, including Hindus and Buddhists, were not screened out.
Non-Orthodox converts to Judaism are entitled to the civil right of return, citizenship, and registration as Jews in the civil population registry. These individuals are not able to marry in the country, as they do not meet Orthodox standards. Ethiopian Jews, who traditionally practice some rituals that are different from those in halakhah, also have some difficulty getting their marriages and divorces registered due to Orthodox standards, although some Orthodox rabbis have registered their marriages.
While recognized religious communities only require visa approvals through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), unrecognized religious communities’ visas must be approved additionally through the Ministry of Interior (MOI) to justify stays longer than five years.
Each officially recognized religious community has legal authority over its members in matters of marriage, divorce, and burial, limiting the freedom of many individuals who may not otherwise subject themselves to the authority of those religious communities, although there are some exceptions. The Sharia courts have exclusive jurisdiction in matters of personal status concerning Muslims, although women may turn instead to civil family courts for divorces. Local tribunals do not exercise jurisdiction over personal status issues of nonrecognized religious groups. In general only recognized religious communities receive government funding for their religious services, although there are some exceptions, including for Samaritans and Karaites.
Secular courts have primacy over questions of inheritance, but by mutual agreement parties may file such cases in religious courts instead. The rabbinical courts, when exercising these powers in civil matters, apply religious law, which varies from civil law, including in matters relating to the property rights of widows and daughters. Family status matters are normally the purview of religious courts, but Jewish, Druze, and Christian families may ask for some cases, such as those concerning alimony and child custody in divorces, to be adjudicated in civil courts. Women often prefer the civil courts, as they are viewed to be more favorable to them, but are subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of the religious court if the spouse filed the divorce case there first. Since 2001 Muslims also have the right to bring matters such as alimony and property division associated with divorce to civil courts. In practice Muslims rarely choose this option and there are many social pressures preventing Muslim women from taking this route to civil courts, where the case often is adjudicated in Hebrew by a Jewish judge. Paternity cases among Muslim citizens are the exclusive jurisdiction of Islamic law courts.
No religious group possesses legal jurisdiction over financial disputes.
The High Rabbinical Court restricted some individuals’ conversions to Judaism. Following Supreme Court rulings since 2002, the government registers certificates of conversion to Judaism performed in the country and abroad by Reform and Conservative rabbis. However, a petition is pending in a Supreme Court decision regarding the entitlement of such converts in the country to the rights granted under the Law of Return. Converts from abroad usually enjoyed those rights, but the MOI has added extra requirements, including a year’s active participation in the Jewish community where the conversion took place, as prerequisites for immigration. The Interior Ministry’s reliance on the Chief Rabbinate’s disapproval of some conversions performed by certain Orthodox rabbis in the United States remained a problem, and several such cases were still before the Supreme Court. However, at midyear the government agreed that the MOI would henceforth rely on the Jewish Agency rather than the Chief Rabbinate regarding Orthodox conversions from abroad.
Since personal status matters for Jews are controlled by the Chief Rabbinate, which does not recognize non-Orthodox converts to Judaism as Jews, Reform and Conservative converts in the country cannot marry or divorce in the country and cannot be buried in Jewish cemeteries; people who converted to Reform or Conservative Judaism abroad do not have any such restrictions in the country.
The government provides funds for Orthodox conversion programs but does not provide support for non-Orthodox programs. The government had not taken any steps by year’s end to implement the May 2009 High Court of Justice ruling that the government must cease discriminating against non-Orthodox conversions. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) sponsored Orthodox Jewish conversion courses for Jewish soldiers converted to non-Orthodox (and therefore unrecognized) traditions and for soldiers not recognized as Jewish by the Orthodox rabbinical authorities. Residency rights are not granted to relatives of converts to Judaism, except for children of female converts who are born after the mother’s conversion is complete.
Although not officially recognized for purposes of civil and personal status matters, groups composed of adherents of Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist streams of Judaism received a small amount of government funding and were recognized by the courts.
The government implements some policies based on Orthodox Jewish interpretations of religious law. For example the only in-country Jewish marriages the government recognizes are those performed by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, which excludes citizens without maternal Jewish lineage since such persons are not considered Jewish according to halakhah. The government does not allow civil marriages, such as secular ceremonies performed by state or municipal authorities, or marriages performed by non-Orthodox rabbis. Civil marriages, non-Orthodox marriages of Jews, or interfaith marriages must take place abroad to be recognized by the government. As a result, several hundred thousand citizens cannot marry within their own country due to either a lack of eligibility or their desire to wed outside of the rabbinic system. Jews who married in civil ceremonies or in non-Orthodox ceremonies performed abroad are able to divorce only via rabbinical courts that operated according to halakhah, or through courts abroad.
In order to marry in government-recognized ceremonies, Jews have to undergo marriage counseling administered by Orthodox religious authorities. As part of this counseling, all Jews--including the secular majority and those who practice Reform or Conservative Judaism--are taught to respect traditional Orthodox family roles.
A law passed in 2010 allows for the civil registration of couples within the country only if both partners are recognized as being “of no religion.” No person registered with the state as Jewish, Muslim, Christian, or Druze can choose to be married in a civil ceremony or marry someone “of no religion” within the country. The law does not permit persons of different faiths to marry each other within the country, so these couples must seek marriage abroad to be recognized as married by the state.
The Chief Rabbinate also determines who is buried in Jewish state cemeteries, limiting this right to individuals considered Jewish by Orthodox standards. This exclusion of persons who consider themselves Jewish, usually descendants of Jewish fathers but not Jewish mothers, has led to public criticism, especially during national tragedies, such as the December 2010 burial of a Carmel fire victim at a military cemetery. The mourning mother firmly objected, but eventually acquiesced to the Chief Rabbinate’s decision to bury her daughter in the non-Jewish section. Although Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin set a precedent in 1993 when he reversed the Chief Rabbinate’s decision to bury a soldier killed by Hamas outside the Jewish section of the military cemetery, no other government leader has overruled the Chief Rabbinate regarding Jewish burials.
Members of unrecognized religious groups also faced difficulties in obtaining marriage certifications and burial services.
Proselytizing is legal in the country and missionaries of all religious groups are allowed to proselytize all citizens. A 1977 law prohibits any person from offering material benefits as an inducement to conversion. It is also illegal to perform a conversion ceremony for persons under 18 years of age unless one parent is an adherent of the religious group seeking to convert the minor. Despite the legality of proselytism, the government has taken a number of steps that discouraged proselytizing and encouraged the popular perception that it is illegal.
The MOI has cited proselytism as a reason to deny student, work, and religious visa extensions, as well as to deny permanent residency petitions. Following protests from the Orthodox community, in 1986 The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) promised the Knesset that it would voluntarily refrain from all proselytism in conjunction with receiving a building permit for its Jerusalem Center.
The 1967 Protection of Holy Sites Law safeguards the holy sites of all religious groups, including in Jerusalem. All holy sites enjoy certain protections under the penal law, which makes it a criminal offense to damage any holy site, while historic sites are protected by the antiquities law. The government provided resources for the upkeep of holy places of all recognized religious communities, but provided significantly greater levels of government resources to Jewish holy places.
A government policy since 1967, repeatedly upheld by the Supreme Court and routinely enforced by the police citing security concerns, denies all non-Muslims opportunities to worship at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. While the government ensured limited access to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif to everyone regardless of religious beliefs, only Muslims are allowed to pray at the site, although their access has been occasionally restricted due to security concerns. Police regulated traffic in and out of the compound and removed non-Muslim visitors if they appeared to be praying. Since 2000 the Jordanian Waqf that manages the site has restricted non-Muslims from entering the Dome of the Rock shrine and Al-Aqsa Mosque. Non-Muslim religious symbols are not allowed to be worn on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.
Government authorities prohibit mixed-gender prayer services at Jewish religious sites maintained by the Chief Rabbinate in deference to the belief of most Orthodox Jews that such services violate the precepts of Judaism. At the Western Wall, men and women must use separate areas to visit and pray. According to a policy repeatedly upheld by the Supreme Court, women are not allowed to conduct prayers at the Western Wall while wearing prayer shawls and are not permitted to read from Torah scrolls because this form of prayer by women violates Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law. There is a separate prayer area along the Western Wall, south of the Mughrabi Gate where women may read the Torah and pray wearing prayer shawls.
The signs posted around the Western Wall plaza requesting gender segregation throughout the plaza, rather than just at the prayer areas, were removed in 2010. Official “modesty patrols” occasionally attempted to enforce gender separation and guarded the path designated for “men only” that was installed in 2009 opposite the Western Wall. According to the government-appointed Rabbi of the Western Wall, the path was created for those who asked to be able to get to the Western Wall plaza without having to walk through a mixed-gender area.
According to the NGO Hiddush-Religious Freedom and Equality, the country financially supported over 100,000 yeshiva (religious studies) students over the age of 18. In late 2010 an interministerial team recommended that yeshiva students meet specific requirements to receive subsidies.
By law the government subsidizes 55 to 75 percent of the expenses incurred by Haredi religious schools as long as they teach an equivalent percentage of the national curriculum, which includes non-religious subjects. However, another law exempts these schools from that requirement.
Government resources available for religious/heritage studies to Arab and non-Orthodox Jewish public schools are significantly less than those available to Orthodox Jewish public schools. Public and private Arab schools offer studies in both Islam and Christianity, but state funding for such studies is proportionately less than the funding for religious education courses in Jewish schools.
Public Hebrew-language secular schools teach Jewish history and religious texts. These classes primarily cover Jewish heritage and culture rather than religious belief. Public Arabic-speaking schools with Arab student bodies teach mandatory classes on the Qur’an and the Bible, since both Muslim and Christian Arabs attend these schools. Orthodox Jewish religious schools that are part of the public school system teach mandatory religion classes, as do independent ultra-Orthodox schools that receive significant state funding. A few independent mixed Jewish-Arab schools also exist and offer religion classes.
The government employs civilian non-Jewish clergy as chaplains at military burials when a non-Jewish soldier dies in service. The MOI provides imams to conduct funerals according to Muslim customs. All Jewish chaplains in the IDF are Orthodox.
Military service is compulsory for Jews, Druze, and the 5,000-member Circassian community (Muslims from the northwestern Caucasus region who immigrated to various points in the Ottoman-controlled Middle East in the late 19th century). Government policy, formalized and conditioned by the 2002 Tal Law, allows Haredi Jews to refuse to serve based on religious reasons. Arab citizens are exempted from compulsory service. The majority of Arab citizens choose not to serve in the military; however, some Christian and Muslim citizens, including many Bedouin, voluntarily enlist. In lieu of military service, Arab citizens and Haredi Jews can perform national service for one to two years, including for NGOs focused on improving their own communities as volunteers in the health, education, and welfare sectors. This voluntary national service confers eligibility for national benefits similar to those accorded military veterans.
All recognized religious communities are exempt from taxation for places of worship, according to the annually drafted Arrangements Law. However, in March 2010 the Knesset passed an amendment to the municipal and property tax law, which also grants synagogues exclusively a 100 percent exemption from municipal property taxes. Several social justice and civil rights organizations, including the legal defense NGO Jerusalem Institute of Justice (JIJ), submitted a petition to the High Court during the year requesting either an injunction to order local authorities to interpret the law as applying to all places of worship or a court instruction to the Knesset to amend the law by including other religious groups’ properties in the additional tax exemption.
The 1993 Fundamental Agreement ratified by the Knesset in 1994 established relations between the Holy See and the government. The subsequent 18-year-long economic negotiations between the government and the Holy See continued at year’s end. These negotiations addressed property rights and tax exemptions for Roman Catholic institutions and their access to Israeli courts.
The MOI has jurisdiction over religious matters concerning non-Jewish groups, while the Ministry of Tourism is responsible for the protection and upkeep of non-Jewish holy sites. The Ministry of Religious Affairs has jurisdiction over the country’s 133 Jewish religious councils, which oversee the provision of religious services for Jewish communities. The MOI’s Department of Non-Jewish Affairs oversees one non-Jewish religious council for the Druze. Legislation establishing religious councils does not include non-Jewish religious communities other than the Druze. The government financed approximately 40 percent of the religious councils’ budgets, and local municipalities funded the remainder.
The government funded the construction of Jewish synagogues and cemeteries. According to the government, while the state budget does not cover the costs of construction for non-Jewish places of worship, it provides some assistance for their maintenance, although at a disproportionately lower level than for synagogues.
The approximately 60,000 Bedouin living in unrecognized villages were unable to build or legally maintain mosques as a result of longstanding government policy to deny ownership claims, building requests, and municipal services in unrecognized, illegally established Bedouin communities. Mosques existed in unrecognized Bedouin communities, but, as with homes and other community structures, the government considered them illegal and therefore subject to demolition.
In October 2008, the High Court ruled that the Simon Wiesenthal Center could continue construction at a site in Jerusalem despite the objections of several Muslim organizations, which argued that it was located on part of the Mamilla Cemetery. Supporters of the U.S.-based center had cited an 1894 ruling by the Islamic Law court, which stated that the cemetery was no longer sacred because it was abandoned. The High Court explained in its ruling that the construction site had served as a municipal parking lot for almost 50 years without a single complaint leveled against such use, and Islamic authorities in 1929 had allowed construction in other parts of the abandoned cemetery. Some Islamic groups continued to object to the project on religious grounds during the year.
Identification cards issued before 2007 distinguished between Jews and non-Jews by the differing dates printed on identification cards using either the Gregorian calendar with roman numerals for non-Jews or the Hebrew calendar with Hebrew numerals for Jewish citizens. Documents issued after 2007 carry both dates.
The government observes the following religious holidays as national holidays: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Simhat Torah, Passover, and Shavuot. Jewish holidays and the Sabbath are officially established as days of rest, and non-Jews have the right to observe their own Sabbath and holidays as days of rest from work. Arab municipalities often recognize Christian and Muslim holidays. The law prohibits employers from refusing to hire or from firing employees who observed a different day of rest for religious observance, and employers cannot according to the law make working on a rest day a condition of employment. The Ministry of Labor and Social Services issued permits for exceptions enabling essential workers to work on their days of rest. The law gives municipalities the authority to order the opening or closing of businesses on the Sabbath.
b. Government Practices
There were reports of abuses of religious freedom, including religious detainees. Some tourists were temporarily detained for religious reasons at Ben-Gurion Airport, prevented from entering the country, and sent back to their countries of origin because of the MOI’s “suspicions of missionary activity,” as explained to them by the border control officials at the airport. There are no clearly publicized regulations as to how the MOI places a person on the watch list or on what grounds, but the questioning of such individuals often relates to their religious beliefs.
The MOI continued to collect data on alleged missionaries from antimissionary groups like Yad L’Achim and used it to deny entry to the country to foreign individuals. According to a July 3 Ma’ariv article, a Jerusalem district court judge overturned a 2010 MOI decision to deny a foreign pastor a clergy visa and deport him from the country due to an NGO’s allegations of missionary activity. In his ruling the judge chided the MOI for adopting an illegal procedure and relying on hearsay from religious informants and instructed the MOI to limit its enforcement actions to those strictly in accordance with the law.
The government selectively enforced legal and policy restrictions on religious freedom. Government policy contributed to the generally free practice of religion, although government discrimination against non-Jews and non-Orthodox streams of Judaism continued. For example the government continued to discriminate against non-Orthodox Jewish citizens through some policies based on Orthodox Jewish interpretations of religious law. A minority of Jews in the country observes the Orthodox tradition, and the majority of Jewish citizens objected to exclusive Orthodox control over fundamental aspects of their personal lives.
During the year there were several cases of Orthodox converts from the United States not being recognized in the country as Jews because the MOI relied on the Chief Rabbinate’s disapproval of some conversions performed by certain Orthodox rabbis. At year’s end those cases awaited resolution by the Supreme Court. However, in June, in response to a High Court petition by the Jewish-Life Information Center challenging the denial of citizenship to some Orthodox converts, the government agreed that the MOI would henceforth rely on the Jewish Agency rather than the Chief Rabbinate regarding Orthodox conversions from abroad.
The JIJ submitted a petition to the High Court on February 10, calling for a change to the 2010 law that discriminates in the area of civil registration of couples, allowing them to register only if both partners are recognized as being “of no religion.” The JIJ asked that the law be revoked, amended, or extended to all citizens regardless of religious belief. There were no developments in the case by year’s end.
In June, the High Court ruled on a decade-old case that government financial support for over 100,000 yeshiva (religious studies) students over the age of 18 was illegal, as there was no basis for treating these students preferentially above all other students. The court ordered the government to remove the clause from the state budget. There continued to be much debate during the year over whether any state funding should be provided to schools that do not teach the core curriculum, including math, science, and language.
A Ministry of Justice-appointed committee recommended in August that all matters of property, child custody, and visitation rights be handled by civil family law courts, while the rabbinic courts be limited to the issuance of a “get,” a Jewish religious bill of divorce.
There continued to be complaints that authorities used religious designations on identity cards in a discriminatory manner. The majority of identity cards still in circulation could be used to identify non-Jews, even though the MOI stopped issuing new identity cards in 2007 that differentiated persons according to religion. According to a press article, Interior Minister Eli Yishai suggested reintroducing religious designations on a voluntary basis on new identity cards in spite of minority groups’ apprehensions that such designations have been used in a discriminatory manner.
Some Muslims stated that there was insufficient state funding for Muslim affairs, including for building and restoring mosques and cemeteries, although the state did provide municipalities with religious development budgets and religious institutions with operational support funds. Many mosques lack an appointed imam, which is the responsibility of the MOI’s Muslim Affairs Department, although the MOI added 20 imam positions during the year. The government allows non-state employees to be imams in mosques if the community prefers such an imam. The country also lacked any academic training center for the study of Islam to educate future imams and qadis (Sharia court judges), although the MOI Muslim Affairs Department did provide professional training.
While proselytism is officially legal, some missionaries continued to face harassment and discrimination from local government officials. For example, the MOI detained individuals suspected of being “missionaries” upon arrival at the airport and required such persons to post bail and pledge to abstain from missionary activity. At times government officials also have refused entry into the country to persons they perceived as missionaries.
Both recognized and unrecognized religious communities experienced some difficulties receiving clergy visas for their representatives and leaders. Many religious leaders complained that the MOI made arbitrary decisions leading to difficulties in maintaining consistent religious leadership for their communities within the country.
During the year members of many religious groups traveled to the country freely. However, according to representatives of Christian institutions, visa issuance rates for some of their religious workers remained low. The MOI granted multi-entry visas only to a limited list of members of the clergy and other religious workers seeking to travel to and between their parishes in the country and in the Occupied Territories. Other clergy who wished to return to or visit their parishes and congregations were required to apply for new, single-entry visas at Israeli consulates abroad--a process that at times took months.
Since the government did not have diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, Muslim citizens traveled through another country, usually Jordan, to obtain travel documents for performing the Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca). According to the government, travel to hostile countries, including travel to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj, may be restricted. Palestinian religious groups faced some restrictions in practice, such as closures for security reasons and long waits at border crossings, which often impeded travel into the country for religious purposes.
According to government figures, the year’s budget for religious services for the Jewish population was approximately NIS 415 million ($112 million). Religious minorities, which constituted slightly more than 20 percent of the population, received approximately NIS 80 million ($21.6 million), or 16 percent of total funding. The budgets for religious institutions for the Jewish population and religious minorities were not made public.
As in previous years, the Religious Affairs Ministry failed to implement the 1996 Alternative Burial Law, which established the right of any individual to be buried in a civil ceremony. The Religious Affairs Ministry did not use any of the funds allocated in the 2010 state budget for the development of civil, pluralistic burial plots. There were eight cemeteries for civil burials contracted with the Israeli National Insurance Institution, located in Kiryat Tiv’on, Kfar Haro’eh, Kefar Saba, Petah Tiqwa, Hazor, Revadim, Giv’at Brenner, and Be’er Sheva. The government contracted with some private cemeteries to provide burial solutions when no other options existed. During the year the Jerusalem municipality began building a new civil cemetery for use by those who do not want or cannot receive burial according to Orthodox rites. Citizens who seek civil burials in other regions must use private cemeteries located on kibbutzim (collective farms) at high personal cost, while state burials are free of charge.
A public transportation company, Egged, which operated much of the country’s public transportation system, continued to operate some sex-segregated buses along inter- and intra-city routes frequented by Haredi Jews. Women who refused to sit at the back of such buses risked harassment and physical assault by male passengers. On January 6 the Supreme Court ruled to prohibit any enforcement of gender-segregated bus lines. The court ordered Egged to place signs in its buses informing riders of the court decision and warning that any attempt to harass individuals over their choice of seat would be a criminal offense. However, on December 16, a bus driver and a policeman asked a woman on a bus from Ashdod to Jerusalem to move to the back of the bus due to some Haredi riders’ demands, although ultimately she was allowed to remain in her seat.
On June 23, the High Court ruled against the municipality of Be’er Sheva’s plan to reopen a former mosque (1906-1948) as a Museum of the Cultures of the Sons of Abraham, and instead directed the city to open it solely as a Museum of Islamic Culture and Eastern Nations. The building had served as a court and prison until 1953 and as an archaeological museum until abandoned in 1992 due to structural problems. The ruling also instructed the petitioners (Muslim residents of Be’er Sheva) on their right to turn to the state planning committee to request that the current designation of the building as a museum be changed to a place of worship, and if rejected, their right to petition the court.
Interior Ministry officials continued to revoke citizenship or deny services to some citizens based on their religious beliefs, according to the JIJ. This included cases in which the MOI attempted to revoke the citizenship of persons discovered holding Messianic or Christian beliefs, or denied them some national services, including child registration, social benefits, Israeli identity cards, and passports. On November 15, the MOI notified a woman six months after she immigrated that her citizenship would be revoked due to her affiliation with Messianic Judaism and gave her 14 days to leave the country. In April, two returning Israeli citizens who left the country as minors were denied Israeli identity cards (which entitle them to basic rights and legal status) upon their return to the country due to their holding Messianic beliefs.
The MOI reportedly refused to process immigration applications from persons entitled to citizenship under the Law of Return if it was determined that such persons held Christian or Messianic Jewish religious beliefs, although the Law of Return has no such provision and specifically allows non-Jewish relatives of Jews to immigrate. According to the JIJ, in May the MOI refused to process the application of a Holocaust survivor due to her profession of Messianic Jewish beliefs.
After Jehovah’s Witnesses held several meetings in the Raanana sports hall in November, city council member Ilan Cohen called publicly for halls to refuse to rent space for “missionary activities.” Afterwards the sports hall could no longer find an available date for any future Jehovah’s Witnesses’ gathering. In Netanya on December 13, police fined two members of Jehovah’s Witnesses NIS 730 ($200) each for sharing their faith from door to door and passing out free literature, stating in the citation that such religious activity was “peddling” without a license. Authorities also confiscated their Bibles.
c. Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom
As a result of criticism from the High Court, in August, the Ministries of Finance and Religion announced a significant increase in the budget allocation for non-Orthodox burials in civil cemeteries. The government notified the court that an annual budget of NIS 5million ($1.35 million) for the year and for 2012 would be allocated instead of the original budget allocation of NIS 300,000 ($81,000).
d. Abuses by Rebel or Foreign Forces or Terrorist Organizations
During the year terrorist organizations, including Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, carried out attacks against citizens of the country, mostly in the form of indiscriminate rocket and mortar attacks from the Gaza Strip. Terrorists often issued statements that contained anti-Semitic rhetoric in conjunction with the attacks.
Section 3 - Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
There were reports of societal abuses and discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice.
Some Jewish individuals and groups were responsible for abusive and discriminatory practices against Israeli-Arab Muslims, evangelical Christians, and Messianic Jews, with approximately the same frequency as during the previous year.
Relations between other religious and ethnic groups, including Muslims and Christians, Arabs and non-Arabs, and secular and religious Jews, also continued to be strained. Such religious and ethnic tensions were fueled by historical grievances as well as by cultural and religious differences.
About 50 prominent rabbis, led by Safed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, published a religious ruling in December 2010 that prohibited the sale or rental of real estate to non-Jews and called for the exclusion from religious gatherings of any Jewish person who broke the ruling. Despite widespread criticism of the Halachic ruling, the justice minister did not suspend Eliyahu from his post as a municipal rabbi. All of the signatories’ salaries were paid by the government, including dozens of chief rabbis of cities across the country. The attorney general had not decided whether the signatories could be prosecuted for incitement by year’s end.
The NGO Lehava, an acronym for “Preventing Assimilation in the Holy Land,” which also means “flame,” initiated a campaign in January to distribute “kosher certificates” to employers who purposefully avoided employing Arab workers. The certificates included the declaration: “This certificate certifies that the following employer employs Jewish workers and does not employ enemies.”
Nazareth (population 72,000), the city with the country’s largest Arab majority, experienced strained relations between its Muslim majority and its Christian minority. On October 6, 2010, Sheikh Nazem Abu Salim, the imam of the Shihab al-Din mosque, was indicted for inciting violence against Christians and Jews that resulted in attacks (including one Jewish death), supporting al-Qaida, and recruiting for global jihad. Some Arab Christians in Nazareth said that fear of reprisal by members of the Islamic Movement prevented them from proselytizing openly.
Umm el-Fahm, the country’s second largest Arab majority city (population 45,000), was a source of continuing tension between Jews and Muslims. The city has an entirely Muslim population and has elected its leadership from the Islamic Movement since 1989, when Sheikh Raed Salah first became mayor. Over the past few years, Salah gained notoriety for busing Islamic Movement followers from Umm el-Fahm to Jerusalem, where on several occasions Muslims on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif threw rocks down onto Jewish worshipers at the Western Wall.
On October 3, a mosque was set ablaze in Upper Galilee and the words “Revenge” and “Price Tag” were scrawled on the wall with charcoal. The perpetrators and their motives were unknown at year’s end. On October 7, an unknown person or persons spray painted “Price Tag” and “Death to Arabs” on Christian and Muslim tombstones in Jaffa. On October 8, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at a Jaffa synagogue. No one was arrested for these incidents due to lack of evidence, but public demonstrations were held and President Peres and Prime Minister Netanyahu made statements condemning the acts.
There were numerous reports of anti-Semitic acts perpetrated by members of minority groups. For example, in October, unknown persons desecrated a number of synagogues in the city of Safed with inscriptions on the walls, including one that read “death to the Jews.” The Safed police launched an investigation into the incident. The government operated a special department in the state attorney’s office for prosecution of incitement-related crimes.
Societal attitudes toward missionary activities and conversion generally were negative. Most Jews opposed missionary activity directed at Jews, and some were hostile to Jewish converts to Christianity. The Messianic Jewish and Jehovah’s Witnesses communities, among others, accused groups such as Yad L’Achim and Lev L’Achim, Jewish religious organizations opposed to missionary activity, of harassing and occasionally assaulting their members. According to JIJ attorneys and representatives of affected religious communities, Yad L’Achim pressured landlords, employers, and MOI officials to assist its campaigns against groups it deemed “dangerous cults.” A September 1 Jerusalem Post article detailed the illegal practice of an anonymous group that posted flyers in Mevaseret Zion that named 10 individuals as Messianic Jews and included their pictures and home addresses.
During the year members of Jehovah’s Witnesses reported assaults, threats of violence, and other crimes and noted the difficulties their members faced in convincing the police to investigate or apprehend the perpetrators. On August 13, in Holon, approximately 15 Haredi men disrupted a religious meeting held at a sports hall and one of them punched a member of the community. However, after police questioned the attacker, authorities only gave him a restraining order.
There continued to be tension between the majority of Israelis and Haredi communities, including concerns related to the allocation of housing, service in the IDF, participation in the workforce, and the increasing burden of transfer payments made to Haredi families, many of which received special government subsidies for families with five or more children.
Expressions of animosity between secular and religious Jews continued during the year. Some members of Haredi Jewish groups acted in a discriminatory and intolerant manner toward other Jews. As in past years, there were instances of Haredim throwing rocks at passing motorists driving on the Sabbath in predominantly Haredi neighborhoods, and harassing or assaulting women whose appearance they considered immodest. On December 27, a group of Haredi men jeered and spat upon an eight-year-old girl they believed was dressed immodestly while she walked to her Orthodox school in Beit Shemesh. The president, prime minister, chief rabbi, and mayor all criticized the perpetrators’ abusive behavior in their attempt to impose their religious standards on others.
There continued to be reports of numerous instances of Haredi men spitting at non-Haredi Jews and persons of different faiths, including in Jerusalem’s Old City. In November the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court quashed a case against an Armenian priesthood student who punched a man who spat on him in 2008, noting in his ruling that “putting the defendant on trial for a single blow at a man who spat at his face, after suffering the degradation of being spat on for years while walking around in his church robes, is a fundamental contravention of the principles of justice and decency.” The judge noted as well, “[n]eedless to say, spitting toward the defendant when he was wearing the robe is a criminal offense.” According to a Haaretz report, church officials say that they try to ignore most instances, but also note that when they have complained police usually failed to find the perpetrators. The Chief Rabbinate spoke out repeatedly against such spitting attacks and encouraged rabbis in Jerusalem to criticize such behavior.
Interfaith dialogue often was linked to ongoing peace efforts between Israelis and Palestinians and between the country and its Arab neighbors. A number of NGOs sought to build understanding and create dialogue among religious groups and between religious and secular Jewish communities. These organizations included the Gesher Foundation; Meitarim, which operated a pluralistic, Jewish-oriented school system; and the Interreligious Coordinating Council, which promoted interfaith dialogue among Jewish, Muslim, and Christian institutions.
The Israel Council of Religious Leaders, established in 2008, is the representative body of religious leaders whose status and communities are formally recognized by the government. To further interfaith understanding and promote religious freedom, the council meets annually, hosted by a different community on each occasion, and its standing committee meets quarterly. The council actively responded to attacks on holy sites and convened religious leaders alongside President Shimon Peres in the village of Tuba-Zangaria on October 3 to express solidarity with the local Muslim community after a mosque there was burned in an arson attack. A delegation of these religious leaders also traveled to the Vatican to meet with Pope Benedict XVI, highlighting the freedom of religion and cooperation between religious leaders in the country.
The Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land brings together the formal institutional religious leadership of Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA). It consists of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, the PA Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs, the PA Supreme Sharia Court, and the Christian Patriarchates and Bishoprics of the Holy Land. The council keeps open channels of communication between religious leaders; combats incitement, defamation, and misrepresentation; and provides the support of religious leadership for initiatives to end conflict and promote peace.
Section 4 - U.S. Government Policy
The U.S. government discussed religious freedom with the government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights. The U.S. embassy consistently raised concerns about religious freedom with the MFA, the police, and other government agencies.
Embassy officials maintained a dialogue with NGOs that focused on human and civil rights, including religious freedom, and promoted interfaith initiatives. Embassy representatives also attended and spoke at meetings of such organizations and encouraged religious leaders to advance regional peace and calm local tensions. The embassy offered programs that exposed Israelis to U.S. models of religious diversity and civil society.
Sources: U.S. State Department - Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor