How COVID-19 Restrictions Hurt Religious Pluralism in Israel in 2020

Coronavirus played a central role in the discourse this year, with controversies over how lockdowns were enforced when it came to religious worship and the opening of religious schools

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An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man prays during the Sukkot holiday, Jerusalem, October 4, 2020.
An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man prays during the Sukkot holiday, Jerusalem, October 4, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

The coronavirus pandemic has negatively affected every aspect of life in Israel, and religious freedom was no exception, according to the group that compiles an annual survey that ranks Israel’s largest 24 cities and towns by their level of religious tolerance.  

For the first time, Herzliya topped the Municipal Religious Freedom Index in a tie with Tel Aviv, which held the number one spot in 2019. Modiin, which came out on top in 2018, followed right behind Tel Aviv this year. 

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The survey, compiled by Israel Hofsheet, which advocates for cultural and religious pluralism in Israel, has used 10 criteria to rank the cities each year, such as the availability of public transportation on Shabbat, gender segregation, civil burial, equal treatment of members of the LGBTQ community, and members of Reform and Conservative congregations when it comes to the distribution of budgets and availability of religious services. 

COVID-19 and its accompanying restrictions affected the survey in a number of areas it measures. In 2020, there were no municipal Pride parades, and most of the newly launched public transportation systems provided on Shabbat by some municipalities were suspended for fear of spreading the coronavirus.

Swimming pools, gender-segregated or not, were closed, and public schools, both religious and secular, were mostly virtual, making it difficult to assess their level of gender equality. 

An aerial view of Herzliya, IsraelCredit: Ezra Levi

Overall, the pandemic seemed to have had a negative effect, judging by the results of the survey, (which is in its third year). In 2019, the city scoring highest was given 77 points out of a possible 100, while this year the two highest scorers received just 71 points. The average religious freedom score was only 42.7. 

“One of the most politically charged years in the history of the country and a severe health-economic crisis still does not seem to have been enough to alert Israeli mayors to the changes that Israeli society is going through. Again, we hear about cities needlessly restricting the freedom of its citizens and promises that remain on paper alone, despite the fact that issues of religion and state have been a central part of the political discourse,” said Israel Hofsheet Executive Director Uri Keidar. “Do we need yet another election to see real change?” 

The coronavirus has played a central role in that discourse this year, with controversies over how lockdowns were enforced when it came to religious worship, and the opening of schools and yeshivas in the ultra-Orthodox sector in defiance of government regulations, even when they were located in “red” cities where coronavirus rates were high.

For the first time, this year the survey included recognition of civil marriage as a criteria, after some municipalities offered their public parks and other sites as options to hold weddings and permitted ceremonies that were not recognized by the state-funded Chief Rabbinate.

An ultra-Orthodox religious school in Jerusalem, November 11, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Israel Hofsheet noted that since “no city has so far fulfilled its promise of fully recognizing civil marriage, we looked at the steps that have been taken so far. … We hope that civil marriage will be included as its own category in 2021, so we can present real progress on this important issue.”

Herzliya, Tel Aviv and Modi’in were followed at the top of the rankings by Rishon Letzion, Kfar Sava and Haifa. Ra’anana scored well behind its neighbors in the Sharon region; Ashkelon improved dramatically, climbing seven places. 

Unsurprisingly, the heavily Orthodox cities of Beit Shemesh, Dimona and Bnei Brak scored lowest in the survey. The greatest declines from the previous year were in Hadera, which dropped five spots in the rankings, and Ramat Gan, dropping four spots to finish in eighth place  despite the fact that it became the first Israeli city ever to have a majority of women residents.

This year’s results came after Israel Hofsheet celebrated positive movement in 2019, a year in which more Pride events were held in Israeli cities in than in any previous year, and in which four municipal swimming pools eliminated special discounts available for separate swimming sessions – a practice seen as a way of encouraging the separation of men and women in swimming pools.

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