Which City Is the Model for Religious Freedom in Israel? Hint: It’s Not Tel Aviv

A ranking published by Be Free Israel, listed Modi'in as the Israeli city with the most religious freedom, allowing intercity buses and cultural institutions to run on Shabbat

FILE Photo: The Israeli city of Modi'in
Gil Cohen Magen

Tel Aviv is Israel’s quintessential secular city – right?

Not necessarily.

A ranking published Thursday shows that despite its hip and super-secular reputation, Tel Aviv is not the biggest champion of religious freedom in the country. That title goes instead to Modi’in, a city built from scratch barely 25 years ago and situated halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

The first-of-its-kind ranking, published by Be Free Israel (“Israel Hofsheet”), a non-profit that promotes religious freedom and pluralism, included 24 cities. At the bottom of the list was B’nai Brak, an ultra-Orthodox city near Tel Aviv. Beit Shemesh, a city where religious tensions have flaired in recent years, was just one notch above Bnei Brak.

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“Whoever thought that matters of religion and state were determined exclusively by the government understands after seeing this ranking that they erred big time,” said Uri Keidar, the chief executive of Be Free Israel. “Mayors and city councils members, as it proves, have a dramatic impact on religious freedom.”

The ranking was published a little more than two weeks before Israelis head out to the polls to vote for their municipal representatives and leaders, as they do every five years.

Among other indicators of religious freedom taken into account in the ranking were whether stores were open on Shabbat, whether public transportation operated on Shabbat, whether options for non-religious burial existed, and whether the LGBTQ community and non-Orthodox congregations received municipal support and funding.

Uri Keidar.
Guy Gilad

Modi’in scored 80.4 points in the ranking (the highest possible score being 100), with Tel Aviv trailing behind with 75 points. The national average was 46.5 points.

According to the accompanying report, the reason Modi’in topped the list was that the city operates a Friday-night intercity bus and allows theaters and cultural institutions to remain open on Shabbat. It also provides residents with the option for non-religious funerals, it hosts several non-Orthodox congregations and has been vigorously fighting the recent law that would close down shops on Shabbat.

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Tel Aviv received a lower score than Modi’in mainly because residents of the city do not have the option of being buried in non-religious funerals. “But still, Tel Aviv is a shining lighthouse for most of the other cities when it comes to its treatment of the non-Orthodox and LGBTQ communities, as well as keeping businesses and public transportation open on Shabbat,” according to the report.

Following closely behind Tel Aviv were Haifa and Herzliya. Jerusalem placed smack in the middle of the list, the report lamenting the fact that in Israel’s capital, “the space for secular individuals in the city is shrinking.” It noted that an ongoing battle has been waged in the city over whether to open movie theaters on Shabbat and that streets are often blocked on the weekend to accommodate the ultra-Orthodox population.

Ramat Gan, which borders Tel Aviv, is described in the report as “the biggest disappointment of all.” Despite its reputation for being a largely secular city with a diverse population, it came in 13th place. The main reason, according to the report, was that it prioritizes its Orthodox population in funding, often at the expense of the secular majority.

Among those cities that scored above the national average were Rishon Lezion, Eilat and Be’er Sheva, while cities scoring below average included Ashdod, Rehovot and Petah Tikva.