For the first time, the central Israeli city of Givatayim placed first on an annual assessment that measures which Israeli cities offer the greatest level of religious freedom.
The Municipal Freedom Index was published for the fourth year by Israel Hofsheet, an advocacy organization that pushes for greater cultural and religious pluralism in Israel.
Israel Hofsheet head Uri Keidar said the index highlights the fact that “brave and determined municipal leaders can advance liberal policies in their cities.”
In 2020, Tel Aviv and the neighboring city of Herzliya to the north tied for first place. This year, Tel Aviv dropped to second place and Herzliya to fifth. Rounding out the top five were Kfar Sava and Rishon Letzion in the third and fourth spots.
The central Israeli city of Modi’in, which has consistently been at the top of the chart, fell to sixth spot.
In previous years, the index has used 10 criteria to determine cities’ level of religious freedom, including availability of public transportation on Shabbat, gender segregation, civil burial, equal treatment of LGBTQ individuals, the ability to shop on the Sabbath, and the treatment of Reform and Conservative congregations in terms of distribution of budgets and availability of religious services.
This year, an 11th criteria was added: civil marriage. The organization assessed whether couples had the ability to register as partners at the local level without interacting with the Chief Rabbinate. Though there is no national civil marriage in Israel, many hope that actions at the local level will help push future legislation.
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Givatayim met 76 percent of the criteria, sending it to the top.
The bottom of the list was dominated, as in the past, by cities with large ultra-Orthodox populations. Just as Tel Aviv lost its spot at the top, Bnei Brak, which met only 4 percent of the index’s criteria, lost its place at the bottom.
A new city in the index, Betar Ilit, managed to meet none of the criteria, placing it dead last with 0 percent. Other cities faring badly in the rankings: Ramle (9 percent), Beit Shemesh (8 percent) and Modi’in Ilit (5 percent).
Keidar said he hopes to see improvements in municipal scores in the upcoming year, given that the “government of change” headed by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid is “free of extremist religious elements.”
“The time has come for the national government to learn from the municipalities, which, three years ago, took it upon themselves to initiate public transportation on Shabbat and other changes,” he said.
“The time has also come for massive changes in the institution of matrimony for all couples in Israel,” he added, along with the prevention of “all gender segregation in the public square” and budgetary support for the LGBTQ community in every city.
“Those who want to lead the people must know how to listen to them, to see the large-scale public demand for these changes and must not be afraid of the cries of the local or national opposition,” Keidar said.