The Unenlightened Ones?

A new report from the U.S. State Department on religious freedom reveals a lack of tolerance toward minority groups on the part of the Israeli government

Tolerance toward minorities, egalitarian treatment of members of all ethnic groups, openness toward various streams in society, respect for sites holy to the other - these are all clear tests of a tolerant and pluralistic society. The new report from the United States Department of State on religious freedom in numerous countries around the world gives Israel a failing grade on all of these practices.

It's hard to find many democratic nations that provide the Americans with so much varied material on groups lacking a strong political pillar of support: from Muslims to Jehovah's Witnesses, from Reform Jews to Christians, from women to Bedouin. The report states that the U.S. Embassy in Israel "consistently raised concerns of religious freedom with the [Israel] Foreign Ministry, the police, the Prime Minister's office, and other government agencies."

The comprehensive document, written by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the State Department, places both question marks and exclamation points after the banner of religious freedom for all - a cornerstone of Israel's public relations line. Ever since "the reunification of Jerusalem" in 1967, the government of Israel has boasted of freedom of worship for people of all religions. The American report notes that the 1967 law on the protection of holy places refers to all religious groups located throughout the country - including all parts of Jerusalem - and then adds: "The 1967 Protection of Holy Sites Law applies to holy sites of all religious groups within the country and in all of Jerusalem, but the government implements regulations only for Jewish sites. Non-Jewish holy sites do not enjoy legal protection under it because the government does not recognize them as official holy sites."

In certain areas of the country, according to the report, the government allows private individuals or local authorities to transform old mosques into galleries, restaurants and museums; restrictions on entry into non-Jewish holy sites and the policies concerning their protection have contributed to tensions in a religious context. A long-standing government policy has denied the unrecognized Bedouin locales ownership claims, applications to build and municipal services for their 80,000 inhabitants, and so this weak population has not been able to build new mosques or maintain existing ones.

At the end of 2008, there were 137 officially recognized holy sites, all of them Jewish. Moreover, the government of Israel has passed regulations for the identification, preservation and guarding of Jewish sites only. While well-known and familiar sites do receive protection de facto, because of their international importance, many Christian and Muslim sites are neglected, inaccessible or at risk of exploitation by real estate entrepreneurs and local authorities. The Christian pilgrimage sites around Lake Kinneret face creeping threats from regional planning commissions that want to use some of these areas for recreational purposes. In the past, only diplomatic intervention has succeeded in blocking such attempts.

The authors of the report, which is based on data compiled by the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, human rights organizations and various publications, note that government policy supports "the generally free practice of religion," but immediately thereafter they go on to say: "Government allocations of state resources favored Orthodox (including Modern and National Religious streams of Orthodoxy) and ultra-Orthodox (sometimes referred to as "Haredi") Jewish religious groups and institutions, discriminating against non-Jews and non-Orthodox streams of Judaism." Funding last year for institutions serving Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews came to NIS 1.6 billion, whereas religious minorities, which constitute 20 percent of the population, received only about NIS 54 million - less than 5 percent - of the budget.

The U.S. State Department has also taken note of the following practices carried out by the Israeli government: it does not recognize conversions to Judaism conducted by non-Orthodox rabbis; it funds Orthodox conversion programs, but does not support Reform and Conservative programs; it implements a policy based on Orthodox interpretation of religious law; it has discriminated against citizens belonging to other religious groups; and it funds the building of places of worship and cemeteries for Jews only. According to the government, however, while the budget does not cover the costs of building non-Jewish places of worship, it does support their maintenance - albeit at a very low level in comparison to synagogues.

The report makes it clear that phenomena which have become part of the standard practice in Israel are considered unacceptable in enlightened countries and should be corrected. More than 300,000 immigrants who are not considered Jews under rabbinical law are not able to marry and divorce in Israel or be buried in Jewish cemeteries. Civil marriage, non-Orthodox Jewish marriage or marriages between two people who belong to different religions must be performed outside the country to receive government recognition. A mite of consolation: In 2007 the government announced that it would permit consular marriages performed by diplomatic representatives in Israel for those who are listed as having no religion, or whose religious affiliation is with a sect not recognized by the state.

The document devotes considerable attention to what is sees as the customary discrimination of women: "The government, through the Chief Rabbinate, discriminates against women in civil status matters related to marriage and divorce. Under the Jewish religious court's interpretation of personal status law, a Jewish woman may not receive a final writ of divorce without her husband's consent. Consequently, thousands of women, so-called agunot - chained women - are unable to remarry or have legitimate children because their husbands have either disappeared or refused to grant divorces.

"The state transportation company, Egged, which operates the country's public transportation system, continued to operate sex-segregated buses along city and intra-city routes frequented by ultra-Orthodox Jews. Women who refuse to sit at the back of such buses risk harassment and physical assault by male passengers," the report continues. "Governmental authorities prohibit mixed gender prayer services at religious sites in deference to the belief of most Orthodox Jews that such services violate the precepts of Judaism. At the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, men and women must use separate areas to visit and pray. Women also are not allowed to conduct prayers at the Western Wall while wearing prayer shawls, which are typically worn by Jewish men, and are not permitted to read from Torah scrolls."

The report also quotes from a brochure the Chief Rabbinate distributes to bridegrooms, who are required to participate in pre-marital counseling by the Orthodox religious authorities in order to register for marriage. The brochure compares woman to clay and calls upon the husband to "shape and mold her as he pleases." The report says that the husband is also instructed not to become "spineless or tolerate disrespectful behavior from his wife: 'If she is disrespectful you must not give in; you can become angry and stop talking to her until she realizes she is wrong.' The husband is also admonished to compliment his wife regularly, 'even if it is a lie' because 'a woman who has not been complimented is like a fish out of water.'"

The U.S. State Department also reiterated its displeasure this year with a series of incidents in which Messianic Jews and Jehovah's Witnesses have been harassed. The latter group reported an increase in assaults and other crimes against them, specifically noting the difficulties their members have encountered when they've tried to urge the police to investigate and apprehend the suspects. Between September of 2007 and September of 2008, members of the Jehovah's Witness community filed 46 complaints against anti-missionary activists, most of them members of the Yad L'Achim ("Jewish Outreach") organization. According to the Jehovah's Witness' legal department, the police have stated that they responded to 15 of the 35 calls for help during that time period. "Exacerbating these tensions," the American report states, "was the widespread but false belief that proselytizing is illegal in this country."

Interestingly, despite the harassment, the report notes that the number of Messianic Jews and Evangelical Christians in Israel has grown in recent years through immigration and conversions.

The report further details how the law allows the government to subsidize approximately 60 percent of the budgets for ultra-Orthodox schools, even though these schools do not adhere to the stipulation that all educational institutions funded by the taxpayer must teach a core curriculum that includes subjects such as English, mathematics and science.

The government resources allocated to the study of religion and tradition in Arab and non-Orthodox Jewish schools are significantly lower than those allocated to Orthodox public schools. According to the Israel Religious Action Center, in 2006 the latter was granted 96 percent of the total government funding for Jewish religious education.

Dan Tamir and Gitit Ginat contributed to this report.