Report Highlights

U.S. State Department releases International Religious Freedom Report

The US State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report for 2016, released last week, diplomatically pans the lack of progress by the Israeli government toward increased religious freedom.

Flag of the U.S. Department of StateFlag of the U.S. Department of State

One cannot over-exaggerate the importance of this report being unique in its systematic monitoring and scope of coverage. Hiddush feels that the US State Department has done a good job of touching upon all the major developments of the year. This report is a unique enterprise of unparalleled scope written by local embassy staff and vetted and edited into a global volume by the US State Department. Its importance can be understood on a number of levels

  1. Its attention to detail and comprehensive nature
  2. It reflects the US government's strong focus on and value attached to religious freedom
  3. It's systematic and annual, and therefore one can trace trends and progress over the course of years

Hiddush notes with appreciation the reference at the end of the Israel section to the fact that "in meetings with government officials, visiting high-level U.S. government officials and embassy officers also stressed the importance of religious pluralism and respect for all streams of Judaism."

Still, it is clear that the focus, even in the context of international religious freedom, is on the Israeli-Palestinian and Jewish-Arab conflicts; at times the report even mixes ethnic and racial issues with religious freedom concerns (as the report itself correctly notes). The report does not focus on issues of religious freedom in the narrower sense of the term, especially in cases where religious freedom is lacking, which affect the secular and non-Orthodox Jewish communities, such as the right to marry.

If anything, the US State Department underrates the breaches of religious freedom on a number of issues, such as civil burial and the Kotel, which are more geared against Jews than against Christians and Muslims. These abuses of religious freedom are a clear indication of the wide gap between Israel and other enlightened Western democracies, such as the USA, which are considered the gold standard for religious freedom.

Following is Hiddush’s summary and contextualization of the report’s main points:



◘ The report sets out a legal framework for the relation of religion and state in Israel. It points to the fact that Israel's Basic Laws promise freedom of religion and conscience and full societal and political equality, regardless of religious affiliation. However, the Chief Rabbinate has monopoly over state-recognized Jewish conversion within Israel (and also marriages of Jews in Israel).

◘ It refers to the landmark Supreme Court ruling ordering access to be allowed for non-Orthodox conversion rituals at state funded and operated Jewish ritual baths, and it notes that this was subsequently (and within a short period of time) countered by Knesset legislation. The report does not allude to the fact that behind the scenes, there was a strong objection by the Attorney General to this Knesset legislation. It only passed after a behind-the-scenes agreement was reached between the government and JAFI to effect that JAFI would build ritual baths for non-Orthodox communities.

◘ The report also describes the existence of "secular" and varying religious school systems that are funded by the state, as well as to the privileges granted to the ultra-Orthodox school networks affiliated with the two ultra-Orthodox political parties. Ultra-Orthodox schools that are "recognized but unofficial" (not affiliated with political parties) receive lesser funding. The report refers to aspects of religious education in non-Jewish schools and to the discriminatory funding levels that both Christian schools and ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools claim and fight against.

◘ However, it does not relate to the growing controversy among Israeli Jews, as to the process of "religionization" that takes place in "secular" Jewish schools supported by generous state funding provided to elements outside the schools provided by the Jewish Home Party leader Naftali Bennett (Minister of Education). This funding allowed these outside religious programs to enter into those “secular” public schools and offer their religious programs. (Stay tuned for the Hiddush 2017 Israel Religion & State Index for more on this issue)

◘ Another key point of contention covered by the report is the haredi schools' refusal to teach core curricular studies.

◘ Religious aspects of the Law of Return are covered in the report. As are burial, religious exemptions from military service, the parallel operation of civil and religious courts, and the hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens who are labeled "lacking religion" by the government because the Israeli registration system is oriented to religious categories; and it does not view the realm of individuals who are not religious as normative, nor as deserving of all rights, such as the right to marry.

◘ The report also points to Israel's ratifying the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights with a reservation regarding matters of personal status, which are governed by the religious law of the parties concerned.

We take special pride at Hiddush survey and report data being cited by the US Department of State multiples times in the report. This includes the data point that 66% of Israeli Jews support recognizing all forms of marriage, as well as statistics on kashrut and religious freedom.

◘ We take special pride at Hiddush survey and report data being cited by the US Department of State multiples times in the report. This includes the data point that 66% of Israeli Jews support recognizing all forms of marriage, as well as statistics on kashrut and religious freedom.

◘ As expected, the report paid significant attention to the Western Wall controversy regarding the right of Women of the Wall and the non-Orthodox movements to worship there, as well as to the Temple Mount clashes, in part over the prohibition against Jews praying there, and, to an extent, even being able to visit the Mount.

◘ The report describes the break-down of the compromise reached between the government and the non-Orthodox movements over the Western Wall, and at the end of the report, in reference to "U.S. Government Policy," it mentions that "high-level U.S. government officials and embassy officers also stressed the importance of religious pluralism and respect for all streams of Judaism."

◘ Another issues that receives much attention in the report (relatively) is the matter of conversion. The report includes references to the legal battles at Israel's Supreme Court, resulting in rulings ordering the state to recognize "private" conversions performed by ultra-Orthodox rabbinical courts (mistakenly described in the report as Modern Orthodox conversions). It also refers to the fact that the Chief Rabbinate refuses to recognize conversions performed by Modern Orthodox rabbis in Israel and by members of the RCA in America. It mentions that expedited Orthodox conversions are facilitated for new immigrant IDF soldiers (during their service) who are not Jewish according to the Rabbinate.

◘ In another place the report underscores the fact that non-Orthodox converts whom the Rabbinate does not recognize are unable to marry in Israel.

◘ It also mentions the wide public controversy in Israel surrounding Rabbi Eyal Krim, who previously made controversial comments about women, homosexuals, and Palestinians, and then became the new IDF Chief Rabbi. The Israeli Supreme Court lifted an injunction preventing his appointment after Rabbi Krim apologized for his previous statements.

◘ The report paid special attention to issues of gender equality, referring to Supreme Court rulings against segregation in the public sphere and police enforcement of these rulings in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Me’ah She’arim.

◘ Another Supreme Court ruling covered in the report was the order to appoint a woman as deputy director-general of Israel’s rabbinical courts. (Since the report was published, the Supreme Court has ruled that a woman is also eligible to be appointed as director-general). This is one of the topics on which Hiddush's public opinion polling and analysis were cited - pointing to the discrimination against women and public support for pluralism and equality.

◘ The report includes many details regarding the non-Jewish population in Israel and some of the challenges this face in regards to matters of religion. For instance, it mentions the societal pressure against Muslim women from adjudicating personal status issues in civil courts. Also, in reference to non-Jews, are some of the difficulties that small Christian denominations are encountering as they attempt to be recognized by the state, and Christian clergy encountering difficulties in obtaining visas, although the state denies this.

◘ Also stressed are instances of Jewish religious vandalism and violence against non-Jews, especially non-Jewish religious sites. The much covered arson of the Church of Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes has not been fully compensated by the government. The report also describes the vandalism and death threats at a synagogue in Ra’anana against Reform Judaism.

◘ It also mentions that President Rivlin is actively engaging in initiatives and outreach to religious leaders opposing religious violence and racism.

◘ The report acknowledges that religion and ethnicity are closely linked, and indeed, there are a number of issues described that seem to fall more in the area of ethnic and national identity (and Israel-Palestine conflict-related issues), rather than the arena of religious freedom. For instance, the report describes rockets and mortars fired into Israel from Gaza and Syria.

◘ It also alludes, even if not explicitly referring to it as such, to the disturbing mixing of religion and state in Israel, such as the proclamations of state salaried Chief Rabbi Yosef that non-Jews should not live in the country if they do not follow seven Noahide laws mandated by Judaism. He also publicly stated that women should not serve in the military or the civilian National Service alternative because it is inconsistent with “the Torah’s way.” Likewise, leading Ashekanzi rabbis in Israel ordered state funded ultra-Orthodox schools not to recognize women’s academic degrees and banned ultra-Orthodox women from attending college.

◘ However, on a hopeful note, the report mentions secular-religious Jewish dialogue groups, Jewish-non-Jewish dialogue groups, and the NGO Tag Meir’s promotion of tolerance in response to religious attacks.

Take Action!