Religious coercion in Israel escalating

U.S. State Department report on religious freedom worldwide finds increase in religious coercion, discrimination, and violence in Israel. Reports: Validity of 40,000 conversions in doubt, 360,000 new immigrants cannot get married

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Israel registered a significant rise in religious coercion and religiously motivated violence over the past year. These are the findings of the U.S. State Department Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, which was presented today (Wednesday) in Washington by the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The report surveys the state of religious freedom in some 200 countries around the world, and devotes a 29-page chapter to Israel and the Occupied Territories. The report states that expressions of animosity of a religious nature increased, ultra-Orthodox demonstrations turned violent, and modesty patrols operated at the Kotel. The report also warns that 360,000 citizens who immigrated to Israel cannot get married there, and the conversions of 40,000 people are held in doubt.

The head of Hiddush – Religious Freedom for Israel, Rabbi Uri Regev, said in response: “It turns out that when it comes to religious freedom, Israel is closer to the radical Islamic countries than to the Western democratic world. The report describes at length how the Israeli government succumbs to the haredi parties’ extortion and harms the right to marriage, freedom of worship, women’s dignity, the immigrant population, the non-Jewish sects, and many others.”

This is done, Regev added, “as part of a policy of buying government with money for religious institutions and capitulating to religious coercion, while ignoring the wishes of the majority of the Jewish people in Israel and the Diaspora. If Israel does not want to occupy the world’s agenda as the democratic world’s record holder for violating freedom of religion and conscience, the leaders of the Zionist parties had better grasp the urgent need to form a civilian government that will work to promote the values of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence and the majority’s wishes.”

According to the report, the validity of 40,000 conversions in Israel is in question, even though the conversions took place in special state-sponsored rabbinic courts for conversion. A 2009 ruling by the Supreme Rabbinic Court retroactively voided the conversions handled by Rabbi Druckman’s National Conversion Authority. The U.S. State Department notes that, “approximately 360,000 citizens who immigrated to the country from the former-Soviet Union under the Law of Return but are not considered Jewish by the Orthodox Rabbinate cannot be buried in Jewish cemeteries, divorce, or marry within the country.”

This is the case, the report points out, even though “a minority of Jews is Orthodox, and the majority of Jewish citizens objected to exclusive Orthodox control over fundamental aspects of their personal lives.” The

The report states that expressions of animosity of a religious nature increased

report states that “expressions of animosity between secular and religious Jews grew significantly during the reporting period,” and that “several Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) demonstrations against nonobservance of the Sabbath turned violent.

Ultra-Orthodox protesters threw stones and dirty diapers at police officers and called them ‘Nazis,’ set fires in the streets, and vandalized private property and traffic lights.” Among other things, the report describes incidents of “Haredi Jews insulting and spitting at priests and nuns, and defacing with graffiti and throwing garbage and dead cats at monasteries in Jerusalem.”

On several occasions, residents of haredi neighborhoods attacked police cars. In August 2009 dozens of haredi demonstrators threw stones at Jerusalem’s mayor, Nir Barkat, in protest over the opening of the Karta parking lot on Shabbat.

The State Department report, citing the Religion and State Index conducted by Smith Research Institute on behalf of the NGO Hiddush – Religious Freedom for Israel, says that, “42 percent of Jewish adults rated the tension between secular and ultra-Orthodox as the most serious internal tension in society.”

The State Department reports a major escalation in the area of gender segregation and modesty demands that hurt women: “Since 2009 signs posted around the Western Wall plaza now request that gender segregation be enforced throughout the plaza, rather than just at the prayer areas. Ultra-Orthodox ‘modesty patrols’ attempted to enforce gender separation and a path designated for ‘men only’ was installed opposite the Western Wall.

Mixed-gender ceremonies have been banned in the Western Wall plaza.” The U.S. State Department also reports that the “public transportation company, Egged, which operated much of the country's public transportation system, continued to operate some sex-segregated buses along inter-and intra-city routes frequented by ultra-Orthodox Jews. Women who refused to sit at the back of such buses risked harassment and physical assault by male passengers.”

A separate paragraph in the report is devoted to the fact that haredi groups working to proselytize secular Jews have received state funding. “Some ultra-Orthodox groups that proselytize secular Jews, encouraging them to adopt ultra-Orthodox practices and beliefs, enjoyed government funding. The Ministry of Education funded a special network of schools aimed at promoting Orthodox Judaism to non-Orthodox Jewish children, and funded other organizations that hold similarly motivated activities.”

The report points out that the Supreme Court continued during the reporting period to issue rulings that promote freedom of religion and equality in a number of matters. It emphasizes the growing strain between the Orthodox establishment and the courts, mainly against the background of the Immanuel affair and the demonstrations against the Supreme Court.

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