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Israel rates low in terms of religious freedom

jtaU.S. report highlights Israel’s religious freedoms violations

17 November 2010

(JTA) — Government allocations favoring the Orthodox, extra legal protection to Jewish holy sites and Orthodox hegemony over life-cycle events are among Israel’s religious freedom violations highlighted in a U.S. State Department report.

The International Religious Freedom Report  2009 released Wednesday placed Israel in the section with countries “where violations of religious freedom have been noteworthy.” Israel is in the same section as such countries as Afghanistan, China, Iran, Iraq and Sudan. Another section of the report highlights countries, some in the violators group, where positive developments have been seen; Israel does not appear in that category.

While Israel’s Basic Law describes the country as a Jewish and democratic state, “Government policy continued to support the generally free practice of religion, although governmental and legal discrimination against non-Jews and non-Orthodox streams of Judaism continued,” according to the report.

The report pointed out that “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.”

The report also took issue with the fact that three Messianic Jews who attempted to immigrate to Israel during the reporting period were denied and that national identification documents differentiate between Jews and non-Jews.

The report pointed out that the state does not recognize conversions to Judaism performed in Israel by non-Orthodox rabbis and does not support non-Orthodox conversion institutions in the country. It also highlighted that the only in-country marriages recognized by the state are those performed by the “Orthodox Jewish establishment,” and that exclusive control over marriages rests with it. The report also points out that the Orthodox Jewish establishment determines who can be buried in Jewish state cemeteries.

The report takes issue with Israel’s policy on holy sites.

“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,” according to the report.

The report also cited the Egged bus company for operating sex-segregated buses along some lines, the prohibition against women wearing prayer shawls at the Western Wall and the government’s disproportionate funding of synagogues over the places of worship of other religions. It also cited animosity between secular and religious Jews, as well as animosity against Messianic groups.

The report applauded Israel’s Supreme Court for ruling that the government must stop discriminating against non-Orthodox conversion institutes in regard to state funding  and the Education Ministry’s approval of the accreditation of the country’s first fully independent Arab university, Mar Elias College.

The president of Hiddush for Religious Freedom and Equality, Uri Regev said, “Sadly, in the religious arena, Israel is closer to the extreme Muslim countries than the Western democratic world. The report describes in great detail how the government of Israel surrenders to the ultra-Orthodox parties’ extortion and hinders the right to marry; freedom of worship; the dignity of women; the new immigrants’ population; the non-Jewish communities; and many others.”

“This,” says Regev, “is part of a policy of obtaining power in return for money to religious institutions and surrender to religious coercion, while disregarding the will of the predominant majority of Israelis and diaspora alike. If Israel does not want to be an item on the global agenda as the record holder in the democratic world in the area of violations of religious freedom, the leaders of the Zionist parties better realize the urgent need to form a civil government. This would work to advance the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state in the spirit of its Declaration of Independence and in accordance of the will of the majority.”

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