State department 2011 Israel Religious Freedom Report The American embassy in Tel Aviv "offered programs that exposed Israelis to U.S. models of religious diversity and civil society" Many Americans are said to feel an affinity for Israel due to the idea that Israel is a liberal democracy- just as the U.S. is. This is far from the truth. When the media reports on religious freedom in the Middle East, it usually focuses on Saudi Arabia and Iran. Israel, the country getting the most generous financial, political and diplomatic support from the U.S., falls far short of American expectations of what a country that is like us would be in matters of religious liberty and religious equality. In fact the report concludes with: "The embassy offered programs that exposed Israelis to U.S. models of religious diversity and civil society." Indeed. Does the American media know?* The following are edited excerpts from the State department's report. The headings are mine, Governmental and legal religious discrimination The country’s laws and policies protect religious freedom and, in practice, the government generally respected religious freedom… While there is no constitution, government policy contributed to the generally free practice of religion, although governmental and legal discrimination against non-Jews and non-Orthodox streams of Judaism continued. There were reports of societal abuses and discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice. Some individuals and groups were responsible for discriminatory practices against Israeli-Arab Muslims, Christians, and non-Orthodox Jews. Relations among religious and ethnic groups--between Jews and non-Jews, Muslims and Christians, Arabs and non-Arabs, secular and religious Jews, and among the different streams of Judaism--were strained. The U.S. government discussed religious freedom with the government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights. U.S. embassy officials maintained a dialogue with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) focusing on human and civil rights, including religious freedom, and encouraged religious leaders to advance regional peace and calm local tensions. Demographics The country has a population of 7.8 million (including settlers living in the Occupied Territories), of which 5.8 million are Jews; 1.6 million are Muslims and Christians; and 322,000 are classified as “other” --mostly persons from the former Soviet Union who immigrated under the Law of Return but did not qualify as Jews according to the Orthodox Jewish definition used by the government for civil procedures, although many identify themselves as Jewish. 30% Israeli Jews born outside Israel According to the 2009 report of the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), 8 percent of the Jewish population is Haredi (also known as “ultra-Orthodox”); 12 percent identify themselves as Orthodox; 13 percent describe themselves as “traditional, religious;” 25 percent say they are “traditional, not so religious;” and 42 percent describe themselves as “nonreligious/secular” Jews, most of whom observed some Jewish traditions. About 30 percent of the country’s Jewish population was born outside the country. Women's rights Government authorities prohibit mixed-gender prayer services at Jewish religious sites maintained by the Chief Rabbinate in deference to the belief of most Orthodox Jews that such services violate the precepts of Judaism. At the Western Wall, men and women must use separate areas to visit and pray. According to a policy repeatedly upheld by the Supreme Court, women are not allowed to conduct prayers at the Western Wall while wearing prayer shawls and are not permitted to read from Torah scrolls because this form of prayer by women violates Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law. There is a separate prayer area along the Western Wall, south of the Mughrabi Gate where women may read the Torah and pray wearing prayer shawls. Modesty patrols The signs posted around the Western Wall plaza requesting gender segregation throughout the plaza, rather than just at the prayer areas, were removed in 2010. Official “modesty patrols” occasionally attempted to enforce gender separation and guarded the path designated for “men only” that was installed in 2009 opposite the Western Wall. According to the government-appointed Rabbi of the Western Wall, the path was created for those who asked to be able to get to the Western Wall plaza without having to walk through a mixed-gender area. Bedouin mosques subject to demolition The approximately 60,000 Bedouin living in unrecognized villages were unable to build or legally maintain mosques as a result of longstanding government policy to deny ownership claims, building requests, and municipal services in unrecognized, illegally established Bedouin communities. Mosques existed in unrecognized Bedouin communities, but, as with homes and other community structures, the government considered them illegal and therefore subject to demolition. Denial of entry on account of suspected missionary activity There were reports of abuses of religious freedom, including religious detainees. Some tourists were temporarily detained for religious reasons at Ben-Gurion Airport, prevented from entering the country, and sent back to their countries of origin because of the MOI’s “suspicions of missionary activity,” as explained to them by the border control officials at the airport. There are no clearly publicized regulations as to how the MOI places a person on the watch list or on what grounds, but the questioning of such individuals often relates to their religious beliefs. While proselytism is officially legal, some missionaries continued to face harassment and discrimination from local government officials. For example, the MOI detained individuals suspected of being “missionaries” upon arrival at the airport and required such persons to post bail and pledge to abstain from missionary activity. At times government officials also have refused entry into the country to persons they perceived as missionaries. Both recognized and unrecognized religious communities experienced some difficulties receiving clergy visas for their representatives and leaders. Discriminatory religious edicts About 50 prominent rabbis, led by Safed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, published a religious ruling in December 2010 that prohibited the sale or rental of real estate to non-Jews and called for the exclusion from religious gatherings of any Jewish person who broke the ruling. Despite widespread criticism of the Halachic ruling, the justice minister did not suspend Eliyahu from his post as a municipal rabbi. All of the signatories’ salaries were paid by the government, including dozens of chief rabbis of cities across the country. The attorney general had not decided whether the signatories could be prosecuted for incitement by year’s end. The NGO Lehava, an acronym for “Preventing Assimilation in the Holy Land,” which also means “flame,” initiated a campaign in January to distribute “kosher certificates” to employers who purposefully avoided employing Arab workers. The certificates included the declaration: “This certificate certifies that the following employer employs Jewish workers and does not employ enemies.” During the year members of Jehovah’s Witnesses reported assaults, threats of violence, and other crimes and noted the difficulties their members faced in convincing the police to investigate or apprehend the perpetrators. On August 13, in Holon, approximately 15 Haredi men disrupted a religious meeting held at a sports hall and one of them punched a member of the community. However, after police questioned the attacker, authorities only gave him a restraining order. Spitting on "immodestly dressed" 8 year old girl Expressions of animosity between secular and religious Jews continued during the year. Some members of Haredi Jewish groups acted in a discriminatory and intolerant manner toward other Jews. As in past years, there were instances of Haredim throwing rocks at passing motorists driving on the Sabbath in predominantly Haredi neighborhoods, and harassing or assaulting women whose appearance they considered immodest. On December 27, a group of Haredi men jeered and spat upon an eight-year-old girl they believed was dressed immodestly while she walked to her Orthodox school in Beit Shemesh. There continued to be reports of numerous instances of Haredi men spitting at non-Haredi Jews and persons of different faiths, including in Jerusalem’s Old City. Exposing Israel to the US model of religious diversity The U.S. government discussed religious freedom with the government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights. The U.S. embassy consistently raised concerns about religious freedom with the MFA, the police, and other government agencies. Embassy officials maintained a dialogue with NGOs that focused on human and civil rights, including religious freedom, and promoted interfaith initiatives. Embassy representatives also attended and spoke at meetings of such organizations and encouraged religious leaders to advance regional peace and calm local tensions. The embassy offered programs that exposed Israelis to U.S. models of religious diversity and civil society. *The full report can be accessed at:


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