The Religious Services Ministry said Thursday that “it was not interested” in
responding to the US State Department’s report on religious freedom around the
world in 2011, which included Israel.
Published last Monday, the annual
report produced by the department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor,
voiced concern with several aspects of religious Jewish life in Israel in
connection to the state’s relationship to non-Orthodox Jews.
the report, “a minority of Jews in the country observes the Orthodox tradition,
and the majority of Jewish citizens objected to exclusive Orthodox control over
fundamental aspects of their personal lives.”
The Ministry of Religious
Services which deals with many issues of religious Jewish life, refused to
respond to the report following a request from The Jerusalem Post
, saying it had
no interest in doing so.
Neither the Prime Minister’s Office nor the
Ministry of the Interior wished to comment either.
The Hiddush religious
freedom activist organization, which assisted the State Department in the
production of the report, said Thursday in response to the report that the
“shameful situation [of Orthodox control of religious life] is caused by the
acquisition of power in return for submission to religious coercion,” referring
to political deals made between mainstream and ultra-Orthodox political
The report pointed in particular to the ongoing difficulties of
several hundred thousand Israelis of non-matrilineal Jewish descent who cannot
marry in Israel.
Religious authorities have jurisdiction in Israel over
marriage and divorce and do not permit inter-faith
Approximately 330,000 Israelis of non-matrilineal Jewish
descent, mostly from the former Soviet Union, are therefore unable to marry in
Israel since they are classified as “without religion” and there is no framework
for civil marriage.
Civil marriage conducted abroad is subsequently
recognized in Israel by the state authorities The State Department also
highlighted the rejection by the Ministry of the Interior and the Chief
Rabbinate of Orthodox converts who converted abroad from immigrating into the
The report did note that in June 2011 the government agreed that
the Interior Ministry would henceforth rely on the Jewish Agency for
establishing the veracity of Orthodox converts from abroad instead of the Chief
That agreement has however been infracted several times, as
reported by the Post
. In one case, a woman from New York who converted seven
years ago with the Orthodox rabbi of one of the oldest Orthodox synagogues in
the US was refused permission to immigrate to Israel.
Department also drew attention to restrictions on reform and conservative
converts who convert in Israel.
The Chief Rabbinate does not recognize
such people as Jewish so as well as being unable to marry, they may also not be
buried in Jewish cemeteries.
Non-Orthodox converts from abroad do not
face such restrictions.
In addition, the document noted the monopoly of
Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall which prevents mixed-gender services at the
site “in deference to the belief of most Orthodox Jews that such services
violate the precepts of Judaism.”
Israeli law prohibits women from
performing religious practices at the Western Wall that, according to Orthodox
Jewish tradition, are done by men – such as reading from a Torah scroll, wearing
tefillin or a tallit, or blowing a shofar – because it may offend the religious
sensibilities of others.
Women have been detained on several occasions at
the Western Wall in recent months for transgressing this law. In June, one woman
was detained for three hours, fingerprinted and photographed at the police
station in the Old City of Jerusalem, and subsequently released. She was banned
from going to the Western Wall for seven days, on pain of a NIS 3,000 fine if
she violated the ban.
Despite the concerns highlighted by the State
Department, the report noted that Israel’s laws and policies protect religious
freedom, observed that “the government generally respected religious freedom,”
but did not “demonstrate a trend toward either improvement or deterioration in
respect for and protection of the right to religious freedom.”