The US State Department’s newly released International Religious Freedom Report for 2018, which addressed “both Israel’s strengths and its areas of concern,” was the subject of a debate on Monday hosted by the US Embassy in coordination with the Israel Democracy Institute.
US Embassy political officer Curtis Ried highlighted some of the concerns found, including issues on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.
Ried emphasized the country’s strengths, which “include Israeli laws and Supreme Court rulings that protect the freedom of conscious faith, religion and worship, religious affiliation, and the 1992 Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty protects additional individual rights” of Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze and other minority groups in Israel.
He explained that in “many parts of the world, governments deny rights to fundamental religious freedoms,” and are even “persecuted, imprisoned or even killed for their decision to believe or not to believe,” and since 1998, the department has been releasing the international report to monitor religious freedom.
“They also have the right to convert or not out of one’s own free will,” he explained.
Other issues included an event on July 27, 2018, when Muslim protesters and Israeli police clashed; splits and conflicts between different streams of Judaism in the country; and clashes between the ultra-Orthodox and the IDF over army service.
He also shared concerns about “vandals who had damaged tombs and broke crosses at the cemetery of the Salesian Monastery at Beit Jimal near Beit Shemesh, which was the third attack on the monastery in three years.”
Other important issues not mentioned by Ried but listed in the report include how the recently implemented Nation-State Law was received by the country’s minority populations, including Druze, Muslims and other non-Jewish groups, and the concerns these groups have about the law.
“Druze leaders, other non-Jewish minorities and nongovernmental organizations... criticized the new law for not mentioning the principle of equality to prevent harm to the rights of minorities,” the report explained.
It also mentioned how missionary and Christian activities directed at Jews are perceived, and on this matter, it stated that “some Jews continued to oppose missionary activity directed at Jews, saying it amounted to religious harassment, and reacted with hostility toward Jewish converts to Christianity.”
The report also highlighted that visiting high-level US government officials, “including the vice president,” have met with government officials, religious groups, and civil society leaders in Israel “to stress the importance of tolerance and dialogue and ways to reduce religiously motivated violence.”
“Senior US officials spoke publicly about the importance of maintaining the status quo at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif,” it added.
Ried said that he hoped this report would create conversation and discussion over the matter of religious freedom in the run-up to the second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom taking place later this month.
The discussion on the report was particularly focused on the challenges and advances over the years, as well as concerns over the limitations of pluralistic Judaism in the country.
Dr. Shuki Friedman, director of the Center for Religion, Nation and State at the IDI, explained that the most important aspect of the report is that it covers issues and questions relating to all religions in Israel and not just the Jews, “which is crucial because in some ways, the rights, the freedom of religion for non-Jews, for Muslims, are being heard a lot less than Jews,” and how the Jewishness of the state “is having a huge effect” on non-Jews and Muslims in Israel.
During his address, Friedman said “it’s highly important for us [the IDI], who are fighting for freedom of religion, to take responsibility for these issues.”
Addressing issues that non-Orthodox Jews are facing in the country, he said that “civil society is coming together to change this from the ground up to create a pluralistic Israel.”
Adding to this subject, former Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria said “the Jewish and the Democratic have always been two main issues in the country.”
“What kind of Judaism do we want in Israel?” she said. “Judaism is embedded in Israel but Israel is not an Orthodox country... We need to see how to strengthen Israel’s democracy.
“If the State of Israel becomes fundamentalist, it won’t last,” Azaria said.
Several representatives from the pluralist Jewish community, including from both the Reform and Conservative movements, also addressed concerns that these streams of Judaism are facing. The issue of inaccessibility to touch the egalitarian section of the Western Wall for the last year since a stone fell was a main subject of contention, as well as the disrespect non-Orthodox Jews face especially when it comes marriage services, divorce, conversion and burials.
Addressing concerns of Arab Israelis and minorities, Southern Islamic Movement representative Sheikh Raid Bdir told The Jerusalem Post that “unfortunately some Israelis don’t accept minorities, Arab Israelis and their rights.”
“This pushes Arabs into a corner and leads them to become extremists,” he said, adding that many times when the Israeli government is making a decision, minorities are not taken into account.
He said that many Arab-Israelis feel that the government doesn’t care about them – when it comes to crime, violence and murder “in our communities, the government ignores it and the Knesset doesn’t want to change it.”
As Foreign Affairs Ministry representative Akiva Tor pointed out, “the situation in Israel is imperfect and it always will be imperfect, but we are on a positive trajectory.”
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