Analysis: Errors in US report on Israel's religious freedom

Inaccuracies in official State Dept. 2010 International Religious Freedom Report raise questions on data collection, analysis, lack of sources.

November 19, 2010 02:35
bar mitzvah

Man 89 bar mitzvah at kotel. (photo credit: AP)


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An official State Department report on religious freedom in Israel raises valid points about the imperfect and intricate condition of faiths in the Holy Land, but inaccuracies and errors in it raise questions as to the methods of obtaining and analyzing the information employed.

The segment of the International Religious Freedom Report 2010 on Israel, documenting the status of religious freedom during the period from July 1, 2009, to June 30, 2010, opens by stating that the “Israeli Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty (Basic Law) provides for freedom of religion, and the government generally respected this right in practice. 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.”

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According to the preface of this year’s report, released on Wednesday, “US embassies prepare the initial drafts of these reports, gathering information from a variety of sources, including government and religious officials, nongovernmental organizations, journalists, human rights monitors, religious groups and academics.”

Then, the Office of International Religious Freedom collaborates in “collecting and analyzing information for the country reports, drawing on the expertise of other Department of State offices, religious organizations, other nongovernmental organizations, foreign government officials, representatives from the UN and other international and regional organizations and institutions, and experts from academia and the media.”

But a number of question marks that arise from the report’s stances on controversial and unsettled matters in Israeli society suggest that disproportionate weight was given to the input of the various NGOs and media reports cited, without presenting the full complexity of the rather complex topics.

One of the many issues touched on in the report is that of Israelis who are not Jews according to Halacha. “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,” the report says. But this misses the mark, since such people can divorce in an Israeli civil court so long they are not considered Jewish.

Regarding the Kotel, the report states that “Ultra-Orthodox ‘modesty patrols’ attempted to enforce gender separation and a path designated for ‘men only’ was installed opposite the Western Wall.” Such a path does indeed exist, at the behest of ultra-Orthodox men who wish to reach the inner plaza for prayer with less exposure to the tourists, including women, who abound in the outer plaza. Needless to say, the necessity of such a path is only a result of a mixed plaza.

The further statement that “Mixed-gender ceremonies have been banned in the Western Wall plaza” is inaccurate; among the few nonreligious ceremonies to take place in that plaza are the swearing-in of IDF paratroopers and that on IDF Memorial Day, and neither has gender-separated seating.

The report also presented the state-funded haredi schools under the section dealing with proselytizing.

“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,” it states.

This presumably refers first and foremost to Shas’s Ma’ayan Chinuch Torani network, and perhaps to the Ashkenazi-run Independent Education Center. A spokesman for the Ministry of Education strongly rejected the presumed proselytizing nature of those haredi educational networks, if indeed the intention of the report was to refer to those.

Regarding the civil rights of Israelis who are not Jewish by Halacha but entitled to citizenship due to the Law of Return, the report correctly states that under the law “the government grants immigration and residence rights to individuals who meet established criteria defining Jewish identity and also to certain family members. Eligible family members include a child or grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew, and the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew.”

However, the report goes on to fuse together “the right to full citizenship” for such people and the “government financial support for immigrants,” which is supposedly denied of those whose Judaism is not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate, with the matters pertaining to “Jewish status for purposes of personal... issues.

“The government uses a separate, more rigorous standard based on Orthodox Jewish criteria to determine the right to full citizenship, entitlement to government financial support for immigrants, the legitimacy of conversions to Judaism performed within the country, and Jewish status for purposes of personal and some civil status issues,” the report states.

As for conversion, the report also seems to confuse the term and apply it to a shift in observance within one’s religion.

“There were no reports of forced religious conversion; however, in February 2010 an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man was arrested in Jerusalem after refusing to release his two juvenile half brothers whom he had detained since February 2009 in an effort to convert them to ultra-Orthodox Judaism,” the report states. “Both boys were eventually returned to their parents in the United States after the Jerusalem District Court and Israeli High Court intervened to secure their release.”

Regarding the classic use of the term, the report notes the case in which “The High Rabbinical Court restricted some individuals’ choice to convert to Judaism. In May 2009 the High Court ordered the High Rabbinical Court to explain its retroactive annulment of a Jewish conversion performed by the state-sanctioned Orthodox ‘Special Conversion’ court. The High Rabbinical Court, which disputed the secular High Court’s jurisdiction over the issue, had not answered by the end of the reporting period,” the report correctly states, since the official response of Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar, head of the High Rabbinical Court, came only in September, and confirmed the validity of the two (not one) conversions at hand, that a member of the High Rabbinical Court cast doubt upon.

The report’s assertion that “The validity of about 40,000 similar conversions since 1999 therefore remained in doubt, since the 2008 annulment ruling alleged the Conversion Authority’s prior head had allowed lax observance standards” is inaccurate, since the actual controversial rabbinic ruling applied to two cases and not all 40,000. The annulling rabbi did insinuate that since the rabbis who weren’t worthy of performing those two conversions performed others, they should all be in doubt, but his remark had no legal validity.

Regarding the head of the State Conversion Authority, the report says that “Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, who also heads the High Rabbinical Court, heads the new Conversion Authority since it was established in 2008.”

In fact, the Authority began operations in 2004, under Rabbi Haim Drukman.

The report also fails to note the sources of most of its information, and controversial statements such as “Government resources available for religious/heritage studies to Arab and non-Orthodox Jewish public schools were significantly less than those available to Orthodox Jewish public schools,” are left as is.

The State Department was looking into questions raised by The Jerusalem Post into the report, but had not responded by press time.

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