Report highlights religious tensions in Israel

Hiddush describes 2009 as "worst year of decade" in terms of religious freedom, equality.

A new report released by Hiddush, a religious freedom advocacy group, describes 2009 as “the worst year of the decade” in terms of religious freedom and equality. The report, published on Monday, points toward an escalation in religion-state conflict, violence in the name of religion, damage to religious freedom, attempts at religious coercion, budget allocations to religious institutions and pro-religious legislation – and warns of worse to come.
The report highlights various aspects of Israeli social and political life in 2009, with an emphasis on religious, and particularly haredi-related issues.
For example, the report cited increasingly violent demonstrations by haredim related to the opening of parking lots during Shabbat.
“After years of quiet in terms of religious protests in Jerusalem, there were several particularly violent demonstrations starting in June 2009. At the demonstrations, haredi protesters threw stones and soiled diapers at police officers, wounded police officers and called them Nazis, torched garbage bins and vandalized traffic lights,” read the report.
The report also pointed to the demonstrations surrounding the arrest of a haredi woman charged with starving her three-year-old son.
“At the height of the conflict, Toldot Aharon members threatened to boycott the hospital where the child was being treated. It is doubtful that there is a precedent for the use of the tools of religious warfare for the sake of one family’s private struggle,” read the report.
Another issue addressed by the Hiddush report was the topic of segregated buses.
“The demand by haredi extremists for sex-segregated buses became much more aggressive in 2009. In February, dozens of haredim in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim threw stones and blocked bus traffic to protest the fact that police were preventing a private, segregated bus line from operating at the Western Wall.”
Hiddush’s critique of segregation also continued on the topic of segregated sidewalks.
“For the first time, haredi rabbis this year ordered separate sidewalks for men and women in the haredi Jerusalem neighborhood of Geula. Over Sukkot, extremists in Mea Shearim declared that certain streets would be off-limits to women during the weeklong holiday. A woman who walked down one of the streets designated for men only was subjected to tear gas.”
The report also addressed haredi-specific budgeting. According to the report, in 2009 yeshiva funding skyrocketed to an all-time high of NIS 1 billion – up from 770 million – and child allotments were increased by half a billion shekels.
Other issues addressed in the 19-page report were political appointments, kashrut, the judicial system, new religious legislation, conversions and ethnic discrimination in religious schools.
The reason for what Hiddush describes as a deterioration in the status quo, is politics, the organization claims.
“It appears that the results of the November 2008 municipal elections and the February 2009 Knesset elections had a decisive influence on the decline, wrote Hiddush vice president Shahar Ilan. “The flow of increasing government funds to the haredim and the uptick in legislative attempts at religious coercion can be tied directly to the establishment of a coalition government, including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, the Labor party and haredi parties... The legislative and budgetary demands of Shas and United Torah Judaism are once again on the rise.”
Hiddush CEO Rabbi Uri Regev said “the coalition government is selling off our children’s future. The report clearly shows that the coalition parties do not hesitate to cynically trade away the civil liberties of the Israeli public in exchange for votes from ultra-Orthodox parties.
“Our research shows a huge gap between government policy and public opinion. The overwhelming majority of the public seek greater religious freedom and more equitable distribution of the economic and military burden,” said Regev.