US report monitors religious freedom in Israel

Israel's rating improved slightly in this year's US State Department report on religious freedom, but a closer reading suggests the Jewish state should watch the way it treats minorities, and not just Israeli Arabs. The "Israel and Occupied Territories" chapter in the 2005 International Religious Freedom Report expands its criticisms of Israel's treatment of non-Orthodox Jewish denominations, and places Israel on notice that the US is monitoring its treatment of other minorities, including "messianic Jews" and faiths practiced by guest workers. Rabbi David Saperstein, who directs the Reform movement's Religious Action Center in Washington, said his group had noted an increased interest in the status of non-Orthodox Jews in Israel. "I'm glad that the report reflects that," he said. "There's no country in the world where discrimination against Reform and Conservative rabbis per se is as blatant as it is in Israel." As in 2004, the recent report finds "no change" in describing religious freedom inside Israel; it also found "no change" in the parts of the West Bank Israel controls, compared to "deterioration" the previous year. In addition, the report's "holding sentences," which summarize the essence of the report, reflect a slight overall improvement for Israel. But the "no change" status does not let Israel off the hook: Similar to reports from previous years, the 2005 analysis says Israel's government "discriminates against non-Jewish citizens and residents, the vast majority of whom are Arab Muslims and Christians, in the areas of employment, education, and housing." What's new is the treatment of non-Orthodox Jewish streams received much greater emphasis. For instance, the second sentence of the 2004 report reads, "There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report, and government policy continued to contribute to the generally free practice of religion; however, there were problems with regard to equal treatment of religious minorities." In this year's report, the same sentence is expanded with a reference to the non-Orthodox streams. "There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the reporting period, and government policy continued to contribute to the generally free practice of religion; however, problems continued to exist stemming from the unequal treatment of religious minorities, and from the State's recognition of only Orthodox Jewish religious authorities in personal and some civil status matters concerning Jews." Lengthy passages in the report expand on the alleged discrimination, looking at the status of non-Jewish spouses of Jewish immigrants; allegations of discriminatory funding in favor of Orthodox schools; and the state of efforts to legislate civil marriage. Such allegations of discrimination have circulated for years in Israel, but previous reports hardly addressed them. Saperstein, who said his group has raised these issues in meetings with Bush administration officials, said the expanded interest was in keeping with the administration's recent emphasis on human rights abroad. "The State Department is trying to lay down more consistent standards in these areas and to hold friends and allies to the same standards as it holds other nations," he said "It's hopeful that this will make Israel sit up and take notice when it sees the international community so deeply troubled." Spokesmen for the Israeli Embassy in Washington and for the State Department did not return calls seeking comment, but a briefing on the report suggested that the Bush administration is intensifying its interest in religious freedoms abroad. "Even some of the most open societies in the world have limited freedom of religion in ways that are difficult to justify," said John Hanford, the official who directed production of this year's report. "It is the purpose of this report to encourage abroad, just as we do here in the United States, a careful and continual examination by every government and society as to whether each person's right to believe as he or she chooses is fully protected or unnecessarily limited." There were other examples of heightened interest in how Israel treats its minorities. For the first time, the 2005 report listed complaints by "messianic Jews," who believe in Jesus but still claim to be Jewish, that their members were denied entry to Israel and that anti-missionary groups harassed them. It also listed, for the first time, a breakdown of the religions of legal foreign workers, though it did not allege discrimination. The report broke down how religious councils spend money with the vast majority going to Jewish councils, also a first in a US report. There were also the traditional criticisms of how Israel treats its Arab minorities. If anything, these were expanded, with new attention paid to alleged neglect and mistreatment of abandoned mosques. There was also a lengthy treatment of allegations that the Jewish National Fund discriminates in the distribution of land, a facet of Jewish-Arab relations uncovered in earlier reports. However, the report did not take a stand on the allegations. The treatment of Palestinians also received close attention, with special attention to how Israel's West Bank security barrier that has reduced terrorist attacks also has kept Palestinian Muslims and Christians from reaching religious services in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The report also upped its grade for the Palestinian Authority from "deteriorating" last year to "no change" in 2005, largely because of PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas's efforts to prevent anti-Israel incitement. It also said Abbas apparently had ended the extortion of property from Christians by Muslim gangs, though it noted that the authorities had yet to address earlier complaints. It also noted complaints by Palestinian Media Watch, an Israeli watchdog group, that Palestinian textbooks continue to delegitimize Israel.