Ministry not interested in religious freedom report

Religious Services Ministry dismissed US State Department report on religious freedom that cites concern on Israel.

Haredi protest against enlistment in Jerusalem 370 (photo credit: Hadas Parush)
Haredi protest against enlistment in Jerusalem 370
(photo credit: Hadas Parush)
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.
According to 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 parties.
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 marriages.
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 country.
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 Rabbinate.
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.
The State 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.”