A-G backs Jehovah's Witnesses' equal rights demand

Jerusalem, Israel - The attorney-general's emphasis on the democratic character of the state as opposed to its Jewish character has opened the way for missionary groups such as Jehovah's Witnesses to operate in Israel, according to former justice minister Yaakov Neeman.

Neeman was referring to an opinion expressed by the Attorney-General's Office of a Haifa District Court case involving Amutat Hamitzpeh L'Israel, an organization that represents Jehovah's Witnesses in Israel.

"The attorney-general chose to interpret the law in a way that left no room for a legal solution to the issue of missionary activity," said Neeman.

"Other interpretations could have been given by the Attorney-General's Office that would have opened the way for a different court ruling. Israel is a Jewish and a democratic state. First Jewish, then democratic," added Neeman.

On Tuesday, Judge Shmuel Berliner, deputy president of the Haifa court, forced Haifa's Convention Center to rent space to Jehovah's Witnesses for its activities, which include public lectures on the New Testament and open invitations to learn more about Jehovah's Witnesses.

Haifa district attorney Amit Koren backed up the decision and Koren's opinion was approved by legal counselors in the Attorney-General's Office. It is unclear whether Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz was directly involved.

The Attorney-General's Office accepted Koren's argument, expressed in a 13-page letter, that businesses, like the Haifa Convention Center, that provide goods and services to the public could not discriminate against groups like Jehovah's Witnesses on the basis of religious faith.

Neeman said that the attorney-general's interpretation of the law paves the way for missionary activity.

"I want to know what Shas, which is presently a member of the government, is going to do about this," said Neeman.

A Shas spokesman said in response that the court decision was "very problematic."

"We will do everything in our power to prevent future cases like this. But the lack of legislation against missionary activity is not a new problem," the spokesman said.

Present legislation prohibits proselytizing only when done through coercion either via economic incentives or emotional manipulation.

Neeman rejected the possibility of appealing Berliner's decision in a higher court.

"After the attorney-general expressed his opinion so clearly on the issue, there is no recourse except to change the law governing missionary activity," said Neeman who was consulted by Jewish religious leaders in Haifa regarding the possibility of appealing the decision.

Legal advisers to the Haifa Convention Center argued that as a private business the convention center had the right to deny Jehovah's Witnesses service out of respect for haredi sensibilities. Renting space to the Jehovah's Witnesses would result in haredi boycotts and protests, the legal advisers said. These boycotts and protests were liable to destroy business altogether and force the convention center to close.

Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav openly supported the haredi groups' demand to prevent Jehovah's Witnesses from operating in the convention center.

The city of Haifa owns 49% of the convention center's stocks, and major business decisions cannot be passed without the Haifa Municipality's support.

"The mayor was sensitive to the needs of Haifa's Jewish religious residents," said Yahav's spokesman.

Atai Tsimhoni, the attorney that represented Jehovah's Witnesses, said that "the court and the attorney-general reached the right conclusion. A minority group of haredim cannot force their will on a business that provides services to the public."

Tsimhoni cited a law passed in 2000 that prohibits discrimination in the giving of goods and services or in the providing of accessibility to public places or places of entertainment.

"Haifa is a delicate balance of diverse religious and ethnic groups from secular and haredi Jews to Muslims to Christians to Bahai. Bullying by haredim upsets this balance," added Tsimhoni.

Chief Rabbi of Haifa She'ar Yishuv Hacohen, who has been involved in interfaith dialogue with Muslims and Christians for years, said that Jehovah's Witnesses were fundamentally different from other Christian groups."They are militant missionaries who use all sorts of underhanded tactics to convince Jews to convert," he said.

Eran Katry, spokesman for Amutat Hamitzpeh L'Israel, rejected Hacohen's claims.

"I think people's negative approach to us is a result of a misconception," said Katry. "Yes, we see it as our obligation to make public our faith, to bear witness to Jehovah. But it is up to grown adults to choose for themselves whether to accept our teachings. Obviously I would be happy if someone chose to embrace our teachings out of a realization that they are the truth."

Katry said that Jehovah's Witnesses believe the world is currently in "the end of days" and that God will soon judge humanity. "Our job is to help people prepare for judgment day," he added.

Katry said that the way to salvation was through a connection with God which could be attained by learning the teachings of the bible, both Old and New Testaments. He said that he did not know whether those who did not embrace Jehovah's Witnesses' teachings would be saved, adding,

"That's up to God to decide."