US State Department slams Israeli stagnation on religious freedom reform

The US State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report for 2016, released last week and compiled before the government suspended a deal on a permanent pluralistic prayer area at the Western Wall, diplomatically pans the lack of progress by the Israeli government toward increased religious freedom.

To chart the religious-ethnic teetering balance that is Israel, the report uses a tit-for-tat formulation highlighting positives, and often more negatives, that unfolded in the area of religious freedom in 2016. Of note, the word “continued” appears almost 70 times, an apt signal of the scant reforms implemented in the past year.

For example, the report states that Israel “continued to permit non-Jews, including Muslims and Christians, to pray at the Western Wall, but continued to enforce a prohibition on non-Orthodox (including mixed gender) Jewish prayer services.”

Likewise, the report stated, “The government and non-Orthodox activists reached a compromise in January to accommodate ‘egalitarian prayer,’ i.e., Reform and Conservative Jewish services, near the Western Wall, but the government did not implement it.”

According to Zionist Union MK Ksenia Svetlova, an immigrant from the former Soviet Union who is a well-known activist on behalf of the separation of church and state, “The US State department report clearly indicates that the Israeli government is not implementing its own decisions and thus compromises religious pluralism in Israel. I call on the government to serve all Israelis, and not only specific pressure ultra-Orthodox pressure groups.”

Written in diplomatic language and covering a massive scope of religions and their accompanied strife, there are trivia gems in the report — “The government continued to allow Christians and individuals who spoke Aramaic to register with their national or ethnic group listed as Aramean instead of Arab” — as well as depressingly grim statistics on those killed or persecuted due to the “strained” relations among religious and ethnic groups. “There continued to be reports of Haredi men spitting at non-Haredi Jews and persons of other faiths, including those wearing Christian clerical clothing,” it stated.

Interestingly, among other facts and figures, it tracked the total budget allocated by the government for religious purposes (NIS 828 million or $215.57 million for religious services for Jewish communities and NIS 121 million or $31.5 million for religious minorities), and discussed inequality in religious education.

In reading the report, one cannot help but think of the famous biblical adage about nothing new being found under the sun. However, according to Rabbi Uri Regev, a lawyer and the head of NGO Hiddush: Freedom of Religion for Israel, “One cannot over-exaggerate the importance of this report being unique in its systematic monitoring and scope of coverage.” Regev applauded the report’s comprehensive attention to detail and its annual nature which aids in tracing “trends and progress over the course of years.”

Additionally, noted Regev, the report “reflects the US government’s strong focus on and value attached to religious freedom.”

Unfortunately, however, said Regev, the report “underrates the breaches of religious freedom on a number of issues.”

As examples, he cited the inattention paid to the lack of freedom of marriage, civil burial and the many assorted issues surrounding the Western Wall, “which are more geared against Jews than against Christians and Muslims.”

“These abuses of religious freedom are a clear indication of the wide gap between Israel and other enlightened Western democracies, such as the USA, which are considered the gold standard for religious freedom,” said Regev.

That being said, the report did touch on a series of hot button issues of concern to the American people, including the Western Wall plaza, conversion outside of the Orthodox chief rabbinate, and Jewish prayer at the Temple Mount and its restrictions for security reasons.

In a section discussing the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews are allowed to pray, the report factually stated that all faiths are permitted to pray there. It highlighted, however, that the rabbi of the Western Wall “continued to set the guidelines for religious observance mandating separation of women and men, with the women’s section being less than half the size of the men’s section, and the government continued to enforce these rules.”

A four-pronged diplomatic slam, that statement underlined the fact of separation between the sexes, the discrepancy between the sizes of the two genders’ prayer sections, the inability for pluralistic denominations to have a vote on guidelines of observance, and finally, the government of Israel’s complicity with all of the above. Four huge strikes.

Further, the report stated the prohibitions against bringing in privately owned Torah scrolls to the Western Wall plaza, and on women from “accessing the public Torah scrolls or giving priestly blessings at the site.” Again, huge problems in egalitarian, democratic eyes.


In the section on conversion, the State Department report described the trend of Modern Orthodox rabbis who have begun to set up their own conversion courts to push back against the lengthy and unwieldy process offered by the Israeli chief rabbinate.

Called Giyur Ka’halacha (or in idiomatic English, Conversion the Correct Way, by Jewish Law), the group of respected rabbis and thinkers have already converted hundreds of Israelis — many children — who were classified as “of no religion,” a growing group of some 400,000 citizens.

“A ruling by the Supreme Court on March 31 expanded immigration rights under the Law of Return to those who completed private (non-Rabbinate) Orthodox conversions in the country. The Chief Rabbinate continued not to recognize non-Orthodox converts to Judaism as Jews, although they continued to be accepted for the purpose of immigration under the Law of Return,” stated the report.

A founder of Giyur Ka’halacha, Rabbi Seth Farber, the head of NGO Itim, which aids Israelis in navigating the religious institutions, responded favorably to the report’s depiction.

“The discussion of Giyur Ka’halacha in the state department report is further recognition of the significance of this initiative on the international scene,” Farber told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

“Giyur Ka’halacha had gradually increased its client base following the Supreme Court ruling that ITIM was part of which took the monopoly of conversion recognition on Israel away from the rabbinate,” said Farber.

He noted, however that the “legal successes of 2016” have since led to proposed new restrictive legislation, such as the Conversion Bill that was brought to the Knesset and is currently shelved, “which was reactionary” and would have made the chief rabbinate the sole legal authority for Israeli conversions.

Also on the theme of conversion, the report emphasized that “in four incidents during the year, the Chief Rabbinate also refused to recognize conversions approved by the chief presiding rabbinical judge of the Rabbinical Council of America (Orthodox)” — cases which have roused American Jewish congregations.

Prayer and restrictions on the Temple Mount

Traditionally, Orthodox rabbis have been against prayer on the Temple Mount for a number of reasons, including fear of stepping where the Holy of Holies may have stood — a clear prohibition.

As recorded in the report, however, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau stated in June 2016 “he would like to see a Third Temple built on the site without demolishing Muslim structures.” Likewise, “increasing numbers of the self-identified ‘national religious’ Zionist community stated they found meaning in setting foot on the site.”

As another example of this trend of increased Jewish presence on the Temple Mount, the report cited the November 2016 creation of a Temple Mount lobby by ruling party Likud MK Yehuda Glick, who also held an annual Temple Mount conference in the Knesset.

The State Department also reported that the Waqf, the Jordanian Muslim religious authorities which maintain the Temple Mount, “continued to restrict non-Muslims from entering the Dome of the Rock shrine and the Al-Aqsa Mosque and prohibited individuals from wearing non-Muslim religious symbols on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.”

Israeli authorities also restricted movement on the Temple Mount. In addition to restricting Muslim access according to ages during heightened security situations, it “in some instances barred specific individuals from the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif site, including Jewish activists believed to have violated rules against non-Muslim prayer, Muslims believed to have acted violently against non-Muslim visitors to the site, and public figures, including members of the Knesset, whose presence authorities feared would inflame tensions.”

The issues of Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount and at the Western Wall have common threads, said Regev.

“From the perspective of religious freedom, there is a direct line connecting the Jewish aspirations to be able to pray on the Temple Mount and the Women of the Wall and non-Orthodox attempts to pray at the traditional Kotel [Western Wall] plaza, and both should fall under the protection of religious freedom,” said Regev, who in addition to his law career and heading Hiddush, is an ordained Reform rabbi and former leader in the movement.

“The difference being overweighing security considerations. Whereas the Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount is likely to result in wide spread extremist Muslim-perpetrated violence and potential escalating conflict with 200 million Muslims around the world, the non-Orthodox and women’s prayer at the Kotel is threatened by ultra-Orthodox violence and political extortion,” said Regev.

He said that while the decision not to allow Jewish worship on the Temple Mount “can be justified and upheld for security reasons, using these reasons or political extortion to prevent non-Orthodox or women’s prayer at the Kotel is a shanda [a scandal] in every respect, and should be declared illegal and unconstitutional.”

The State Department report, however, does not delve into the philosophy behind prayer restrictions. As it states dryly, “The law grants the government, not the courts, the authority to decide the scope of the right to worship at certain religious sites, and the Supreme Court has upheld this governmental authority.”