Recently the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor issued its annual report on religious freedom in Israel and the occupied territories. According to the report, the “status of respect for religious freedom by the Government was unchanged during the reporting period.” While citing the Israeli government’s general respect for freedom of worship in practice, the report details many areas in which the right to freedom of religion, respected by all modern democracies, is curtailed or shortchanged by Israel’s relinquishment of civil authority to the Orthodox establishment and Muslim/Christian religious authorities.
As the leading organization committed to democracy and equality for all Israelis, and as the leading funder of progressive civil society fighting for religious pluralism, the New Israel Fund is dismayed by Israel’s lack of progress towards a truly pluralistic society. Some victories have been won, notably on behalf of agunot (“chained women” whose husbands refuse them divorce) and in terms of additional recognition for non-Orthodox streams of Judaism. But the harshening attitude of the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox establishment representing only 17% of all Israelis; the disproportionate funding of Orthodox schools and religious institutions; the difficulty of access to holy sites for Christians and Muslims; and the political stranglehold of the religious parties on all aspects of personal status issues are matters of concern for the State Department – and should concern the American Jewish community as well.
“American Jews are often the first to fight for religious freedom and the separation of religion and state in our own country,” said NIF CEO Daniel Sokatch. “We cannot have a double standard for Israel, where freedom of conscience and religion are too often sacrificed to the goals of an increasingly demanding ultra-Orthodox minority. We urge the American Jewish community to help us and the many organizations we support to work for real change in Israel.”
“The Orthodox hegemony determines that there is only one way to be Jewish, to marry, divorce, be buried, to convert, and to give meaning to the vision of the Jewish State. This monolithic approach confuses unity and uniformity and alienates many groups from the Jewish tradition,” said NIF President Naomi Chazan, an expert on religious pluralism.
“With no political solution on the horizon, the ongoing strength of the pluralistic civil society movement creates a range of alternative communities for weddings, ceremonies and an overall Jewish identity. The spread of these alternatives will eventually highlight the absurdity of the monolithic Orthodox approach. Only then will the name of Israel be omitted from the list of countries that restrict freedom of religion and conscience.”
MEDIA NOTE: To interview Daniel Sokatch, or NIF President Naomi Chazan – an expert on issues of religious pluralism – please contact Naomi Paiss at the numbers above or at [email protected]. The State Department report is available at http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2009/127349.htm.