Israel pushes back on US report spotlighting religious freedom woes

Foreign Ministry official admits Washington ‘doesn’t always get it completely right,’ concedes ‘challenges’ with Jewish denominations, ‘significant hiccups’ vis-a-vis Christians

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Members of the Women of the Wall movement hold monthly prayers as thousands of ultra-Orthodox women protest against them at the Western Wall in Jerusalem Old City, March 8, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Members of the Women of the Wall movement hold monthly prayers as thousands of ultra-Orthodox women protest against them at the Western Wall in Jerusalem Old City, March 8, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

A Foreign Ministry official on Monday pooh-poohed an annual US State Department report on religious freedom in Israel, in a gentle rebuke of Washington’s assessment of the Jewish state’s policies in 2018 governing its Jewish majority and Christian, Muslim, Druze and other minorities.

The State Department report “doesn’t always get it completely right because the US system and the Israeli system are so different,” said the Foreign Ministry’s Akiva Tor on Monday, addressing a round-table discussion on the report hosted by the Israel Democracy Institute think tank and attended by the US embassy’s Curtis Ried.

Tor, however, later expressed satisfaction with the document and Israel’s efforts to influence it.

The State Department report on freedom of religion around the world, released on June 21, is a roundup of government policies impinging on religious freedoms in the previous year. The informational summary on Israel, with its dozens of examples, implicitly criticizes the state’s handling of the issue, though it refrains from outright condemnation.

The examples in the report include the Chief Rabbinate’s exclusive control over marriage, divorce, and burials for Jews, and the Orthodox prayer arrangements at the main Western Wall plaza; the status quo arrangement on the Temple Mount and Israeli security measures at the holy site in response to violence, which were accused of hindering Muslim worship; and alleged police violence against Christian leaders and selective taxation of churches.

Protesters demonstrate outside the closed doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City on February 27, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Because religious and national identities were often closely linked, it was often difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity,” the report concedes, including so-called price tag attacks against Palestinians, the ultra-Orthodox anti-IDF enlistment rallies, an ongoing land dispute between Jewish and Bedouin residents of the Negev, and denial of Israeli residency status to the spouses of non-Jewish Iranians, Iraqis, Syrians, Lebanese, and West Bank and Gazan Palestinians, as examples under the umbrella of religious freedom.

In its section on West Bank and Gaza, the State Department incorporated the PA’s payments to prisoners, including terrorists and their families; PA arrests of Palestinians who sell land to Israelis; the glorification of violence on Fatah and Hamas channels, as well as restrictions on Gazans by its Islamist rulers, under the banner of religious freedom.

Muslim worshipers pray in the al-Aqsa Mosque compound at Jerusalem’s Temple Mount on May 10, 2019 on the first Friday prayers of the holy fasting month of Ramadan. (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

Tor claimed the report on Israel was internally contradictory because the US wanted ultra-Orthodox protesters to both be protected — as when they demonstrate against the IDF draft — and quashed — as when they try to keep pluralistic prayer services from going forward at the Western Wall.

“If you think about it, it’s impossible to meet what you’re asking in the report… because we have a contradiction here, it goes to the question of what is freedom of religion… That the report does not address truly. We have to answer both sides, without asking what is freedom of religion? What does that mean for the US government?” he said.

A March 2019 demonstration in Jerusalem against the forced enlistment of an ultra-Orthodox soldier. (Noam Rivkin/Flash90)

Addressing the report’s section on Christians in Israel — which included claims of excessive police violence against Egyptian and Coptic monks in June and October 2018 and complaints that anti-Christian acts of vandalism were not properly investigated by the authorities — Tor acknowledged “significant hiccups” in Israel’s treatment of the minority.

Christians across the Middle East are “in deep constriction and demographic decline” but “the situation in Israel is much different,” he said, noting the community’s 1.9% growth in the Jewish state as it disappears from much of the Middle East.

“It’s true this is under the average growth; nevertheless, unlike the rest of our region, it is growth,” he continued. “Despite significant hiccups here and there, which are noted in the report, Christianity… is doing well in Israel. ”

Israel Police officers restrain a Coptic cleric during a protest against safety maintenance work at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem, October 24, 2018. (Patriarchate of the Orthodox Copts in Jerusalem/Facebook)

“I believe that they are feeling relatively well under the Israeli system,” he said.

Tor also defended Israel’s safeguarding of Muslim religious rights, citing the 1967 status quo arrangements on the flashpoint Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism and third-holiest in Islam, where non-Muslims may visit but not pray.

The US State Department report outlined Israeli security restrictions imposed at the site in the aftermath of violent clashes between worshipers and police at the compound last year and Waqf custodian protests about Israeli restrictions. It also, however, noted Jewish Temple Mount activists complaints about the existing arrangements on the holy site barring them from prayer.

A Border Police officer blocks Grand Mufti Muhammad Ahmad Hussein (L) from entering the Temple Mount compound in the Old City of Jerusalem on March 12, 2019, after it was closed when a firebomb was thrown at police officers. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

“I would venture to say that the Israeli policy on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif is an example of great tolerance and pragmatism and willingness of the Israeli democracy to rein in the rights of the majority for the very important and significant religious rights of the minority,” Tor maintained.

Pivoting to Jewish religious freedom, Tor said: “Ironically, I feel that this is where we face our greatest challenge.”

“Speaking personally for a moment, not as a government spokesman, I believe that we have a ways to go. The situation here in Israel is imperfect and will probably always be imperfect. But it is my sense that we’re on a positive trajectory.”

Speaking to The Times of Israel after the conference, Tor signaled he was satisfied overall with the US State Department document, saying “the official Israeli voice is heard in the report.”

Ried, meanwhile, was asked by the Masorti Movement leader Yitzhar Hess whether there was an attempt to bend the wording of the text in Israel’s favor, much as the State Department recently excised the term “occupied” from its descriptions of Israel’s control over the West Bank.The US embassy worker denied any change, saying the State Department labeling was based strictly on internal US guidelines.

“We come at this with a great deal of humility,” he told the conference, welcoming the criticism of the report. “We do not hold a monopoly on assessing the situation in Israel or anywhere else. We are writing about this as Americans and we welcome your feedback and… will take it into account.”

‘Direct path to hell’

The gathering at the Jerusalem-based think tank brought together prominent religious pluralism activists in Israel, who voiced both condemnation of Israeli policies and the Chief Rabbinate and cautious optimism about grassroots efforts to change the religious status quo. A sheikh from the Southern Branch of the Islamic Movement was also in attendance, though no Christian or rabbinate officials were represented.

IDI director Shuki Friedman, opening the conference, noted the discrepancy between Israel’s laws curbing religious freedoms and its open lack of enforcement, which creates pockets of religious freedom in Israeli society that are not immediately apparent from its legislation.

Others, like Women of the Wall’s Anat Hoffman, rejected this view, saying the restrictive laws and the ensuing non-enforcement is “the path to becoming a third world country” and a “direct path to hell.”

Police escort Anat Hoffman holding a Torah scroll from the Western Wall, on July 12, 2010. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“The reality is harsh and the reality is getting worse,” mused Hiddush NGO Rabbi Uri Regev on the state of religious freedom in Israel, before noting hopefully that most Israelis oppose the status quo and underlining that the issue of religion and state had become a centerpiece in the political campaigns for the September elections.

The issue of religion and state was thrown into the limelight after Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman refused to join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition in May over the ultra-Orthodox enlistment bill and the Haredi political parties’ control over religious matters, setting off an unprecedented second round of national elections in under six months.

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