State Dept. Report on Religious Freedom in Israel Draws Criticism

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(Hadas Parush/Flash90)

A recently released report by the U.S. State Department that insinuates that policies of the Israeli government — as well statements made by individual observant Jews — somehow violated religious freedom has drawn criticism from the American Jewish community.

The Report to Congress on International Religious Freedom — known as the International Religious Freedom Report — is released annually in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. The report is intended to describe the status of religious freedom in every country, and is supposed to cover government policies violating religious belief and practices of groups, religious denominations and individuals, and U.S. policies to promote religious freedom around the world.

In the 206 reports that were released last week, the State Department wrote that “the [Israeli] government allowed both Muslims and Christians to pray at the Western Wall, but with separation of women and men, and did not implement a compromise reached with non-Orthodox Jewish activists regarding ‘egalitarian prayer,’ i.e., Reform and Conservative Jewish services… The government implemented policies based on Orthodox Jewish interpretations of religious law.”

Later in the report, it says that “According to the local press, some ultra-Orthodox groups continued to criticize Jerusalem residents who did not adhere to their strict interpretation of Orthodox Jewish law on issues including whether businesses in non-ultra-Orthodox majority neighborhoods in Jerusalem — such as a major … theater completed in West Jerusalem — could remain open on the Sabbath….”

The report also states that “Ultra-Orthodox Jews at the Western Wall continued to harass verbally visitors and Jewish worshippers who did not conform to Jewish Orthodox traditions, such as modest dress or gender segregation at the Western Wall Plaza. Members of the Jewish Conservative and Reform movements continued to criticize gender segregation and rules governing how women pray at the Western Wall.”

“The State Department is poking its head where it doesn’t belong,” Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, told Hamodia.

“The Israeli governmental actions the report decries are steps the government deems necessary or appropriate to preserve the Jewish character of Israel with respect to such matters as Shabbos, geirus, and the sanctity of the mekomos hakedoshim. It is not a legitimate exercise of American governmental authority to substitute its own judgment for that of the Israeli government on how best to accomplish that purpose,” Rabbi Zwiebel said.

“Particularly puzzling is the report’s condemnation of the acts or statements by individual Israelis who exercise their free speech rights to protest what they perceive as serious breaches of Halachah by other members of the Israeli public. There is no claim that these protests represent the view of the Israeli government, or that any unlawful activity by the protestors goes unpunished by the authorities. It is surprising that the government of the United States, which in other contexts celebrates freedom of speech as one of the fundamental values of democratic society, would be so indignant about the private expressions of individual Israelis regarding issues of religious observance,” he added.

“I find this report to be flawed, missing context and in some situations, negatively biased,” Rabbi Pesach Lerner, executive vice president emeritus of Young Israel, told Hamodia.

“There is protocol at the Western Wall, as there is protocol at other religion’s holy sites. That protocol is to be respected. Those that disrespect tradition are to be censored.

“Members of the Reform and Conservative movements represent less than 1/2 of 1 percent of the Israeli population,” Rabbi Lerner added. “No democratic country would change religious tradition when the overwhelming majority of the country would be offended by such changes.”