Restriction of Religion?

Last week saw the release of a Pew Research Center report about global restrictions on religion that yielded headlines like “Israel Has Almost as Many Religious Restrictions as Iran,” and summations like “Israel was [in 2017] one of the top 20 most religiously restrictive countries in the world” with the sixth-highest level of “interreligious tension and violence.”

While the bulk of the report focused on discrimination against and persecution of particular religious groups in a multitude of countries, with Jews the prominent targets in many of them, the report rated Israel “high” with regard to “governmental restrictions,” the eleventh-highest ranking in the “high” category, after countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait; more than two dozen, including China and Iran, dominated the “very high” one.

A “very high” rating, though, was bestowed on Israel when it came to “social hostilities,” placing the country after only seven others, like India, Iraq and Pakistan.

A naïve reader might have been led by the report (or by reports about the report) to imagine religious groups shooting it out on the streets of Yerushalayim, repression of Muslim or Christian citizens in Tel Aviv establishments or the jailing and torture of people for practicing their faiths.

But the sort of outrages the Pew report cited regarding Israel, of course, included no such things. Because they do not happen in Israel.

Instead, in a summary explaining the sort of incidents whose numbers were dutifully crunched by the researchers, we find the contention that, “In Israel, drivers who operated cars near ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods on the Sabbath reported incidents of harassment, including name-calling and spitting, by ultra-Orthodox residents.”

Earlier in that same paragraph are reports of Taliban killing Afghans for their teaching of “un-Islamic” messages, and threats by some Algerian Muslims to pour acid on the faces of women they consider immodestly dressed. Quite a striking contrast.

Elsewhere in the report there is reference to governmental deference “in some way to religious authorities or doctrines on legal issues,” in Israel, as among “all countries in the region.”

Statisticians counting and cataloguing incidents of wildly different sorts of harassment and religious impositions might be forgiven for not seeing the larger forest for the data-laden trees. As social scientists, they may be singularly focused on categories and numbers.

But no one who is aware of the nature of true religious persecution across the globe, and of the liberal democracy that is Israel, could ever make the mistake of juxtaposing some of its Jewish citizens’ behavior, even uncouth behavior, with that of murderers, torturers and acid-throwers.

Or conflate repressive Islamist theocracies with a country that was founded as a Jewish State and seeks to maintain a single Jewish people by honoring, to a degree, the tenets of Judaism.

While rude behavior isn’t to be condoned, it is well known in Israel that certain neighborhoods populated exclusively by chareidi Jews expect those who don’t honor Shabbos to refrain from driving through their quiet streets, often filled with pedestrians enjoying Shabbos strolls. And it is not uncommon for some drivers to find amusement in goading local residents by disturbing their Sabbath quiet.

The reaction of some hotheads to such provocations may be ill-mannered, but it is hardly the stuff of religious hostility. A better argument might be made for applying that description to those who seek to disturb those neighborhoods’ Shabbos peacefulness. How, after all, would most reasonable people regard someone who enters an establishment or public place where prominent “No Smoking” signs are displayed and proceeds to light up a cigarette?

The more important allegation against Israel, though, is its respect for “religious authorities or doctrines.” That would seem to refer to the state’s deference to the official Rabbinate with regard to personal status issues, like conversion, marriage and divorce. Far from some curbing of religious expression, that recognition of the role of halachah in such issues is nothing less than the preservation of a single Jewish people in Israel.

A multitude of “Judaisms” in Israel would be a recipe for disaster, as it would yield several discrete “Jewish peoples” in the land —with various non-halachah-respecting Jewish movements each claiming authority to decide personal status matters.

Only a single set of standards can preserve a single Jewish people in Israel, and yield a society in which every Jewish citizen can be assured of the personal statuses of his fellow Jewish citizens. And the only such set of standards is the one bequeathed to all Jews, halachah.

That’s not “religious restriction.” It’s religious preservation.