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Israel and the Occupied Territories PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 25 November 2009 14:32
Religious Freedom Ranking:
2.5 out of 5 stars: Needs Improvement


The country has no formal Constitution, but the law states that every person is entitled to freedom of religion and conscience and that a person shall not be harmed in his occupation on account of observing the precepts of his religion. In addition, a person shall suffer no deprivation of rights, imposition of obligations or enforcement of prohibitions against him on grounds of religion.

Although the majority of Israeli Jews are not observant, Orthodox Jews control the swing vote in the Knessett, giving them considerable power. Approximately 81 percent of the citizens are ethnically Jewish. Muslims, Christians, Druze and members of other religions make up the remaining 19 percent. Each recognized religious community has legal authority over its members in matters of marriage and divorce. This results in prohibitions of marriages between Jews and Christians, to the dismay of many secular Jews.

The population of 7.4 million (including settlers living in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem), is comprised of 5.6 million Jews; 1.5 million Arab Muslims and Christians; and 320,000 "others"--mostly former Soviet Jews who immigrated under the Law of Return but did not qualify according to the Orthodox definition the government uses for civil procedures. Missionaries are allowed to evangelize in Israel, but their activities are limited. Mormons are specifically prohibited from converting Israelis to their religion by mutual agreement between the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints and the Government. A 1977 anti-proselytizing law prohibits anyone from offering or receiving material benefits as an inducement to conversion, but the law has not been applied for several years.

The Israeli Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty (Basic Law) provides for freedom of religion, and the government generally has respected this right in practice although some discrimination of non-Jews and non-Orthodox Jews does exist. Proselytizing is discouraged yet is not illegal. Orthodox Jewish groups have received  government support for their proselytizing of non-observant Jews.

Groups recognized (since the 1922 British Mandate period) include: Eastern Orthodox, Latin (Roman Catholic), Gregorian-Armenian, Armenian-Catholic, Syrian Catholic, Chaldean (Chaldean Uniate Catholic), Greek Catholic Melkite, Maronite, Syrian Orthodox, and Jewish. The Druze were recognized in 1957, the Evangelical Episcopal Church in 1970, and the Baha'i Faith in 1971. The government allows members of unrecognized religious groups to practice their religious beliefs. There are complaints by non-recognized religious groups that preference is given to recognized religious communities in obtaining visas.

The fact that the Muslim population is not defined officially as a religious community was a vestige of the Ottoman (1517 to 1917) period when Islam was the dominant religion yet this has not limited Muslims from practicing their faith. The existence of Israel's Shari'a (Islamic Law) courts is also a continuation of this Ottoman system.

Since 1967, Israel’s Supreme Court has denied freedom of worship at the Temple Mount to non-Muslims, but the government does allow limited access to the historic site to everyone regardless of religious beliefs. (The site, formerly home to the ancient Jewish Temple of Jerusalem, now houses the Al-Aksa Mosque.)

The Arrangements Law, (drafted annually to guide government spending), exempts recognized religious groups, and some non-recognized groups from paying municipal taxes for any place of worship/property. Some not-for-profit religious organizations also received tax exemptions.

There is some controversy based on different interpretations of Judaism between Orthodox and non-Orthodox groups and individuals; especially those Jews living in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Some non-Orthodox Jews and Christians experienced discrimination and harassment on the part of some ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Jews. Orthodox Jewish settlers have been reported as taking over property belonging to Muslims, but no religious house of worship has been taken over. However, there are reports of Muslim graveyards being desecrated by Jewish settlers. Conversely, Israelis are victimized by Islamic terrorism, often carried out with religious justification, to do away with Israel as a Jewish state.

Religious freedom and women: Religious tribunals (Jewish, Muslim, Druze and Christian) have exclusive jurisdiction on the annulment of marriages and personal status situations. Women within Jewish Orthodox communities have restrictions placed on most of the aspects of their lives and come under the control of their fathers or husbands. For the most part they do so willingly, but there have been some reports of oppression of women by the Orthodox community where the women suffer unwillingly and even some reports about foreign women being brought in for use as sex slaves.

Only marriages performed in Israel under the authority of the Orthodox chief rabbinate are recognized by the government. Out of country marriages between Jews of any denomination, however, are recognized. Marriages conducted outside Israel between individuals of different faiths, are not recognized.  

Religious violence: There is ongoing violence between the more extreme elements of Palestinians and the government of Israel, and between Orthodox settlers and Palestinians. The reasons are wide ranging but usually start with either the desire for a separate Palestinian state or the complete destruction of the state of Israel and establishment of a Muslim state to replace it. There are also cases of violence against Palestinians by the more extreme Orthodox Jewish settlers wanting to take the land and remove all the Arabs. These two groups are relatively small but continue to exert great influence in blocking peace negotiations.

Occupied Territories

There is no Constitution in either the West Bank or Gaza. The West Bank is considered more moderate and Muslims and Christians are free to practice their religion. Normally Jews do not reside in the areas unless there are Israeli settlements which are occupied by Jews who lay claim to land they believe belongs to Israel and the Israeli army then must protect them. Areas of the land of the West Bank have been taken over in recent time by settlers and the Israeli Government. The settlers are often quite religious and can be fanatical. East Jerusalem (Palestinian) is mostly cut off from the rest of the West Bank and sits next to the Old City where Jews, Christians and Muslims have their own areas for religious pilgrimage, and worship as well as the bazaar, schools and some homes.

Conversion from any religion to another is not illegal under Palestinian Authority law. Dating between individuals of different religions is a sensitive issue but does exist. Where most families encourage their children to marry within their own religion there are those who challenge these family ideas. Those couples who challenge this norm, particularly Palestinian Christians or Muslims who married Jews, encounter considerable societal and familial opposition.

Religious freedom and women: Without a Constitution in the West Bank and Gaza, rights of any kind for women are lacking. Some women dress in the traditional Muslim jilbab, a long jacket-like dress, with a scarf to cover the hair. In the West Bank there is less restriction on religious dress and Christian women may wear Western style dress. Any woman who is not modestly dressed can expect to be shouted at by men and perhaps pushed to cover herself.

Gaza is much more conservative and currently under restrictive control by Hamas. Christians complain of no protection from harassment. Polygamy is common, and up to four wives are allowed, but most Palestinian men have only one or two wives. Honor killings are reported to occur in both the West Bank and Gaza, when a woman or girl is believed to have brought shame to her family a male family member kills her to restore honor to the family.

Religious freedom and violence: Ongoing violence dominates the Gaza strip and the area of Israel that surrounds it. Whenever a rocket is sent into Israel by Hamas, the Israeli army usually retaliates. Hamas still refuses to accept the right of the State of Israel to exist.

In addition to the attacks on Israel by Hamas, fanatical Jewish settlers have attacked and even killed Palestinian citizens, caused damage to orchards and farms and removed some Palestinians from their land.


2010 US State Department International Religious Freedom Report on Israel

Israel - New World Encyclopedia


Last Updated on Friday, 21 October 2011 16:25