Home  Principles & Statements  Positions of the ACJ  Articles  DonationsAbout Us  Contact Us  Links                                         

Debate Grows Over The Status of Religious Freedom In Israel

Allan Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
July-August 1997

Israel’s founding fathers wanted a society with religious freedom for all, states Teddy Kollek, the former mayor of Jerusalem, but at the present time such freedom is under serious attack.  

Writing in The New York Times (May 4, 1997), Kollek declares that, "The founding fathers, not only Theodor Herzl but others like Chaim Weizmann, Nahum Sokolov and David Ben-Gurion, did not envision this danger. They desired or indeed thought it possible to create a Jewish state in which freedom and civil liberties would not be menaced by any form of dictatorship, least of all a religious one. But today we see a different reality, one of tensions and intolerance. A characteristic symptom of this attitude is the recent decision of the Knesset to deny the right of Conservative and Reform rabbis, wherever such rabbis may be, to perform valid conversions for those desirous of becoming Jewish. This goes against everything for which the founders of Israel struggled . . ."  

The Forward (March 28, 1997) reports that, "Lurking in the shadows of Israel’s pluralism debate is a battle between the Israeli government and evangelical Christians over a bill that would criminalize Christian proselytizing . . . As Jewish religious authorities fight over who’s a Jew, this bill has unearthed tensions between Christian Zionists who don’t proselytize, and Christian missionaries."  

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, head of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, said: "I believe that this law, as drafted, is so sweeping in its nature, as to cross over the line by actually prohibiting free speech and the free exercise of religion."  

According to The Forward, "Christians in Israel complain that the rise of Orthodox political power has already made their life more difficult and that visa requirements for missionaries and volunteers have been restricted. ‘It’s sad, because I love Israel so much, and at a time when Hamas and Arafat go hand in hand, that Israel is caving in on one of her last best friends,’ said Jan Willem Van Der Hoeven, the spokesman at the International Christian Embassy on Jerusalem."  

In a report released in July, the State Department, in its worldwide assessment of religious persecution, cites Israel’s treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Israeli police have responded with "indifference" to complaints of death threats against Jehovah’s Witnesses, the report declares. "Members of Jehovah’s Witnesses have reported being followed and have also reported death threats. Police have occasionally evinced indifference to complaints, sometimes alleging that members of Jehovah’s Witnesses proselytize without a permit (although there is no requirement or provision under Israeli law for such a permit.)"  

The report described a March 8, 1997 incident in which "a mob of over 250 haredim (ultra-conservative Orthodox Jews)" attacked a meeting hall of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Lod, "broke into the building, destroyed the interior, and burned religious literature, books, and furnishings."  

The State Department, the report says, had "expected active prosecution" of the perpetrators, rather than the warning that they received. The report also touches on the bill being considered by the Knesset that would ban all forms of proselytizing.  

In an advertisement in The Forward (May 2, 1997), The Workmen’s Circle calls for genuine religious freedom in Israel and the end to an established "synagogue." "If there were no establishment of religion in Israel -- if no single belief-group was given lawful authority," the ad declares, "and the State did not support any belief-group -- the dispute would be about ideas, not about power and money. Religious-belief and secular-belief groups would flourish as they do in every country that has separated church and state. Pluralism and tolerance, so vital to the security and future of Jews, could have a chance of emerging as cherished values."

< return to article list
© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.