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State Department Report Criticizes Israel’s Treatment of Non-Orthodox Jews

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
March - April 2006

Israel’s ratings improved slightly in the 2005 State Department report on religious freedom, but the “Israel and Occupied Territories” chapter in the International Religious Freedom Report expands its criticisms of Israel’s treatment of both Israeli Arabs and non- Orthodox Jewish denominations. It places Israel on notice that the U.S. is monitoring its treatment of other minorities, including “messianic Jews” and faiths practiced by guest workers.  

Washington Jewish Week (Nov. 17, 2005) reports that, “Rabbi David Saperstein, who directs the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C., said his group had noted increased interest in the status of non-Orthodox Jews in Israel. ‘I’m glad that the report reflects that,’ he said. ‘There’s no country in the world where discrimination against Reform and Conservative rabbis per se is as blatant as it is in Israel.’”  

Like previous reports, the 2005 analysis says Israel’s government “discriminates against non-Jewish citizens and residents, the vast majority of whom are Arab Muslims and Christians, in the areas of employment, education, and housing.” What is new is that the treatment of non-Orthodox Jews received much greater evidence.  

Washington Jewish Week notes that, “Lengthy passages in the report expand on the alleged discrimination — the status of non- Jewish spouses of Jewish immigrants, allegations of discriminatory funding in favor of Orthodox schools and the state of efforts to legislate civil marriage. Previous reports hardly addressed such concerns.”  

Rabbi Saperstein, who said his group has raised these issues in meetings with Bush administration officials, said the expanded interest was in keeping with the administration’s recent emphasis on human rights abroad.  

“The State Department is trying to lay down more consistent standards in these areas and to hold friends and allies to the same standard as it holds other nations,” he said. “It’s hopeful that this will make Israel sit up and take notice when it sees the international community so deeply troubled.”  

Treatment of Palestinians also received close attention in the report, especially how Israel’s West Bank security barrier that has reduced terrorist attacks also has kept Palestinian Muslims and Christians from reaching religious services in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.  

John Hanford, the official who directed production of this year’s report, said: “Even some of the most open societies in the world have limited freedom of religion in ways that are difficult to justify. It is the purpose of this report to encourage abroad, just as we do here in the U.S., a careful and continual examination by every government and society as to whether each person’s right to believe as he or she chooses is fully protected or unnecessarily limited.”

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