Breaking the silence on US criticism of religious freedom in Israel
RELATED POST: Religious freedom in Israel and the “one state reality”
On October 26 2009, the US State Department issued a scathing report on religious freedom in Israel and the Occupied Territories. On November 9, The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg expressed wonder at the fact that the report had not sparked a debate in Israel and among its supporters.
I’m a critic of the Goldstone report in good measure because of its source — the hopelessly anti-Israel United Nations, and its farcical Human Rights Council. But not all Israel investigations are created equal. When the United States State Department issues a new report cataloging the Israeli government’s double-standard on the protection of holy places, I think we have to pay a bit more attention. But I haven’t seen much of a debate, or introspection, about the State Department’s findings so far.
He was right. The report barely registered a blip in Israeli news reporting and the pundits ignored it completely. This morning (November 18 2009) Naomi Chazan, President of the New Israel Fund, broke the silence with an op-ed in Yediot, Israel’s largest circulation daily. Full text below.
Freedom of religion: At the bottom of the list
The State Department’s report is just a warning light, showing sincere friendly concern. It should be viewed as a signal from a faraway friend relating the grave state we are in
Op-ed, Naomi Chazan, Yediot, November 18 2009
Recently we heard that a US State Department report that examined degrees of freedom of religion around the world put Israel at the bottom of the democratic states’ list. According to the report, Israel treats other religions and certain Jewish currents unequally and often with disrespect. According to the report, Israel has failed in every parameter of equality, liberty, and openness towards a variety of religious currents. Reality as reflected in this report requires that we boldly examine where we came from and where we are headed.
The State of Israel was established by many groups that were identified with various religious and secular currents and that often clashed over the wishes each of them had to apply their views to the entire state. Israel’s founding document, the Declaration of Independence, proclaimed pluralistic equality when it declared that the State of Israel “will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions.”
Yet, this vision had enemies from day one. Ironically, one of the declaration signatories, the late Minister David Tzvi Pinkas, fought against traffic on the Sabbath and anti-religious radicals attempted to assassinate him. This example goes to show that brute force and intolerance come from every direction and attack everyone.
Over the years, however, a certain religious current assumed hegemony over religious issues in the State of Israel, even though it does not represent the majority of its citizens and is even rejected by certain parts of the Orthodox currents. That hegemony established that there is only one way to be a Jew, marry, divorce, be buried, convert to Judaism, and give meaning to the vision of the Jewish state. This monolithic approach, which confuses unity with uniformity, drove many groups away from Jewish heritage, and is far from reflecting the spirit of the Declaration of Independence, the world Jewry, and the wide diversity of Jewish views and expressions that exist in the 21st century. This exacerbated tensions within the Israeli society and helped mutual disrespect, which has become increasingly typical of the Israeli way of life today, take deeper root. Additionally, it contributes to the further alienation between the State of Israel and the world Jews, most of whom live in pluralist societies.
It is hard to overstate the threat this poses to the State of Israel’s inner strength and stability. The State Department’s report is just a warning light, showing sincere friendly concern. It should be viewed as a signal from a faraway friend relating the grave state we are in. If we wish to continue existing as a state that belongs in the realm of open and democratic states, while offering a supportive and welcoming home for the various religious currents that exist inside it, the State of Israel must seriously address the grave consequences of the status quo in state-religion affairs that remains in effect.
The fact that a significant movement that promotes religious pluralism is evolving in the civilian society here is challenging the recurring attempts to further anchor the hegemony of the old religious establishment. Furthermore, that movement offers a vision of hope and a different kind of relations between the various religious and secular groups in the Israeli society. That pluralist, civilian movement shows its power by continuously creating various alternatives for weddings, other rituals, and Jewish identity as a whole. Expanding further, these alternatives will eventually shed a ridiculous light on the current uniform religious hegemony. Only then will Israel be taken off the list of countries where freedom of religion and conscience is restricted.