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US Report Criticizes Israel's Jewish Character

An anti-missionary group in Israel accuses the State Department of issuing a report critical of Israel's Jewish nature.
By Hillel Fendel
First Publish: 11/2/2009, 2:35 PM / Last Update: 11/2/2009, 2:51 PM

In its 2009 International Religious Freedoms Report, the U.S. State Department accuses Israel of “governmental and legal discrimination against non-Jews and non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.” The JewishIsrael organization, in its review of the document, calls it a “protracted denunciation against Israel’s Jewish character.”

The State Department report, released last week, analyzes religious freedoms in many countries of the world, and its section on Israel is entitled Israel and the Occupied Territories; the text explains that “Occupied Territories” includes “areas subject to the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority.”

JewishIsrael is an interactive internet portal that “provides a platform for ongoing monitoring and pro-active responses to aggressive missionary campaigns now targeting Jews for conversion in the Jewish State.”

“A disproportionate amount of the [State Department] report,” JewishIsrael notes, “is dedicated to depicting Torah traditions and Orthodox Judaism as oppressive, and to reporting on Israel’s ‘growing’ but ‘harassed’ community of apostate Jews and Christian missionaries.”

The report emphasizes, “Proselytizing is legal in the country and missionaries of all religious groups are allowed to proselytize all citizens.” It then criticizes Israeli “society” by reporting, “Society's attitudes toward missionary activities and conversion generally were negative. Most Jews were opposed to missionary activity directed at Jews and some were hostile to Jewish converts to Christianity.” Though this sentence merely describes the natural attitude of Jews living in the Jewish State after centuries of religious persecution, the implication is one of criticism.

The report notes that 56 percent of the public describes itself as traditional or religious, and that most of the remainder also “observe some Jewish traditions.” Despite this, it also includes the following statements of criticism:

  • “The Government implements some policies based on Orthodox Jewish interpretations of religious law which thereby discriminates against citizens adhering to other religious groups.”
  • “The Orthodox Jewish establishment also determines who is buried in Jewish state cemeteries, limiting this right to individuals considered Jewish by Orthodox standards.”
  • “Jews in most professions were prohibited from working on the Sabbath unless granted a special permit by the Ministry of Industry, Trade, and Labor.”
  • “In order to marry in government-recognized ceremonies, Jews had to undergo marriage counseling administered by the Orthodox religious authorities.”
  • “The Interior Ministry distinguishes between Jews and non-Jews on identification cards by printing the birth date of Jews in Hebrew letters according to the Jewish calendar while listing that of others according to the Gregorian calendar.”
Critical of Western Wall Prayers
The report is critical of prayer customs at the Western Wall, second in Jewish sanctity only to the Temple Mount just above it. The report states:

“Governmental authorities prohibit mixed gender prayer services at religious sites in deference to the belief of most Orthodox Jews that such services violate the precepts of Judaism. At the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism [sic], men and women must use separate areas to visit and pray. Women also are not allowed to conduct prayers at the Western Wall while wearing prayer shawls, which are typically worn by Jewish men, and are not permitted to read from Torah scrolls.”

The report quoted that Jerusalem Institute of Justice (JIJ) as “alleg[ing] that the Interior Ministry refused to process immigration applications from persons entitled to citizenship under the Law of Return if it was determined such persons held Christian or Messianic Jewish religious beliefs.”

According to the State Department, the JIJ filed a petition to Israel’s High Court in May of this year on behalf of three Messianic Jews whose application for immigration was blocked by the Ministry of Interior. They cited an April 2008 High Court ruling according to which a person eligible to immigrate under the Law of Return could not be denied immigration rights on the basis of his identification as a Messianic Jew. “The case was ongoing at the end of the reporting period,” the report noted.

Noting that “most Jews were opposed to missionary activity directed at Jews,” the report still had this to say about grass-roots counter-missionary efforts in Israel:

“The Messianic Jewish and Jehovah's Witnesses communities, among others, accused groups such as Yad L'Achim and Lev L'Achim, and Jewish religious organizations opposed to missionary activity, of harassing and occasionally assaulting their members. According to Yad L'Achim's annual report for 2008, quoted in the newspaper Yom L'Yom, the organization ‘saved 174 souls from the clutches of the [Messianic and evangelical] mission" during the year.’ The organization's semi-clandestine Counter-Missionary Department, headed by Rabbi Alex Artovski, also claimed to have dozens of informants and infiltrators in the Government and in Christian or Messianic Jewish congregations, enabling the organization to force the closure of 18 religious meeting places and expel 12 ‘top-ranking’ missionaries from the country during 2008.”

Agudath Israel: Israel is True to Its Foundational Ideal
Agudath Israel of America stated, “Criticism of Israel for being true to its foundational ideal is ill-conceived.” The organization issued the following statement in response to the report: “Much of the criticism of Israel in the [report] is misplaced. The United States is rightly proud of its tradition as a republic that embraces no official religion. But numerous other countries, with equal pride, define themselves as Muslim or Christian. One country was created as a Jewish state. Israel’s choice of timeless Jewish tradition in the public realm and with regard to issues of personal status requires no apology. Criticism of Israel for being true to its foundational ideal is ill-conceived.”              

For its part, the JewishIsrael organization concludes that the State Department’s report is a “clear case of Judeo-Christian tolerance and values becoming tyranny.  In a sort of ‘clash of civilizations,’ Jewish heritage and tradition has been pitted against American-style Freedom of Religion and Democracy. The bitter irony is that it was Orthodox Jew Michael Horowitz of the Hudson Institute who in the mid-1990’s, teamed up with evangelicals and spearheaded the Congressional International Religious Freedoms Act of 1998 which would result in the current State Department reports which are now challenging Israel’s right to be a Jewish nation. That this law and subsequent reports would be used to defend missionary activity in Israel, promote ‘messianic’ Christianity as Judaism, and pressure Israel into withdrawing counter-missionary legislation, was written on the wall early on, and in a number of publications.”