While there is no formal constitution, laws and policies protect religious freedom and, in practice, the government generally respected religious freedom. The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty protects religious freedom. The Basic Law describes the country as a “Jewish and democratic state” and references the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, which promises religious freedom and full social and political equality, regardless of religious affiliation.
Numerous Supreme Court rulings also incorporate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), including their religious freedom provisions, into the country’s body of law. Matters of personal status, however, are partly governed by the religious laws of the parties concerned, and to the extent that such law is inconsistent with the country’s obligations under the ICCPR, the government reserves the right to apply that law. Government policy continued to support the generally free practice of religion, although governmental and legal discrimination against non-Jews and non-Orthodox streams of Judaism continued, and some laws and policies promoted certain Orthodox Jewish values over those of other religious beliefs.
Israel inherited a preexisting body of law from the British Mandate (1920 to 1948) and Ottoman (1517 to 1917) periods, which remains the law, apart from the sections specifically abrogated by the Knesset’s (parliament) subsequent legislation. The existence of the Sharia (Islamic law) courts is a continuation from the late Ottoman period, when their jurisdiction was confined to issues of personal status, succession, and administration of waqfs (religious endowments). The institution of the Chief Rabbinate as the supreme authority on Halacha (Jewish law) and personal status issues also has continued since the Ottoman “millet” system, which made hierarchical religious authorities responsible for every individual within the empire. The jurisdiction of each religious community over its own adherents’ personal status issues continued through the provisions of the 1922 British Mandate that remain the applicable law today.
The law recognizes the following “religious communities”: Eastern Orthodox, Latin (Roman Catholic), Gregorian-Armenian, Armenian-Catholic, Syrian Catholic, Chaldean (Chaldean Uniate Catholic), Greek Catholic Melkite, Maronite, Syrian Orthodox, Druze, Evangelical Episcopal, and Baha’i. The fact that the Muslim population was not defined as a religious community is a vestige of the Ottoman period when Islam was the dominant religion, but this has not limited Muslims from practicing their religion. A collection of arrangements with various government agencies defines the status of several Christian denominations with representation in the country. The government allows members of unrecognized religious groups to practice their religious beliefs, but their personal status issues, including marriage, must be handled by an authority within one of the recognized communities, although the government does accept marriage registrations from the Karaites and the head of the Evangelical Alliance of Israel (formerly the United Christian Council in Israel), an umbrella organization for many Protestant churches in the country.
Major Protestant denominations that have been in the country for many years, such as the Assemblies of God, Baptists, and Lutherans, among others, are not recognized. Four religious communities that have applied for official recognition have had their applications pending for years: Ethiopian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the Evangelical Alliance of Israel. Jehovah’s Witnesses presented two applications for recognition as a religious congregation, in 2003 and 2008, which were rejected.
Under the Law of Return, the government grants immigration and residence rights to individuals who meet established criteria defining Jewish identity and also to certain family members. Eligible family members include a child or grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew, and the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew. The Law of Return established the right for every Jew to immigrate. Both physical descendants and religious converts have been excluded at times, however, based solely on the potential immigrant’s religious belief.
Those born to Israeli Jews remain citizens according to the state, regardless of their religious belief or Orthodox recognition, while non-Israeli Jewish descendants are routinely asked religious questions to determine whether they qualified to become a citizen. The question of whether one believes Jesus is the Jewish Messiah has been used to determine whether a Jew was qualified to immigrate. The Supreme Court repeatedly has upheld the right, however, of Israeli Jews who believe Jesus is the Messiah to retain their citizenship. The immigration exclusion was routinely applied only against Messianic Jews, whereas Jews who were atheists were accepted, and Jews who chose to believe in other religions, including Hindus and Buddhists, were not screened out.
Non-Orthodox converts to Judaism are entitled to the civil right of return, citizenship, and registration as Jews in the civil population registry. These individuals are not able to marry in the country, as they do not meet Orthodox standards. Ethiopian Jews, who traditionally practice some rituals that are different from those in Halacha, also have some difficulty getting their marriages and divorces registered due to Orthodox standards, although some Orthodox rabbis have registered their marriages.
While recognized religious communities only require visa approvals through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), unrecognized religious communities’ visas must be approved additionally through the Ministry of Interior (MOI) to justify stays longer than five years.
Each officially recognized religious community has legal authority over its members in matters of marriage, divorce, and burial, limiting the freedom of many individuals who may not otherwise subject themselves to the authority of those religious communities, although there are some exceptions. The Sharia courts have exclusive jurisdiction in matters of personal status concerning Muslims, although women may turn instead to civil family courts for divorces. Local tribunals do not exercise jurisdiction over personal status issues of nonrecognized religious groups. In general only recognized religious communities receive government funding for their religious services, although there are some exceptions, including for Samaritans and Karaites.
Secular courts have primacy over questions of inheritance, but by mutual agreement parties may file such cases in religious courts instead. The rabbinical courts, when exercising these powers in civil matters, apply religious law, which varies from civil law, including in matters relating to the property rights of widows and daughters. Family status matters are normally the purview of religious courts, but Jewish, Druze, and Christian families may ask for some cases, such as those concerning alimony and child custody in divorces, to be adjudicated in civil courts. Women often prefer the civil courts, as they are viewed to be more favorable to them, but are subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of the religious court if the spouse filed the divorce case there first. Since 2001 Muslims also have the right to bring matters such as alimony and property division associated with divorce to civil courts. In practice Muslims rarely choose this option and there are many social pressures preventing Muslim women from taking this route to civil courts, where the case often is adjudicated in Hebrew by a Jewish judge. Paternity cases among Muslim citizens are the exclusive jurisdiction of Islamic law courts.
No religious group possesses legal jurisdiction over financial disputes.
The High Rabbinical Court restricted some individuals’ conversions to Judaism. Following Supreme Court rulings since 2002, the government registers certificates of conversion to Judaism performed in the country and abroad by Reform and Conservative rabbis. However, a petition is pending in a Supreme Court decision regarding the entitlement of such converts in the country to the rights granted under the Law of Return. Converts from abroad usually enjoyed those rights, but the MOI has added extra requirements, including a year’s active participation in the Jewish community where the conversion took place, as prerequisites for immigration. The Interior Ministry’s reliance on the Chief Rabbinate’s disapproval of some conversions performed by certain Orthodox rabbis in the United States remained a problem, and several such cases were still before the Supreme Court. However, at midyear the government agreed that the MOI would henceforth rely on the Jewish Agency rather than the Chief Rabbinate regarding Orthodox conversions from abroad.
Since personal status matters for Jews are controlled by the Chief Rabbinate, which does not recognize non-Orthodox converts to Judaism as Jews, Reform and Conservative converts in the country cannot marry or divorce in the country and cannot be buried in Jewish cemeteries; people who converted to Reform or Conservative Judaism abroad do not have any such restrictions in the country.
The government provides funds for Orthodox conversion programs but does not provide support for non-Orthodox programs. The government had not taken any steps by year’s end to implement the May 2009 High Court of Justice ruling that the government must cease discriminating against non-Orthodox conversions. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) sponsored Orthodox Jewish conversion courses for Jewish soldiers converted to non-Orthodox (and therefore unrecognized) traditions and for soldiers not recognized as Jewish by the Orthodox rabbinical authorities. Residency rights are not granted to relatives of converts to Judaism, except for children of female converts who are born after the mother’s conversion is complete.
Although not officially recognized for purposes of civil and personal status matters, groups composed of adherents of Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist streams of Judaism received a small amount of government funding and were recognized by the courts.
The government implements some policies based on Orthodox Jewish interpretations of religious law. For example the only in-country Jewish marriages the government recognizes are those performed by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, which excludes citizens without maternal Jewish lineage since such persons are not considered Jewish according to Halacha. The government does not allow civil marriages, such as secular ceremonies performed by state or municipal authorities, or marriages performed by non-Orthodox rabbis. Civil marriages, non-Orthodox marriages of Jews, or interfaith marriages must take place abroad to be recognized by the government. As a result, several hundred thousand citizens cannot marry within their own country due to either a lack of eligibility or their desire to wed outside of the rabbinic system. Jews who married in civil ceremonies or in non-Orthodox ceremonies performed abroad are able to divorce only via rabbinical courts that operated according to Halacha, or through courts abroad.
In order to marry in government-recognized ceremonies, Jews have to undergo marriage counseling administered by Orthodox religious authorities. As part of this counseling, all Jews--including the secular majority and those who practice Reform or Conservative Judaism--are taught to respect traditional Orthodox family roles.
A law passed in 2010 allows for the civil registration of couples within the country only if both partners are recognized as being “of no religion.” No person registered with the state as Jewish, Muslim, Christian, or Druze can choose to be married in a civil ceremony or marry someone “of no religion” within the country. The law does not permit persons of different faiths to marry each other within the country, so these couples must seek marriage abroad to be recognized as married by the state.
The Chief Rabbinate also determines who is buried in Jewish state cemeteries, limiting this right to individuals considered Jewish by Orthodox standards. This exclusion of persons who consider themselves Jewish, usually descendants of Jewish fathers but not Jewish mothers, has led to public criticism, especially during national tragedies, such as the December 2010 burial of a Carmel fire victim at a military cemetery. The mourning mother firmly objected, but eventually acquiesced to the Chief Rabbinate’s decision to bury her daughter in the non-Jewish section. Although Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin set a precedent in 1993 when he reversed the Chief Rabbinate’s decision to bury a soldier killed by Hamas outside the Jewish section of the military cemetery, no other government leader has overruled the Chief Rabbinate regarding Jewish burials.
Members of unrecognized religious groups also faced difficulties in obtaining marriage certifications and burial services.
Proselytizing is legal in the country and missionaries of all religious groups are allowed to proselytize all citizens. A 1977 law prohibits any person from offering material benefits as an inducement to conversion. It is also illegal to perform a conversion ceremony for persons under 18 years of age unless one parent is an adherent of the religious group seeking to convert the minor. Despite the legality of proselytism, the government has taken a number of steps that discouraged proselytizing and encouraged the popular perception that it is illegal.
The MOI has cited proselytism as a reason to deny student, work, and religious visa extensions, as well as to deny permanent residency petitions. Following protests from the Orthodox community, in 1986 The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) promised the Knesset that it would voluntarily refrain from all proselytism in conjunction with receiving a building permit for its Jerusalem Center.
The 1967 Protection of Holy Sites Law safeguards the holy sites of all religious groups, including in Jerusalem. All holy sites enjoy certain protections under the penal law, which makes it a criminal offense to damage any holy site, while historic sites are protected by the antiquities law. The government provided resources for the upkeep of holy places of all recognized religious communities, but provided significantly greater levels of government resources to Jewish holy places.
A government policy since 1967, repeatedly upheld by the Supreme Court and routinely enforced by the police citing security concerns, denies all non-Muslims opportunities to worship at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. While the government ensured limited access to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif to everyone regardless of religious beliefs, only Muslims are allowed to pray at the site, although their access has been occasionally restricted due to security concerns. Police regulated traffic in and out of the compound and removed non-Muslim visitors if they appeared to be praying. Since 2000 the Jordanian Waqf that manages the site has restricted non-Muslims from entering the Dome of the Rock shrine and Al-Aqsa Mosque. Non-Muslim religious symbols are not allowed to be worn on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.
Government authorities prohibit mixed-gender prayer services at Jewish religious sites maintained by the Chief Rabbinate in deference to the belief of most Orthodox Jews that such services violate the precepts of Judaism. At the Western Wall, men and women must use separate areas to visit and pray. According to a policy repeatedly upheld by the Supreme Court, women are not allowed to conduct prayers at the Western Wall while wearing prayer shawls and are not permitted to read from Torah scrolls because this form of prayer by women violates Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law. There is a separate prayer area along the Western Wall, south of the Mughrabi Gate where women may read the Torah and pray wearing prayer shawls.
The signs posted around the Western Wall plaza requesting gender segregation throughout the plaza, rather than just at the prayer areas, were removed in 2010. Official “modesty patrols” occasionally attempted to enforce gender separation and guarded the path designated for “men only” that was installed in 2009 opposite the Western Wall. According to the government-appointed Rabbi of the Western Wall, the path was created for those who asked to be able to get to the Western Wall plaza without having to walk through a mixed-gender area.
According to the NGO Hiddush-Religious Freedom and Equality, the country financially supported over 100,000 yeshiva (religious studies) students over the age of 18. In late 2010 an interministerial team recommended that yeshiva students meet specific requirements to receive subsidies.
By law the government subsidizes 55 to 75 percent of the expenses incurred by Haredi religious schools as long as they teach an equivalent percentage of the national curriculum, which includes non-religious subjects. However, another law exempts these schools from that requirement.
Government resources available for religious/heritage studies to Arab and non-Orthodox Jewish public schools are significantly less than those available to Orthodox Jewish public schools. Public and private Arab schools offer studies in both Islam and Christianity, but state funding for such studies is proportionately less than the funding for religious education courses in Jewish schools.
Public Hebrew-language secular schools teach Jewish history and religious texts. These classes primarily cover Jewish heritage and culture rather than religious belief. Public Arabic-speaking schools with Arab student bodies teach mandatory classes on the Qur’an and the Bible, since both Muslim and Christian Arabs attend these schools. Orthodox Jewish religious schools that are part of the public school system teach mandatory religion classes, as do independent ultra-Orthodox schools that receive significant state funding. A few independent mixed Jewish-Arab schools also exist and offer religion classes.
The government employs civilian non-Jewish clergy as chaplains at military burials when a non-Jewish soldier dies in service. The MOI provides imams to conduct funerals according to Muslim customs. All Jewish chaplains in the IDF are Orthodox.
Military service is compulsory for Jews, Druze, and the 5,000-member Circassian community (Muslims from the northwestern Caucasus region who immigrated to various points in the Ottoman-controlled Middle East in the late 19th century). Government policy, formalized and conditioned by the 2002 Tal Law, allows Haredi Jews to refuse to serve based on religious reasons. Arab citizens are exempted from compulsory service. The majority of Arab citizens choose not to serve in the military; however, some Christian and Muslim citizens, including many Bedouin, voluntarily enlist. In lieu of military service, Arab citizens and Haredi Jews can perform national service for one to two years, including for NGOs focused on improving their own communities as volunteers in the health, education, and welfare sectors. This voluntary national service confers eligibility for national benefits similar to those accorded military veterans.
All recognized religious communities are exempt from taxation for places of worship, according to the annually drafted Arrangements Law. However, in March 2010 the Knesset passed an amendment to the municipal and property tax law, which also grants synagogues exclusively a 100 percent exemption from municipal property taxes. Several social justice and civil rights organizations, including the legal defense NGO Jerusalem Institute of Justice (JIJ), submitted a petition to the High Court during the year requesting either an injunction to order local authorities to interpret the law as applying to all places of worship or a court instruction to the Knesset to amend the law by including other religious groups’ properties in the additional tax exemption.
The 1993 Fundamental Agreement ratified by the Knesset in 1994 established relations between the Holy See and the government. The subsequent 18-year-long economic negotiations between the government and the Holy See continued at year’s end. These negotiations addressed property rights and tax exemptions for Roman Catholic institutions and their access to Israeli courts.
The MOI has jurisdiction over religious matters concerning non-Jewish groups, while the Ministry of Tourism is responsible for the protection and upkeep of non-Jewish holy sites. The Ministry of Religious Affairs has jurisdiction over the country’s 133 Jewish religious councils, which oversee the provision of religious services for Jewish communities. The MOI’s Department of Non-Jewish Affairs oversees one non-Jewish religious council for the Druze. Legislation establishing religious councils does not include non-Jewish religious communities other than the Druze. The government financed approximately 40 percent of the religious councils’ budgets, and local municipalities funded the remainder.
The government funded the construction of Jewish synagogues and cemeteries. According to the government, while the state budget does not cover the costs of construction for non-Jewish places of worship, it provides some assistance for their maintenance, although at a disproportionately lower level than for synagogues.
The approximately 60,000 Bedouin living in unrecognized villages were unable to build or legally maintain mosques as a result of longstanding government policy to deny ownership claims, building requests, and municipal services in unrecognized, illegally established Bedouin communities. Mosques existed in unrecognized Bedouin communities, but, as with homes and other community structures, the government considered them illegal and therefore subject to demolition.
In October 2008, the High Court ruled that the Simon Wiesenthal Center could continue construction at a site in Jerusalem despite the objections of several Muslim organizations, which argued that it was located on part of the Mamilla Cemetery. Supporters of the U.S.-based center had cited an 1894 ruling by the Islamic Law court, which stated that the cemetery was no longer sacred because it was abandoned. The High Court explained in its ruling that the construction site had served as a municipal parking lot for almost 50 years without a single complaint leveled against such use, and Islamic authorities in 1929 had allowed construction in other parts of the abandoned cemetery. Some Islamic groups continued to object to the project on religious grounds during the year.
Identification cards issued before 2007 distinguished between Jews and non-Jews by the differing dates printed on identification cards using either the Gregorian calendar with roman numerals for non-Jews or the Hebrew calendar with Hebrew numerals for Jewish citizens. Documents issued after 2007 carry both dates.
The government observes the following religious holidays as national holidays: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Simhat Torah, Passover, and Shavuot. Jewish holidays and the Sabbath are officially established as days of rest, and non-Jews have the right to observe their own Sabbath and holidays as days of rest from work. Arab municipalities often recognize Christian and Muslim holidays. The law prohibits employers from refusing to hire or from firing employees who observed a different day of rest for religious observance, and employers cannot according to the law make working on a rest day a condition of employment. The Ministry of Labor and Social Services issued permits for exceptions enabling essential workers to work on their days of rest. The law gives municipalities the authority to order the opening or closing of businesses on the Sabbath.