Although there is no constitution, laws and policies provide for religious freedom, and the government generally respected this right in practice. The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty protects freedom to practice religious beliefs, and its rulings incorporate the religious freedom provisions of international human rights agreements into the country’s body of law. 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 freedom of religion and conscience and full social and political equality, regardless of religious affiliation. Government policy continues to support the generally free practice of religion, although governmental and legal discrimination against non-Jews and non-Orthodox streams of Judaism continues.
Under laws inherited from the Ottoman and British Mandate periods, the legal system gives jurisdiction over personal status issues to each religious community. Under this system, each officially recognized religious community operates religious courts and has legal authority over its members in matters of marriage, divorce, and burial. Jewish, Druze, and Christian families may ask for some personal status cases, including alimony and child custody, to be adjudicated in civil courts. Jewish women often prefer the civil courts because they are considered to be more fair to women. However, in cases of divorce, Jewish women are subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of the rabbinical courts if their spouses file the case there first. Since 2001 Muslim women also may file cases related to custody, alimony, or property division associated with divorce in civil courts. In practice, however, societal pressures frequently prevent Muslim women from using this option. Paternity cases among Muslim citizens are the exclusive jurisdiction of Islamic law courts. Some couples who marry in the country, including Catholics, cannot get a divorce unless they change their religious affiliation to a different religious authority that authorizes divorces.
Members of unrecognized religious groups may practice their beliefs. There is no civil right to marry or divorce in the country for members of unrecognized religious communities, but an authority within one of the recognized religious communities can handle their personal status issues, including marriage, if the authority agrees.
Secular courts have primary jurisdiction over questions of inheritance, but parties may file such cases in religious courts by mutual agreement. Decisions by these bodies are subject to Supreme Court review. The rabbinical courts, when exercising their power in civil matters, apply religious law, which varies from civil law, including in matters relating to the property rights of widows and daughters.
The government implements some policies based on Orthodox Jewish interpretations of religious law. This system limits the personal freedom of individuals who otherwise would not subject themselves to the authority of a religious community. For example, the only in-country Jewish marriages the government recognizes are those the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate performs, which excludes citizens without maternal Jewish lineage since such persons are not considered Jewish according to Halacha (Jewish law). Since the state does not permit civil marriages, interfaith marriages, or marriages performed by non-Orthodox rabbis or unrecognized religious authorities, many marriages must take place outside the country in order to be legally recognized. This provision restricts the ability of individuals to choose their own religious authorities and prevents several hundred thousand Israeli citizens from marrying within the country. A 2010 law allows for civil registration of married couples only if both partners are recognized as being of “no religion,” which applies to a few dozen marriages each year.
To marry in government-recognized ceremonies, Jews must undergo marriage counseling from Orthodox religious authorities. As part of this counseling, all Jews--including the majority who do not define themselves as Orthodox or religious and those who practice Reform or Conservative Judaism--are taught to respect traditional Orthodox family roles.
The Chief Rabbinate determines who is buried in Jewish state cemeteries, limiting this right to individuals considered Jewish by Orthodox standards.
The Chief Rabbinate determines the legal validity of conversions to Judaism within the country under Orthodox rabbinic law. The Chief Rabbinate does not recognize non-Orthodox converts to Judaism as Jews and, as such, Reform and Conservative converts cannot marry or divorce in the country or 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 funding for Orthodox conversion programs but does not support non-Orthodox programs. The government has not implemented the May 2009 High Court of Justice ruling requiring it to cease discriminating against non-Orthodox conversions. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) sponsors Orthodox Jewish conversion courses for Jewish soldiers who are not recognized as Jewish by the Orthodox rabbinical authorities.
Relatives of Jewish converts cannot receive residency rights, except for the children of female converts born after the mother’s conversion is complete.
In response to a 2005 petition by the Reform and Conservative movements, the State Prosecutor’s Office announced on May 30 that the state will recognize Conservative and Reform rabbis in rural communities and provide them with the same funding as Orthodox rabbis. However, the Ministry of Religious Services refuses to pay the salaries of the non-Orthodox rabbis. The Ministry of Culture and Sport is looking for a way to do so instead. The Chief Rabbinate opposes granting state recognition to non-Orthodox rabbis.
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 Bahai. Other religious communities, including major Protestant Christian denominations, have a presence in the country, but are not recognized by the government as “religious communities.” The fact that the Muslim population is not defined as a religious community is a vestige of the Ottoman period when Islam was the dominant religion, but does not prevent Muslims from practicing their religion. Four religious communities have applied for official recognition but their applications have been pending for years: Ethiopian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the Evangelical Alliance of Israel.
The Law of Return provides the right for any Jew, or any child or grandchild of a Jew, to immigrate to Israel from a foreign country with his or her spouse and children. Prospective immigrants routinely face questioning about their religious beliefs to determine their qualifications for citizenship. While Jews who are atheists or who state their adherence to other religions are conferred immigration benefits, Messianic Jews are routinely excluded, despite the Supreme Court repeatedly upholding the right of Israeli Jews who believe Jesus is the Messiah to retain citizenship. Descendants of Jews qualify for immigration under the Law of Return regardless of their religious beliefs. Following a 2011 government decision, the Ministry of Interior (MOI) now relies on the Jewish Agency’s guidance on who qualifies to immigrate as a Jew, rather than on the Chief Rabbinate. Non-Orthodox converts to Judaism are entitled to the civil right of return, citizenship, and registration as Jews in the civil population registry.
The 1967 Protection of Holy Sites Law protects the holy sites of all religious groups. All holy sites also enjoy protection under the penal law, which makes it a criminal offense to damage any holy site. Historic sites also are protected by the antiquities law. The government provides some resources for the upkeep of holy places of Muslims and all recognized religious communities, but provides significantly greater levels of government resources to Jewish holy places. The government also funds construction of Jewish synagogues and cemeteries.
A government policy since 1967, repeatedly upheld by the Supreme Court and routinely enforced by the police, who cite security concerns, denies non-Muslim worship and prayer at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. While the government ensures limited access to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif to everyone regardless of religious belief, only Muslims are allowed to pray at the site, although their access is occasionally restricted due to security concerns. The Israel National Police regulates traffic in and out of the compound and removes non-Muslim visitors if they appear to be praying.
The Jordanian-controlled Jerusalem Islamic Waqf that manages the site generally restricts non-Muslims from entering the Dome of the Rock shrine and Al-Aqsa Mosque, a practice it started in the year 2000. The Waqf does not allow non-Muslim religious symbols to be worn on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.
The Rabbi of the Western Wall, appointed by the prime minister and chief rabbis, sets the guidelines for religious observance at the Western Wall, including the strict separation of women and men. Government authorities prohibit mixed-gender prayer services at the Western Wall in deference to the belief of Orthodox Jews that such services violate Jewish religious law. According to a policy the Supreme Court repeatedly upheld, women are not allowed to pray at the Western Wall while wearing certain prayer shawls and are not permitted to read aloud from Torah scrolls because this form of prayer by women violates most Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law. Doing so is punishable under Israeli law by up to 12 months in prison or a fine of 500 NIS ($135). The court allows women and egalitarian prayer groups to hold worship services, read the Torah, and wear prayer shawls at an area south of the Mughrabi Gate adjacent to the Western Wall that the Antiquities Authority administers.
The High Court ruled in 2010 that the segregation of men and women on some public streets and sidewalks in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Mea She’arim in Jerusalem is illegal. The High Court upheld its decision this year, as local authorities attempted to give permission to erect barriers for such segregation.
Similarly, a January 2011 Supreme Court ruling found that gender segregation on public buses could not be imposed or ordered but could occur only on a voluntary basis.
The government provides resources to both religious and nonreligious schools. By law the government subsidizes 55 to 75 percent of the expenses Haredi religious schools incur if they teach an equivalent percentage of the national curriculum, which includes nonreligious subjects. However, another law exempts these schools from that requirement.
Government resources available for religious or 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 Quran and the Bible to both Muslim and Christian Arab students. 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 migrated in the late 19th century). Arab citizens are exempt from compulsory service. Although the majority of Arab citizens choose not to serve in the military, some Christian and Muslim citizens, including many Bedouins, voluntarily enlist. Government policy, formalized and conditioned by the 2002 Tal Law, allows Haredi Jews to refuse to serve for religious reasons. On February 21, the High Court ruled the Tal Law unconstitutional. However, since no alternative legislation has been passed, the policy remains de facto in effect. To receive similar national benefits accorded military veterans, Arabs and Haredi Jews can perform national service for one or two years, including for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and institutions focused on improving their own local communities as volunteers in the health, education, and welfare sectors.
All recognized religious communities are exempt from taxation for places of worship, according to the annually drafted Arrangements Law. In August, following a petition from the Jerusalem Institute of Justice (JIJ), the Knesset amended the municipal and property tax law to grant a 100 percent exemption to all religious institutions that do not use their space for commercial purposes, just as it had done solely for synagogues in 2010.
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 finances approximately 40 percent of the religious councils’ budgets, and local municipalities fund the remainder.
Proselytizing is legal for all religious groups. A 1977 law prohibits offering a material benefit as an inducement to conversion. It is also illegal to convert a person 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 generally discourages proselytizing and encourages the popular perception that it is illegal. The MOI occasionally cites proselytism as a reason to deny student, work, and religious visa extensions, as well as to deny permanent residency petitions.
While members of recognized religious communities only require approval for visas from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), visas for members of unrecognized religious communities also require MOI approval for stays longer than five years, restricting the ability of some religious communities to provide consistent leadership within the country.
The government is a member of the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance, and Research.
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 official 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 observe a different day of rest for religious observance, and employers cannot make working on a rest day a condition of employment. The Ministry of Labor and Social Services issues 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 Jewish Sabbath.