Although Israel has no constitution, laws and policies generally 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 Empire and British Mandate periods, the legal system gives jurisdiction over personal status issues to certain religious communities. 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, Muslim, and Christian families may ask for some personal status cases, including alimony, child custody, and property division, to be adjudicated in civil courts, though societal pressures frequently prevent Muslim women from using this option. Jewish women often prefer the civil courts because they are considered to be fairer 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. Paternity cases among Muslim citizens are the exclusive jurisdiction of Islamic law courts. Some couples who marry in the country, including Catholics, cannot obtain 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, despite a 2013 IDI poll showing a majority of Israeli Jews supported equalizing the legal status of different denominations. 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. The 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 Knesset (parliament) passed legislation in October that would allow Jews to register their marriage outside the city or town in which they live, allowing individuals to choose the rabbi or marriage registrar where their marriage must be approved.
The Chief Rabbinate determines who is buried in Jewish state cemeteries, limiting this right to individuals considered Jewish by Orthodox standards. A law requiring the government to establish civil cemeteries has not been fully implemented, although there are 44 cemeteries that are authorized to conduct civil burials.
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 a May 2009 High Court of Justice ruling requiring it to cease discriminating against non-Orthodox conversions. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) sponsors expedited 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.
The State Prosecutor’s Office in 2012 adopted a High Court recommendation that the state pay the salaries of non-Orthodox rabbis in rural areas, however, funding for the positions continues to be debated. The Ministry of Culture and Sport agreed to budget the positions, however, Reform movement activists claim the requirements to qualify for funding, such as working full time, exclude most non-Orthodox rabbis, and that Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbis are not paid equally. On December 5, the High Court enjoined the ministry to ease the funding conditions for activities by Reform and Conservative communities. In May the Ministry of Religious Services (MRS) announced it would stop funding state-appointed neighborhood rabbis directly and instead provide financial support to communities to pay rabbis of their own choice, which would also allow non-Orthodox rabbis to receive state-funded budgets. The parameters for implementing the plan continue to be worked on by MRS.
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 Muslims and major Protestant Christian denominations, have a presence in the country, but are not recognized by the government as “religious communities.” Five religious communities have applied for official recognition but their applications have been pending for years: Ethiopian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, Evangelical Lutheran Church, Evangelical Alliance of Israel, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
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 their right to citizenship. Descendants of Jews qualify for immigration under the Law of Return regardless of their religious beliefs. The Ministry of Interior (MOI) relies on the guidance of the Jewish Agency, a non-profit, nongovernmental organization (NGO) with strong ties to the government, to determine who qualifies to immigrate as a Jew. 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 provides for the protection of holy sites of all religious groups. All holy sites also have protection under the penal law, which makes it a criminal offense to damage any holy site. While arrests are subject to judicial oversight, the government, not the courts, has the authority to decide matters relating to religious rights in holy places, and the Supreme Court has upheld that governmental authority. 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 Israeli National Police (INP) regulates traffic in and out of the site and removes non-Muslim visitors if they appear to be praying.
The Jerusalem Islamic Waqf (endowments), a Jordanian-funded and administered Islamic trust and charitable organization, manages the site and generally restricts non-Muslims from entering the Dome of the Rock shrine and al-Aqsa Mosque, a practice it started in 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. In prior years the Supreme Court repeatedly upheld a policy prohibiting women from praying at the Western Wall while wearing certain prayer shawls and/or phylacteries, or from reading aloud from Torah scrolls because this form of prayer by women violates most Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law and offends “local custom.” In April the Jerusalem district court judge upheld a court ruling refuting the policy and made it illegal to arrest or fine women for praying at the Western Wall in this manner. Women are still not permitted to bring a Torah scroll onto the plaza, and have been prevented from accessing the public Torah scrolls at the holy site. The government, however, 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. In August the Ministry of Religious Affairs created an additional temporary structure for mixed-gender prayer services south of the Mugrabi gate in an area nearby, but not abutting, the Wall.
The government provides resources to both religious and nonreligious schools. The government subsidizes 55 to75 percent of the operating costs of recognized Haredi schools, which are required to teach a corresponding percentage of the national curriculum.
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. A Haifa court has upheld the right of a minor to choose a secular education, despite his parents’ preference that he attend a religious school.
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 Christian and Muslim 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. In 2012, the High Court ruled the Tal Law unconstitutional. The policy, however, remains in effect while the Knesset considers alternative legislation that would enforce conscription to the military or national service for the Haredi community. To receive similar national benefits accorded military veterans, Arabs and Haredi Jews can enlist in a national service program run by the Ministry of Security for one or two years, as volunteers in health, education and welfare with NGOs and institutions focused on improving their local communities.
All recognized religious communities are exempt from taxation for places of worship, according to the annually drafted Arrangements Law.
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 MRS has jurisdiction over the country’s 133 Jewish religious councils, which oversee the provision of religious services for Jewish communities. The MOI 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. The law prohibits offering a material benefit as an inducement to conversion. It is also illegal to convert a person under 18 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 proselytizing as a reason to deny student, work, and religious visa extensions, as well as to deny permanent residency petitions.
The government operates a special department in the state attorney’s office for prosecution of “incitement-related” crimes and a new police unit based in Jerusalem for the investigation of nationalist crimes. Israeli law criminalizes incitement to racism, defined as “persecution, humiliation, vilification, the display of enmity or violence, or the causing of animosity” by reason of color, race, or national-ethnic origin.
While members of recognized religious communities only require approval for visas from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, visas for members of unrecognized religious communities also require MOI approval for stays longer than five years.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Rembrance Alliance, formerly theTask Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance, and Research.