Israel, West Bank and Gaza
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Because religious and national identities were often closely linked, it was often difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
Christian clergy and pilgrims continued to report instances of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem harassing or spitting on them. In one incident in June, a Catholic friar reported being assaulted in public by three men wearing kippot (yarmulkes) who spit at and verbally attacked him. When the attackers began physically assaulting the friar, bystanders intervened and forced the attackers to leave. According to the priest, police did not respond to telephone calls for assistance during the attack but recorded a complaint filed by the victim.
On November 16, an employee of the emergency medical service Magen David Adom was filmed spitting on Christian icons placed in a hallway of a building after he collected a sample for a coronavirus test. Magen David Adom dismissed the Jewish worker, who said he did it because the symbols were “idol worship.”
Yuri Logvanenko, a chef formerly employed by the Rehovot branch of the Yochanof supermarket chain, filed suit against the store after the chain demoted and then fired him after his Jewish status was questioned by a kashrut supervisor. Four days after Logvanenko started work at the branch, the store’s kashrut supervisor approached him and demanded in front of other employees that he prove his Jewish identity. His attorneys said that Logvanenko, who had worked at another Yochanof location for seven months prior to transferring to Rehovot, was “abused and harmed in his workplace” because he was born in the Soviet Union. Logvanenko stated that he felt he was the victim of “racism.”
According to press reports, on August 5, former Knesset member Moshe Feiglin posted a comment on Facebook calling the massive August 4 explosion in the port of Beirut “a gift from God,” in time for the celebration of the Jewish feast of Tu B’av. In a subsequent radio interview, Feiglin said “We are all allowed to rejoice in that it exploded in the port of Beirut and not Tel Aviv.” Observers noted that Feiglin’s comments were not representative of public and government sentiment. Many social media users described Feiglin’s comments as “hateful” and disturbing; the government worked through diplomatic channels to offer medical and humanitarian assistance to the government of Lebanon. Feiglin later removed the Facebook post. On December 30, President Reuven Rivlin reiterated that the “State of Israel will always be committed to freedom of religion.”
During the funeral of Iyad Halak, a Palestinian student who was fatally shot on May 30 by police officers, hundreds of mourners reportedly chanted “Khaybar, Khaybar, oh Jews, the army of [the Prophet] Mohammed will return,” a taunt referring to the seventh century Muslim massacre and expulsion of the Jews of Khaybar. Israeli police in Jerusalem’s Old City fatally shot Halak, who had autism, on June 30 after he allegedly failed to follow police orders to halt. Police stated they believed Halak was carrying a “suspicious object.” Defense Minister Benny Gantz expressed regret for the incident and called for a quick investigation. On October 21, DIPO issued a statement that the prosecution intended to indict, pending a hearing, a police officer suspected of the shooting on charges of reckless homicide. According to the Ministry of Justice, investigators carefully examined the circumstances of the incident and determined that Halak had not posed any danger to police and civilians who were at the scene, that the police officer discharged his weapon not in accordance with police procedures, and that the police officer had not taken proportionate alternative measures that were at his disposal.
On June 10, Women of the Wall and the IRAC filed a petition against Rabbi David Yosef of the Har Nof neighborhood of Jerusalem, demanding a disciplinary hearing following repeated statements in which he allegedly incited against and disdained Women of the Wall. The case was pending at year’s end.
According to missionary organizations, societal attitudes toward missionary activities and conversion to other religions continued to be negative. Some Jews continued to oppose missionary activity directed at Jews, saying it amounted to religious harassment, and reacted with hostility toward Jewish converts to Christianity, such as Messianic Jews.
Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that, following a 2019 complaint regarding an attack on two Jehovah’s Witnesses members during a door-to-door activity in Bat Yam, police summoned one of the members and told her that the individual who had attacked her later submitted a complaint against her for making threats and trespassing in her efforts to convert him to Christianity. According to the government, the investigation into the incident was ongoing at year’s end.
Members of the Lehava antiassimilation organization, described by press as a radical right-wing Jewish group opposing romantic relationships between Jews and non-Jews, continued to criticize or assault Arab men who were in relationships with Jewish women and to harass “mixed” couples. In a September video released online, Lehava indicated that over the previous Jewish year it had “explained to 278 Arabs, in a language they understand, the prohibition on dating Jewish women.” A trial against Lehava director Ben-Tzion Gopstein for offenses of incitement to terrorism, violence, and racism opened on June 8 and was ongoing at year’s end. Lehava and Yad L’Achim continued to stop instances of cohabitation between Jewish women and Arab men by sometimes “launching military-like rescues from ‘hostile’ Arab villages,” according to Yad L’Achim’s website.
There continued to be reports of ultra-Orthodox Jews in public areas of their neighborhoods harassing individuals who did not conform to Jewish Orthodox traditions, such as by driving on Shabbat or wearing clothing that they perceived as immodest. The harassment included verbal abuse, spitting, and throwing stones.
Tension continued between the ultra-Orthodox community and other citizens, including concerns related to service in the IDF, housing, public transportation, participation in the workforce, and adherence to COVID-19 regulations. Press and NGOs said that the COVID-19 outbreak intensified tensions between ultra-Orthodox and secular Israelis, as viral videos showing large gatherings at ultra-Orthodox weddings and funerals reinforced a stereotype that the ultra-Orthodox as a whole disregarded state authority and the public good. Many ultra-Orthodox stated they disagreed with COVID-19 restrictions that limited religious gatherings but permitted months of large demonstrations against Prime Minister Netanyahu.
On March 14, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, a major figure in the ultra-Orthodox community, ordered his followers to continue studies in their yeshivas and to continue large weddings and funerals, despite Ministry of Health orders to the contrary. In late March, Kanievsky reversed his earlier decision and called for his followers to pray alone. As a result of widespread failure to obey government directives, the ultra-Orthodox community accounted for a disproportionately high percentage of the country’s COVID-19 cases, according to the press. On April 2, the government declared Bnei Brak, one of the country’s poorest and most densely populated cities with a large ultra-Orthodox population, to be a “restricted zone.” The government subsequently ordered the IDF into the city to provide relief services and security. One government expert estimated that up to 38 percent of the city’s 200,000 ultra-Orthodox inhabitants were infected with the COVID-19 virus. The government later closed off other cities and neighborhoods because of the pandemic, many of them ultra-Orthodox.
Ultra-Orthodox communities across the country celebrated the holidays of Lag B’Omer, Sukkot, and Simhat Torah in mass gatherings, despite government restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. On October 6, Haaretz reported that the Jerusalem police allowed several ultra-Orthodox communities in the city to hold mass events as long as there would not be “public documentation” of them. In October, Haaretz published an analysis that said, “On the coronavirus map, Israel is currently divided into two countries: the ultra-Orthodox population and all the rest.” Anat Hoffman, executive director of the IRAC and one of the founders of Women of the Wall, told the UK publication the New Statesman that COVID-19 “magnifies” the already fraught relationship between the ultra-Orthodox minority and the secular majority and that the country is witnessing a “backlash” against the central role of the ultra-Orthodox minority in national politics. In the article, Hoffman said “The feeling among the seculars…is that the [country’s] lockdown is on secular activities.”
Because of COVID-19 restrictions, the Ziv Medical Center refused to hand over the remains of Druze religious leader Sheikh Abu Zain Aldin Hassan Halabi after he died of the virus there on October 30. Members of the Druze community, however, took his body from the hospital for a funeral and burial on the Golan Heights. According to press, “thousands” attended the event, which was coordinated with police and the Ministry of Health in the city of Majdal Shams, which was under lockdown due to high rates of COVID-19 infection. “Price tag” attacks by Jewish individuals and groups continued to take place during the year against individuals – particularly Arab/Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians of the occupied West Bank and their property – with the stated purpose of exacting a “price” for actions taken by the government against the attackers’ interests. On February 11, tires of 170 cars were vandalized and graffiti was sprayed on a mosque and on walls in Gush Halav, also known as Jish, that said, “Jews wake up” and “Stop intermarrying.”
“Price tag” attacks by Jewish individuals and groups continued to take place during the year against individuals – particularly Arab/Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians of the occupied West Bank and their property – with the stated purpose of exacting a “price” for actions taken by the government against the attackers’ interests. On February 11, tires of 170 cars were vandalized and graffiti was sprayed on a mosque and on walls in Gush Halav, also known as Jish, that said, “Jews wake up” and “Stop intermarrying.”
Authorities opened an investigation following a suspected arson and price tag attack against a mosque in the Beit Safafa neighborhood of Jerusalem on January 24. Press reported that the suspect left Hebrew graffiti on an outside wall of the building that appeared to be a reference to Kumi Uri, a settler outpost in which the IDF had demolished buildings earlier in the month.
The NGO Tag Meir continued to organize visits to areas where “price tag” attacks occurred and to sponsor activities promoting tolerance in response to the attacks.
Although the Chief Rabbinate and rabbis of many ultra-Orthodox denominations continued to discourage Jewish visits to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site due to the ongoing halakhic debate about whether it is permissible or forbidden for Jews to enter the Temple Mount, some Orthodox rabbis continued to say entering the site was permissible. Many among the self-identified “national religious” Zionist community stated they found meaning in visiting the site. Groups such as the Temple Institute and Yaraeh continued to call for increased Jewish access and prayer there as well as the construction of a third Jewish temple on the site. In some cases, Israeli police prevented individuals from praying and removed them; in other cases, reported by the Waqf, on social media, and by NGOs, police appeared not to notice the activity. According to local media, some Jewish groups escorted by Israeli police performed religious acts such as prayers and prostration. Some Jewish visitors publicly noted that the National Police were more permissive to them in permitting silent prayer. According to the Wadi Hilweh Information Center, visits by activists associated with the Temple Mount movement decreased to 18,500 from 30,000 in 2019, largely due to COVID-19 restrictions.
NGOs reported that some LGBTI minors who revealed their sexual orientation in religious communities faced expulsion from their homes and stigmatization by rabbis. NGOs noted reports of mental illness among the LGBTI minor community, leading some to attempt suicide. Other NGOs noted that an increasing number of rabbis, educators, and community leaders in Orthodox Jewish communities were adopting a more inclusive approach to LGBTI minors.
On February 4, then-Minister of Education Rafi Peretz announced he would grant an Israel Prize for Torah literature to Rabbi Yaacov Ariel, the former rabbi of Ramat Gan, who made public statements against LGBTI persons, including a 2014 call not to rent apartments to lesbian couples. On April 26, the Supreme Court rejected a petition filed by the Israel LGBT Taskforce, an NGO (also known as the Aguda), against the granting of the prize to Ariel, stating the case did not justify the court’s intervention. Ariel refused to retract his statements.
Several religious NGOs, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, sought to break the rabbinate’s monopoly over issues that included kashrut certificates for burial, marriage, and divorce.
According to the NGO Panim, 2,486 weddings took place outside of the rabbinate’s authority in 2019, compared with 2,610 in 2018. These included unofficial orthodox, conservative, reform, and secular ceremonies.
According to Bar Ilan University’s Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women, thousands of Jewish women were “trapped” in various stages of informal or formal get (divorce) refusals, especially in the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities. The Rackman Center stated that in some instances a woman’s husband made granting a get contingent on his wife conceding to extortionate demands, such as those relating to property ownership or child custody. One in three Jewish women who divorced faced such demands, according to the Center for Women’s Justice.
NGOs, including Mavoi Satum and Itim, promoted the use of prenuptial agreements to prevent cases of aginut (in which a woman whose husband is unwilling or unable to grant her a get). Such agreements provide financial incentives paid by a refusing spouse until the termination of the marriage.
A variety of NGOs continued to try to build understanding and create dialogue among religious groups and between religious and secular Jewish communities, including Neve Shalom-Wahat al-Salam, the Abraham Fund Initiative, Givat Haviva, the Hagar and Hand-in-Hand integrated Jewish-Arab bilingual schools, Hiddush, Israeli Religious Action Center, Mosaica, Tag Meir, and Interfaith Encounter Association (IEA). For example, IEA held 384 interfaith encounters throughout the year. The number of children studying at integrated Yad BeYad Jewish-Arab schools in the school year beginning in September was 1,800, up from 1,700 in the previous year.
Despite the labor law, some foreign domestic workers stated that some employers did not allow their domestic workers to take off their weekly day of worship.
In its annual Israel Religion and State Index poll of 800 adult Jews published in September, Hiddush found that 65 percent of respondents identified as either secular (47 percent) or “traditional-not-religious” (18 percent), with positions regarding public policy on religion and state close to the positions of secular Israelis. Of those surveyed, 83 percent supported freedom of religion and conscience, and 63 percent supported the separation of religion and state. Sixty-five percent supported equal status for the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform traditions. A large majority did not see the need for religious conversion approved by the Chief Rabbinate as a condition for the state to recognize the Judaism of new immigrants, with only 34 percent considering conversion via the Chief Rabbinate necessary, compared with 38 percent in the previous year. Thirty-six percent stated immigrants should be recognized as Jewish if they identify as such, and 30 percent stated immigrants should be recognized as Jewish if they undergo either an Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform conversion. Sixty-four percent of respondents said they opposed the participation of ultra-Orthodox parties in the government in a way that gives the ultra-Orthodox the ability to dictate government policy and legislation on matters of religion and state. Of those surveyed, 22 percent accepted the position of the ultra-Orthodox parties that yeshiva students should be exempted from military or civic service.
According to the Hiddush poll, 65 percent of the country’s adult Jewish population supported recognition by the state of freedom of choice in marriage, doing away with the rabbinate’s monopoly, and equally recognizing civil and non-Orthodox religious marriages. According to the same survey, 51 percent of the public stated that had they been allowed a choice, they would not have married in an Orthodox ceremony, compared with 35 percent who expressed the same sentiment in 2009, 39 percent in 2013, and 47 percent in 2016.
In February, the Pew Research Center published findings on attitudes towards democratic principles such as regular elections, free speech, and free civil society, as well as religious freedom, in 34 countries, based on interviews it conducted in its Spring 2019 Global Attitudes Survey. According to the findings, 77 percent of Israeli respondents considered religious freedom to be “very important,” ranking it among the highest of their priorities for democratic principles among the nine tested.
In June, the Pew Research Center released a poll completed in 2019 that stated that 48 percent of Israelis surveyed agreed with the statement that belief in God is needed to be moral while an equal number, 48 percent, disagreed. The median for the 34 countries polled showed 51 percent agreeing that a belief in God was needed to be moral, with 45 percent disagreeing.