This section includes Israel, including Jerusalem. In December 2017, the United States recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. It is the position of the United States that the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem are subject to final status negotiations between the parties. The Palestinian Authority (PA) exercises no authority over Jerusalem. In March 2019, the United States recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. A report on the West Bank and Gaza, including areas subject to the jurisdiction of the PA, is appended at the end of this report.
The country’s laws and Supreme Court rulings protect the freedoms of conscience, faith, religion, and worship, regardless of an individual’s religious affiliation, and the 1992 “Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty” protects additional individual rights. Citing a need to anchor the country’s Jewish character in a basic law, on June 19, the Knesset passed the “Basic Law: Israel – The Nation State of the Jewish People.” According to the government, the “law determines, among other things, that the Land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people; the State of Israel is the nation state of the Jewish People, in which it realizes its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination; and exercising the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish People.” Druze leaders, other non-Jewish minorities, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) criticized the new law for not mentioning the principle of equality to prevent harm to the rights of minorities. Supporters said it was necessary to balance the 1992 basic law and restate the country’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state, noting the Supreme Court had already interpreted the 1992 law as mandating equality. The government continued to control access to religious sites, including the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. Some Members of the Knesset (MKs) and civil society organizations called for reversing the practice of banning non-Muslim prayer at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif (the foundation of the first and second Jewish temples) and the Haram al-Sharif (site containing the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque), based on post-1967 status quo understandings. Police closed the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif for several hours on July 27, following clashes with Muslim protesters. The government permitted persons of all faiths to pray individually and quietly at the main Western Wall plaza in separate gender sections, and Jewish men to conduct Orthodox Jewish prayer in groups. The government continued, however, to enforce a prohibition on performance of “a religious ceremony that is not in accordance with the customs of the place, which harms the feelings of the public towards the place,” which authorities interpreted to include mixed gender Jewish prayer services and other ceremonies that did not conform to Orthodox Judaism. The government continued to implement policies based on Orthodox Jewish interpretations of religious law. Following an appeal by the State Attorney’s office, the Supreme Court added 18 months to a four-year sentence for Yinon Reuveni, who vandalized a church in Tabgha in 2015. In June police officers injured an Ethiopian monk while evicting him and other monks from their church in Jerusalem, and in October police arrested a Coptic monk and removed others from the Deir al-Sultan monastery on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem after they refused to allow the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) to enter and perform restoration work. Some minority religious groups complained of what they said was lack of police interest in investigating attacks on members of their communities. The government maintained its policy of not accepting new applications for official recognition from religious groups, but members of nonrecognized religious groups remained free to practice their religion. Tension continued between the ultra-Orthodox community, police, and other Israelis, particularly related to service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), resulting in clashes such as those on March 22 between ultra-Orthodox protesters and police. On December 2, the Supreme Court granted the Knesset (parliament) an extension into 2019 to pass legislation regulating ultra-Orthodox military service.
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. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported in February an unknown man pepper-sprayed two Jehovah’s Witnesses in Ashdod. According to the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, in October vandals damaged tombs and broke crosses at the cemetery of the Salesian Monastery at Beit Jimal near Beit Shemesh, the third attack on the monastery in three years. Following the attack, the Israeli government offered to pay for repairs.
Visiting high-level U.S. government officials, including the Vice President, met with government officials, religious groups, and civil society leaders to stress the importance of tolerance and dialogue and ways to reduce religiously motivated violence. Senior U.S. officials spoke publicly about the importance of maintaining the status quo at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. In meetings with government officials and public speeches, embassy officers stressed the importance of religious freedom and respect for all religious groups. Embassy-supported initiatives focused on interreligious dialogue and community development and advocated for a shared society for Jewish and Arab populations. Embassy officials participated in religious events organized by Jewish, Muslim, Druze, Christian, and Baha’i groups to show U.S. support for religious pluralism.
On July 27, Muslim protestors threw rocks and fireworks at Israeli police officers near the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. According to the government, violent acts and danger to Israeli security forces forced police to “use appropriate means to scatter the riots” and keep the peace and the public safety. Police closed the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif for several hours. These clashes led to the arrest of more than 20 individuals and injuries to four police officers, according to media reports.
Following an investigation for more than one year, State Attorney Shai Nitzan announced on May 1 he was closing, without charges, the government’s investigation into a January 2017 incident in which a police officer and a Muslim citizen died during a police action to demolish homes in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran. Nitzan wrote he decided not to bring criminal charges against police officers after concluding police shot Abu al-Qian because they feared for their lives; however, he recommended disciplinary action against some officers due to “professional mistakes,” according to media reports. In votes on May 9 and June 13, the Knesset rejected a proposal by MK Taleb Abu Arar, one of three Bedouins in the Knesset, to establish a Knesset inquiry into the events and all subsequent investigations leading up to Nitzan’s decision. The Arab legal rights organization Adalah stated the decision was evidence of “whitewashing” and that the government treated Arab citizens’ lives as unequal to those of Jewish citizens.
On August 16, following an appeal by the State Attorney’s office, the Supreme Court added 18 months to a four-year sentence for Yinon Reuveni, who burned and vandalized a large section of the Church of the Multiplication in Tabgha in 2015.
On April 4 in Jerusalem, two police officers reportedly hit an ultra-Orthodox man with a mental disability on the head after he briefly stopped in the road and waved his hands while walking with a group of ultra-Orthodox protesters toward a demonstration, according to the NGO Public Committee Against Torture in Israel.
On November 22, the Jerusalem District Court acquitted Jerusalem police officer Gil Zaken of charges he choked and hit in the head an ultra-Orthodox demonstrator in 2016.
Christian clergy in Jerusalem said police officers treated them with unnecessary force on two occasions. First, in June an Ethiopian monk sustained injuries from police officers when they were they evicting him and other monks from their church. According to media reports, police had suspected the monks of trespassing because they did not provide identification cards. Second, on October 24, police physically removed several Coptic monks from outside a chapel in the Deir al-Sultan monastery on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, arresting one of them when the monks refused to allow the IAA to enter and perform restoration work. The government stated the injured monk’s refusal to obey police instructions left police with no choice but to remove him, using necessary and appropriate physical force. Ownership of the monastery remained the subject of an ongoing dispute between the Coptic and Ethiopian churches.
On August 13, police arrested a senior official in the Chief Rabbinate for allegedly accepting a bribe to expedite issuance of kashrut certificates. A 2017 report from the state comptroller called for comprehensive reform of the kashrut regulation system and criticized the MRS, Chief Rabbinate, and local religious councils for structural failures that enabled fraud, waste, poor supervision, and nepotism.
On July 6, a court ordered the head of the banned Northern Islamic Movement, Sheikh Raed Salah, released to house arrest. In 2017, police had arrested him on suspicion of incitement and supporting the activities of an illegal organization.
Some religious minority groups complained of lack of police interest in investigating attacks on members of their communities. Data from the NGO Tag Meir and media reports indicated in recent years authorities had indicted few suspects in attacks on religious sites in the country.
On July 19, police in Haifa briefly detained and questioned Conservative Rabbi Dov Hayun on suspicion he conducted Jewish marriage ceremonies outside of the Chief Rabbinate’s authority. The attorney general subsequently instructed police to stop investigating the rabbi before they had determined “whether his actions raise suspicion of a criminal offense.” As of year’s end, police had not taken any further action against the rabbi.
According to data from the MRS, out of 70,326 individuals who registered for a Jewish marriage in 2018, rabbinical courts instructed 3,996 who self-identified as Jewish to prove their Jewish lineage. Of these, 122 were unsuccessful.
Prior to marriage, the Chief Rabbinate required Jewish women to complete bridal counseling sessions. Existing instructions from the Chief Rabbinate required these sessions address only the wedding ceremony, but in practice the content varied widely and often included marital relations and “family purity” in accordance with halacha, according to a report in Ma’ariv newspaper. Neither halacha nor civil law mandated such counselling sessions, according to the NGO ITIM.
On May 3, the rabbinical courts, which are government institutions, reported they had issued nine arrest warrants against men who refused to give a get and succeeded in securing 216 gets from intransigent husbands in 2017. In a speech to new rabbinical court judges on October 15, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef urged them to “have the courage to render judgment” in cases of get refusal, stating, “Do whatever is necessary to make sure a divorce is granted.”
Ultra-Orthodox parties continued to block legislative changes to the status quo regarding issues of halacha and state, which opponents said perpetuated practices that infringed on religious freedom. For example, on November 21, the Knesset defeated a bill to allow limited public transportation on Shabbat for municipalities that so chose. Bus cooperatives, however, continued to operate lines on Shabbat in several cities.
The Chief Rabbinate continued not to recognize as Jewish some citizens who self-identified as Jewish, including Reform and Conservative converts to Judaism and others who could not prove Jewish matrilineage. As a result, the government prohibited those individuals from accessing official Jewish marriage, divorce, and burial services in the country. Some Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbis, however, officiated at a growing number of these ceremonies outside of the Chief Rabbinate. Likewise, the government continued not to allow Jewish men with priestly patrilineage (kohanim) to marry converts or divorcees, in accordance with halacha.
On October 29, the Supreme Court ordered Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked to explain, within 60 days, why the government had not held a disciplinary hearing for Chief Rabbi of Safed Shmuel Eliyahu, a government employee. This order followed a 2016 petition to the Supreme Court by the Israel Religious Action Center, Tag Meir, and other NGOs to initiate disciplinary hearings against Eliyahu, alleging he made a series of racist and offensive statements against Arabs, Druze, women, and the LGBTI community. The government did not hold a disciplinary hearing for Eliyahu by the end of the year, and the case was ongoing.
The government continued to control access to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. The post-1967 status quo pertaining to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif allows non-Muslim visitors but prohibits non-Islamic worship on the compound, despite the fact that no law or published policy prohibits non-Islamic prayer there. The Jordanian Government Islamic Religious Endowment (Waqf) in Jerusalem maintained the Al-Aqsa Mosque, while the Jordanian Ministry of Islamic Affairs and Holy Places supported maintenance and salary of the Waqf staff in Jerusalem. The 1994 peace agreement between Israel and Jordan recognized Jordan’s “special role” in relation to Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. Supporters of the status quo stated that, while not perfect, the post-1967 arrangement allowed the holy sites to be open to visitors from all faiths for the first time in Jerusalem’s millennia-old history.
Israeli police continued to be responsible for security, with police officers stationed both inside the site and outside each entrance. Israeli police conducted routine patrols on the outdoor plaza and inside buildings on the site and regulated pedestrian traffic exiting and entering the site. Israeli police continued to maintain exclusive control of the Mughrabi Gate entrance, the entrance through which non-Muslims may enter the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, and allowed visitors through the gate during set visiting hours; however, police sometimes restricted this access due to security concerns. Israeli police maintained checkpoints outside other gates to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, preventing non-Muslims from entering these other areas, but they did not coordinate with Waqf guards inside. Some Jewish groups performed religious acts such as prayers and prostration on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif despite the ban on non-Muslim prayer. NGOs, media, and Jewish Temple Mount advocacy groups continued to report that changes in relations between police and the Temple Mount advocacy movement created a more permissive environment for non-Muslim religious acts on the site. In response, the government reiterated that non-Muslim prayer was not allowed on the grounds of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.
Israeli authorities in some instances barred specific individuals from the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif site, including Jewish activists believed to have violated the status quo understanding prohibiting non-Muslim prayer, Muslims believed to have verbally harassed or acted violently against non-Muslim visitors to the site, and public figures, including MKs, whose presence authorities feared would inflame tensions. The government stated that police have no specific policy regarding barring individuals from entering, but police respond both to intelligence information they receive in advance as well as events that unfolding on the ground, without distinguishing between Muslim and non-Muslim visitors. The government added it was rare for any individual to be barred entry to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif site. Police continued to screen non-Muslims for religious articles. Police allowed Jewish male visitors who were visibly wearing a kippah (head covering) and tzitzit (fringes), and those who wished to enter the site barefoot (in accordance with interpretations of halacha) to enter the site with police escort.
The Waqf continued to restrict non-Muslims who visited the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif from entering the Dome of the Rock and other buildings dedicated for Islamic worship, including the Al-Qibli/Al-Aqsa Mosque. It also lodged objections with Israeli police concerning non-Muslim visitors wearing religious symbols or religious clothing. Israeli police sometimes acted upon these objections.
Waqf officials repeated previous years’ complaints over their lack of control of access to the site. Waqf officials stated Israeli police did not coordinate with the Waqf on decisions regarding entry and barring of Muslim and non-Muslim visitors to the site. Waqf employees remained stationed inside each gate and on the plaza, but Waqf officials said they were able to exercise only a limited oversight role. The Waqf reportedly objected to non-Muslims praying or performing religious acts on the site and to individuals who dressed immodestly or caused disturbances, but they lacked authority to remove such persons from the site. The government stated that most of the time, police and the Waqf worked in full coordination, including regular joint sessions regarding routine activities.
On August 20, the Supreme Court ordered the government to respond within 60 days to a petition by the NGO Moked Israeli Center for the Advancement of Democracy and Protection of Human Rights, which objected to a sign near the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif discouraging non-Muslim visitors from entering the site. The court later granted government requests to extend the deadline for a response into 2019.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu again reiterated his support for the post-1967 status quo understandings at holy sites in Jerusalem, including in a statement following his meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan on June 18. Many Jewish leaders, including the government-appointed Rabbi of the Western Wall, continued to say Jewish law prohibited Jews from entering the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif for reasons of ritual purity. Some MKs, however, including members of the governing coalition, called for reversing the policy of banning non-Muslim prayer at the site to provide equal religious freedom for all visitors. Some government coalition Knesset members continued to call on the Israeli government to implement time-based division at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif to set aside certain days or hours for Jewish access and/or worship, similar to the arrangement used at the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. MK Yehuda Glick and other members of the Temple Mount movement continued to advocate for reversing the status quo prohibition on non-Muslim prayer at the site, describing it as a restriction on religious freedom.
In accordance with previously instituted practices, Israeli police announced a temporary closure of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif to non-Muslim visitors during the last 10 days of Ramadan; however, the police permitted non-Muslim visits to the site during the first two days of this period. The government stated that each year police assess the security situation and decide whether it is necessary to close the site to non-Muslims during this period, “in order to allow for a proper course of prayer for Muslim worshipers during Ramadan.” In July Prime Minister Netanyahu rescinded his 2015 blanket prohibition of MKs and ministers visiting the site and allowed these officials to visit once a month, after obtaining approval of the Chairman of the Knesset and according to police security assessments.
The Waqf expressed its continued concern over calls by some Jewish activists to build a third Jewish temple on the site, as well as increased numbers of visits by Jews whom the Waqf described as Jewish “Temple Mount activists.” The Waqf also objected to increased attempts by activists to pray on the site or conduct other religious activity on the site in violation of the status quo. Waqf officials also stated Israeli police restricted the Waqf’s administration of the site by prohibiting building and infrastructure repairs. For example, police prevented the Waqf from carrying out repairs without advance approval and oversight from the IAA and refused to permit the entry of most maintenance equipment onto the site, according to the Waqf. The government stated maintenance of the site was supervised by police and coordinated in advance, adding that larger scale renovations required approval and supervision by the IAA and of a ministerial committee to ensure the site is properly preserved and no archeological findings are destroyed or covered by the renovators. In August Israeli authorities briefly detained four Waqf employees attempting to carry out repairs, but they subsequently permitted the repairs.
Waqf officials reported Israeli police on occasion detained Waqf employees (typically guards) or expelled them from the site and from the vicinity of visiting non-Muslim groups. The government stated that on some occasions, Waqf employees with suspected connections to terrorist organizations, such as Hamas and Shabab al-Aqsa, instigated “provocations,” which police handled either by issuing a directive limiting the proximity of the Waqf employees to visiting Jewish groups, or in extreme cases, removing them from the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.
The Temple Mount Sifting Project and other group and individuals criticized the Waqf for the “destruction of the heritage of Jews as well as Christians and Muslims” for moving soil, stones, and artifacts from dirt mounds in the courtyard the Waqf had previously dug up during controversial excavations. According to a media report, the mixed pile of dirt had limited archaeological value because it was already out of its original archeological strata; however, artifacts in the dirt could be of historical value.
On March 26, for the first time, authorities allowed Temple Mount activists to conduct a ritual slaughter of sheep for Passover in the Davidson Center Archaeological Park, below the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.
At the main Western Wall plaza, the place of worship nearest Judaism’s holiest site, the government continued to permit persons of all faiths to pray individually and quietly and Jewish men to conduct Orthodox Jewish prayer in groups, with separation of women and men. The government, however, continued to prohibit at the main plaza the performance of “a religious ceremony that is not in accordance with the customs of the place, which harms the feelings of the public towards the place.” Authorities interpreted this prohibition to include mixed-gender Jewish prayer services and other ceremonies not conforming to Orthodox Judaism.
Members of the Jewish Conservative and Reform movements continued to criticize gender segregation and rules governing how women may pray at the Western Wall. Authorities continued to prohibit visitors from bringing private Torah scrolls to the main Western Wall plaza and women from accessing the public Torah scrolls or giving priestly blessings at the site. Authorities, however, permitted women to pray with tefillin and prayer shawls pursuant to a 2013 Jerusalem District Court ruling stating it was illegal to arrest or fine them for such actions.
Police continued to allow the group Women of the Wall to enter the women’s area of the main Western Wall plaza for its monthly service. In June, following a request from the police and the government-sponsored Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the Attorney General’s Office ruled the Women of the Wall must hold their monthly service in a barricaded area in the women’s section, which police set up on a side of the women’s section not touching the Western Wall. Representatives of Women of the Wall complained of a lack of effort by police or ushers from the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which administers the Western Wall site, to intervene when ultra-Orthodox women and men disrupted their monthly prayer service with screaming, whistling, and pushing. In response, the government stated that large numbers of Israeli police, ushers, and security personnel maintained order on occasions when Women of the Wall prayed there. Women of the Wall filed a petition to the Supreme Court in March 2017 to require ushers and police to prevent disruption to their services. The case was ongoing as of the end of the year.
Authorities continued to allow use of a temporary platform south of the Mughrabi ramp and adjacent to the Western Wall, but not visible from the main Western Wall plaza, for non-Orthodox egalitarian (mixed gender) Jewish prayers. Authorities designated the platform for members of the Conservative and Reform movements of Judaism, including for religious ceremonies such as bar and bat mitzvahs. In response to an ongoing Supreme Court case from 2013 on the issue of prayer access at the Western Wall, the government stated in January it intended to upgrade the egalitarian prayer space. In June 2017, the government “froze” a 2016 agreement with non-Orthodox Jewish groups that offered symbolic recognition to the Conservative and Reform Judaism movements in addition to upgrading the egalitarian prayer space. The non-Orthodox Jewish movements stated that upgrading the prayer space alone would not fulfill the agreement. In August a special government committee approved expansion of the platform through a fast-track planning process. The court case was ongoing as of the end of the year.
On May 13, the government allocated 200 million shekels ($53.35 million) to the MOT for the planning and establishment of a cable car from the First Station cultural complex in Jerusalem to the Dung Gate of the Old City. The plan included building a roof over a Karaite cemetery under the path of the cable car to resolve Orthodox Jewish concerns about use of the cable car by Jewish men with priestly patrilineage (kohanim), for whom it is halachically forbidden to contract ritual impurity by “sheltering” over a corpse. The Karaite community objected to the plan, saying building a roof over the cemetery would render it ritually impure according to Karaite beliefs, preventing further use of the cemetery.
The security barrier dividing most of the West Bank from Israel also divided some Palestinian communities in Jerusalem, affecting access to places of worship. The Israeli government previously stated the barrier was highly effective in preventing attacks in Israel.
Several groups, including religious minorities and human rights NGOs, criticized the July passage of the new Nation State Law. The law called for promoting “Jewish settlement,” which non-Jewish organizations and leaders said they feared would lead to increased discrimination in housing and land issues. Druze leaders decried the law for relegating what they termed a loyal minority that serves in the military to second-class-citizen status. Opponents, including the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, also criticized the law for failing to mention the principle of equality in order to prevent harm to the rights of non-Jewish minorities. Supporters stated it was necessary to anchor the country’s Jewish character in a basic law to balance the 1992 Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty, which anchored the country’s democratic character with protection of individual rights, noting the Supreme Court had already interpreted the 1992 law as mandating equality. According to press reports, on August 4, a demonstration in Tel Aviv comprised of approximately 90,000 members of the Druze community and Jewish supporters protested the law. A week later, press reported that 30,000 Arab citizen protestors and their Jewish supporters also took part in a protest against the law in Tel Aviv. Political leaders conceded the need to address the criticisms of the Druze community. As of the end of the year, multiple lawsuits challenging the Nation State Law were pending with the Supreme Court.
On May 5, the government announced it had begun recruiting women as legal advisors in rabbinical courts, following a petition to the Supreme Court by ITIM and Bar Ilan University’s Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women. In 2017, the Rabbinical Courts Administration named a female deputy director-general for the first time. Because only men may become rabbis under Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law, there were no female judges in rabbinical courts, although some women have acted as rabbinic pleaders (equivalent to lawyers) since 1995.
The MOI continued to rely on the sole discretion and approval of the Jewish Agency, a parastatal organization, to determine who qualified to immigrate as a Jew or descendant of a Jew. The government continued to deny applications from individuals whom the government said became ineligible when they converted to another religion, including those holding Messianic or Christian beliefs.
A group of Orthodox rabbis continued to operate a private conversion court for children of families whom the state or rabbinical courts did not recognize as Jews. In August, for the first time, the Jerusalem District Court recognized a non-Rabbinate Orthodox conversion through the NGO Giyur k’Halacha. The Chief Rabbinate continued not to recognize non-Orthodox converts to Judaism as Jews, although they remained eligible for immigration under the Law of Return if they converted outside the country.
A Supreme Court case to grant immigration rights to those who completed Reform or Conservative conversions inside the country continued through year’s end.
On June 3, a committee headed by former Justice Minister Moshe Nissim made recommendations for proposed legislation on a new conversion law. Prime Minister Netanyahu appointed the committee in 2017 in response to the 2005 Supreme Court petition by the Conservative and Reform Jewish movements for recognition of non-Orthodox conversions inside the country. The recommendations did not receive political support from any of the Jewish Knesset factions, and the government did not act on them by the end of the year. At a Supreme Court hearing on December 17, the government requested a six-month extension for the presentation of its plan. By year’s end, the court had not rendered a decision on the extension request.
On January 15, the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption, and Diaspora Affairs discussed incidents in which the Population and Immigration Authority incorrectly registered as Christian immigrants from the former Soviet Union who self-identified as Jewish. Ha’aretz reported in September 2017 that the Chief Rabbinate had changed the registration status of 900 persons from Jewish to non-Jewish or “pending clarification” in 2015 and 2016. ITIM petitioned the Supreme Court against these changes and the case continued at year’s end.
In October an individual petitioned the District Court in Haifa to change his registration from Jewish to “lacking religion.” The court scheduled a hearing for January 2019.
Several municipalities filed legal challenges in the Supreme Court against the January 8 law granting the minister of interior wider discretion to approve or reject bylaws allowing commercial activity on Shabbat. These challenges followed Interior Minister Aryeh Deri’s rejection from June to August of five municipalities’ bylaws that would have legalized commerce on Shabbat, according to media reports. Sources stated some non-kosher restaurants that opened on Shabbat paid fines that varied according to local laws.
On July 19, Minister of Culture and Sport Miri Regev signed a regulation conditioning government funding of Israeli sports associations, except soccer associations, on their accommodation of Shabbat-observant athletes.
The MRS listed 21 dedicated cemeteries in Israel and the West Bank for persons the government defined as “lacking religion,” but only two were available for use to the broader general public regardless of residence. The one MRS-administered cemetery in the West Bank was available only for the burial of Israel citizens. Additionally, 13 MRS-administered cemeteries in 10 agricultural localities were authorized to conduct civil burial (i.e., not affiliated to a religion) for these localities and nearby residents. Some persons, however, who sought a civil burial for a relative reported several civil cemeteries near Tel Aviv were unusable because they were full or restricted to local residents. On May 29, the MRS published a call for proposals to develop or expand cemeteries for civil burials, following a 2016 report by the state comptroller that criticized the MRS for not implementing the civil burial law and thereby preventing the right of citizens to civil burial.
On February 19, the government passed a motion to recognize more Ethiopian Jewish religious leaders (keisim) and integrate them into Jewish religious councils. According to recommendations published November 7 by a special government committee, keisim would be allowed to conduct some community religious functions but not marriages and funerals, unless they underwent the rabbinical ordination process and applied individually to the Chief Rabbinate. On October 7, the cabinet approved a plan to facilitate immigration of approximately 1,000 parents from Ethiopia’s Falash Mura community whose children were already in Israel.
In 2017, the government cable and satellite-broadcasting regulator fined Channel 20, the “Heritage Channel,” 100,800 shekels ($26,900) for excluding the Reform and Conservative Jewish movements from its programming, because its license described the outlet as a platform for all streams of Judaism. Channel 20 appealed the decision to the Supreme Court. On May 9, the court ruled an administrative court would adjudicate the appeal. The case was ongoing in the Court for Administrative Affairs in Jerusalem as of the end of the year.
In June, following a Supreme Court challenge by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the government announced attendance at a presentation to introduce an expedited Orthodox Jewish conversion course would no longer be mandatory for IDF soldiers who self-identified as Jewish but were not recognized by the Rabbinate as Jewish. The government stated the IDF would instead send invitations to IDF soldiers for the presentation; those who do not wish to participate could be excused.
In September 2017, the Supreme Court struck down the existing arrangement to exempt ultra-Orthodox men from military service, and it set a deadline of one year to pass new legislation to reduce inequality in the burden of military service between ultra-Orthodox and other Jews. Some ultra-Orthodox communities stated that mandatory conscription was a violation of the right to conscientious objection on the basis of their religious beliefs. On October 14, the Ministry of Defense sent a letter to the Eda Haredit community rejecting this argument. Following a request from the government for more time to pass a new draft law, on December 2, the Supreme Court agreed to postpone the deadline to 2019.
Those exempt from compulsory military service continued to have the option to join the National Service, a civilian alternative in which volunteers work for two years to promote social welfare in schools, hospitals, or NGOs. According to government officials and NGOs, this alternative was more popular among women from “national religious” Jewish Orthodox backgrounds than other exempt groups.
The government continued to operate a special police unit for the investigation of “ideology-based offenses” in Israel and the West Bank, including “price tag” attacks, which refer to violence by Jewish individuals and groups against non-Jewish individuals and property with the stated purpose of exacting a “price” for actions taken by the government against the attackers’ interests. The government continued to classify any association using the phrase “price tag” as an illegal association and a price tag attack as a security (as opposed to criminal) offense. On March 29, the Lod District Court convicted one person of “membership in a terrorist organization” for a 2015 price tag attack, according to media reports.
The government maintained an agreement with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that no member of the Church “will engage in proselytizing of any kind” within Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, according to the website of Brigham Young University’s Jerusalem Center. Some other nonrecognized Christian communities reported the MOI Department of Non-Jewish Affairs discouraged them from proselytizing or holding large public gatherings outside their houses of worship.
In April the Watchtower Association of Israel (Jehovah’s Witnesses) sued the government in the Supreme Court to process its application for a tax exemption from capital gains transactions, which it submitted in 2012. In 2016, the tax authority had approved its application and forwarded it to the Knesset Finance Committee, according to Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Supreme Court scheduled a hearing for January 16, 2019.
Public Hebrew-language state schools taught Jewish history, culture, and some basic religious texts. Many ultra-Orthodox religious schools in the “recognized but not official” category continued not to offer the basic humanities, math, and science curriculum. However, the government included the basic curriculum in public ultra-Orthodox schools. This category included 43 schools with 5,652 students in the 2017-2018 school year, an increase of 20 percent from the previous year, according to media reports. Public Arabic-speaking schools continued to teach religion classes on the Quran and the Bible to both Muslim and Christian Arab students. A few independent mixed Jewish-Arab schools also offered religion classes. For example, the curriculum at the nonprofit school Hand-in-Hand: Center for Jewish-Arab Education, which received a third of its funding from the government, emphasized commonalities in the holy writings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
According to the NGO Noar Kahalacha, dozens of Jewish school girls were unable to attend ultra-Orthodox schools due to discrimination based on their Mizrahi ethnicity (those with ancestry from North Africa or the Middle East), despite a 2009 court ruling prohibiting ethnic segregation between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi schoolgirls. A 2017 report from the state comptroller criticized the Ministry of Education (MOE) for failing to respond effectively to discrimination in educational institutions, including discrimination against girls in ultra-Orthodox schools. The government stated the MOE did not tolerate any form of discrimination, and schools that refused to accept students for discriminatory reasons were summoned to hearings, sometimes leading to delays and denial of their budgets until the schools resolved the discrimination.
The government funded approximately 34 percent of the budget of Christian school systems in the “recognized but not official” category, in which schools have autonomy over hiring teachers, admitting students, and the use of school property, according to church officials. The government repeated its offer made in previous years to fund fully Christian schools if they became part of the public school system, but the churches rejected this option, stating they would lose autonomy over those decisions. Church leaders criticized the disparity in government funding between their school system and those affiliated with the ultra-Orthodox political parties United Torah Judaism and Shas, which were also categorized as “recognized but not official” but received full government funding.
The government maintained its policy of not accepting applications for official recognition from nonrecognized religious groups, including evangelical Christian churches and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The government stated no religious community had attempted to apply for recognition during the year. In April the Jehovah’s Witnesses submitted an appeal to the Supreme Court requesting official recognition as a religious community. A hearing was scheduled for January 2019. The government stated some leaders of nonrecognized religions were invited and participated along with the leaders of recognized religions at official events or ceremonies.
Seventh-day Adventists stated they faced difficulty traveling to their houses of worship in cities in which public transportation was unavailable on Shabbat, including Jerusalem. Some nonrecognized religious groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists, received a property tax exemption on their houses of worship, although others, such as Buddhists and the Church of Scientology, did not. The government has stated local authorities conducted tax collection from nonrecognized religions in accordance with the law. The government stated it was unaware of any recent case in which a religious house of worship in Israel was not granted a property tax exemption.
In February the Jerusalem municipality began to enforce collection of taxes on church properties used for nonworship activities, such as friars’ residences and parish halls, issuing retroactive fines and placing liens on bank accounts belonging to several churches. Then-Mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat said the city was owed 650 million shekels ($173.4 million) in uncollected taxes on church assets. On February 25, leaders of 14 Christian churches in Jerusalem, including the Greek Orthodox, Latin (Roman Catholic), and Armenian Orthodox Churches, issued a joint letter condemning the decision, after the Jerusalem municipality announced it would start collecting back taxes on church-owned property and freeze financial accounts used by churches for their day-to-day operations. Church leaders also expressed concern over the introduction of a draft Knesset bill that would allow the government to expropriate lands sold by a church to private investors, with compensation to the investors for the price they paid for the land. In their joint statement, the church leaders accused the government of a “systematic and unprecedented attack against Christians in the Holy Land.” The bill’s sponsor stated the purpose of the bill was to protect thousands of residents living in buildings built on church lands that private developers purchased from a church. Those residents reportedly feared massive price hikes or eviction when their leases expired.
In protest against the tax collection and the property expropriation bill, church leaders closed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on February 25, the first such closure since 1990. They reopened the church on February 28 after Prime Minister Netanyahu announced the government would freeze the tax collection and suspend consideration of the property expropriation bill and establish a working group led by Minister for Regional Cooperation Tzachi Hanegbi to examine the two issues. In a statement following Minister Hanegbi’s meeting with the working group on October 23, the MFA stated the government “has no intention to confiscate church lands or to cause any economic damage to the churches.” When church leaders learned the bill would come before the Knesset on November 11, they pressured the government, which again froze debate on the bill. Church leaders again expressed outrage when the bill was scheduled to be read in the Knesset on December 24, Christmas Eve. The bill did not progress further before the Knesset voted to dissolve itself on December 26.
Christian leaders reported little difficulty obtaining visas for clergy to serve in the country, except for Christian clergy from Arab countries, some of whom reported long delays and periodic denials of their visa applications. The government stated Christian clergy from Arab countries were subject to the same entry laws and similar security procedures as clergy from other parts of the world. The government also said there were some “unavoidable delays” in cases of applicants from states that did not have diplomatic relations with Israel. Church officials noted the clergy visa did not allow the bearer access to basic social benefits such as disability insurance or national health insurance, even for those who have served in the country for more than 30 years.
The government continued to approve annual “delays” of conscription to military service for individual Jehovah’s Witnesses upon presentation of documentation of their continued affiliation with their religious community, although without acknowledging their right to conscientious objection. Because members of the community were not exempt from military service, they could not participate in the national civil service program as alternative service.
On June 28, the Supreme Court rejected a petition from the organization Yesh Gvul demanding the government give equal weight to military exemption requests based on conscientious objection as for those based on religious beliefs. The court ruled the two kinds of exemptions were based on different parts of the Security Service Law; exemption for Orthodox Jewish women based on their religious beliefs was a right, while exemption of conscientious objectors was at the discretion of the defense minister.
The MOI continued to train Druze and Muslim clerical employees of the state on how to work with government ministries. The MOI appointed and funded approximately half of the Druze and Muslim clerics in the country. Muslim leaders again said the MOI routinely monitored and summoned for “talks” those whom the ministry suspected of opposing government policies. According to the government, the government did not monitor clerics, but government employees of all faiths were “expected not to incite against the state in their official capacities.” The government stated the remaining Druze and Muslim clerics were nonstate employees due to either the preference of the local community or lack of MOI budget. Muslim leaders stated sharia court judges, who were Ministry of Justice employees, were their preferred religious representatives. No Islamic seminaries remained in the country, and students of Islam traveled elsewhere, primarily Jordan or the West Bank, to study. The government stated there were “Islamic colleges” in Umm al-Fahm, Baqa’a al-Gharbia, and Kfar Baraa. Muslim leaders rejected this assertion, stating the institutes in Umm al-Fahm and Kfar Baraa, operated by an NGO that teaches some Islamic studies, were not recognized as educational institutions by the Israeli Council for Higher Education. The Muslim leaders also said Al-Qasemi College in Baqa’a al-Gharbia was a teachers’ college that includes a program for teaching Islam in schools. The leaders stated that none of those institutes was an Islamic seminary.
According to the NGO Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality (NCF), 115 of the 126 Jewish communities in the Negev maintained admission committees to screen new residents, effectively excluding non-Jewish residents. Following objections by multiple NGOs, authorities canceled plans for new Jewish communities called Daya, Eshel HaNasi, and Neve Gurion to replace existing Bedouin villages. In August the National Planning and Building Council recommended that the government proceed with the establishment of a town called Ir Ovot, which was to include a zone for approximately 50 Bedouin Israelis to remain in their current locations.
On April 11, Bedouin residents of Umm al-Hiran signed an agreement with the Ministry of Agriculture Authority for the Development and Settlement of Bedouin in the Negev to self-demolish their structures and relocate to vacant plots in the Bedouin town of Hura. This decision followed years of legal battles and negotiations, in preparation for replacing Umm al-Hiran with a Jewish community called Hiran. Jewish families sponsored by the OR Movement (an organization dedicated to expanding the Jewish population of the Negev region), who planned to move to Hiran, remained in the forest outside Umm al-Hiran, living in mobile homes donated by the Jewish National Fund, while waiting for the village land to become available.
Some former mosques and cemeteries remained sealed and inaccessible, including to Muslims. These sites belonging to the defunct prestate Waqf (not to be confused with the Jordanian-administered Waqf of the Haram al-Sharif) until confiscated by the state after the 1948 War of Independence. Other former mosques continued to be used for secular purposes. On December 5, following a decades-long legal battle between the Jaffa Muslim community and a real estate developer, the government approved a request from the Tel Aviv Municipality to recognize Tasou cemetery in Jaffa as a Muslim cemetery. This decision included authority for the Muslim community to manage the cemetery but did not transfer its ownership. The Islamic Council in Jaffa welcomed the decision, publicly calling it “a just decision that’s been waiting for more than 70 years.” In November MK Ayman Odeh raised 160,000 shekels ($42,700) to help the Haifa Muslim community repurchase a section of the Independence Mosque in Haifa that government-appointed trustees had previously sold.
Muslim community leaders reported no difficulties obtaining municipal approval for construction of mosques in Muslim-majority localities, but they sometimes faced difficulty in Jewish-majority localities. For example, Be’er Sheva’s Muslim population of approximately 10,000 continued to travel to nearby Bedouin towns to pray because e they could not use an Ottoman-era Be’er Sheva mosque the government previously converted to a museum of Islamic culture and the government would not authorize the construction of another mosque.
On July 30, the Ministry of Transportation ordered the expropriation of land previously allocated to a Karaite synagogue in Ramle for the purpose of building a highway interchange. The Karaites said the loss of land and the new interchange would disrupt their religious and communal activity. On December 11, the Supreme Court dismissed their appeal on procedural grounds, stating the case should be submitted to a lower court. The government subsequently reported the government and community reached an agreement that would minimize the amount of land expropriated and optimize use of the land for the synagogue’s needs.
The IDF continued to have only Orthodox Jewish chaplains; the government employed civilian non-Jewish clergy as chaplains at military burials when a non-Jewish soldier died in service. The MOI continued to provide imams to conduct military funerals according to Islamic customs. In 2017, the IDF issued new regulations allowing secular military funerals.
In some ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, private organizations posted “modesty signs” demanding women obscure themselves from public view to avoid distracting devout men. The local municipality of Beit Shemesh failed to comply with court orders from 2015 and 2016 to remove the signs, leading the Jerusalem District Court to rule in 2017 that the municipality would face a fine of 10,000 shekels ($2,700) per day if the signs remained posted. In December 2017, the municipality took down six of the eight signs, but did not then remove the remaining two due to a protest. Local residents put up new signs to replace those the municipality removed. On February 18, the Supreme Court ordered the municipality to install security cameras and take action against individuals posting the signs. As of September police had not made any arrests. The municipality had not installed cameras as of November, according to media reports. The court case continued through December.
In some ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, vandals repeatedly tore down or defaced billboards showing pictures of women, including commercial advertisements, public awareness campaigns, and political advertisements. In July police arrested six ultra-Orthodox men for vandalizing campaign signs of a female candidate for mayor of Jerusalem, according to media reports.
In response to NGO Secular Forum’s petition against a ban on bringing leavened bread and similar foods into public hospitals during Passover, the government told the Supreme Court in July that it would expand the role of hospital security guards on Passover to include checking visitors’ belongings for such foods. The case was ongoing at year’s end.
The government continued to enforce the 2003 Law of Citizenship and Entry prohibiting non-Jewish Iranians, Iraqis, Syrians, Lebanese, and Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza, including those who are spouses of Israeli residents or citizens, from obtaining resident status unless the MOI made a special determination, usually on humanitarian grounds. The government stated it has extended the law annually due to government reports that Palestinian family reunification allowed entry to a disproportionate number of persons who were later involved in acts of terrorism. The NGO HaMoked said that statistics from government documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests contradicted these terrorism allegations, and the denial of residency to Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza for the purposes of family reunification led to cases of family separation.
According to HaMoked, there were approximately 10,000 Palestinians living in Israel, including Jerusalem, on temporary stay permits because of the citizenship and entry law, with no legal guarantee they could continue living with their families. There were also cases of Palestinian residents’ Palestinian spouses living in East Jerusalem without legal status. Some Palestinian residents moved to Jerusalem neighborhoods outside the security barrier to live with their nonresident spouse and children while maintaining Jerusalem residency. According to Christian religious leaders, this situation remained an especially acute problem for Christians because of their small population and consequent tendency to marry foreign Christians (Christians who hold neither citizenship nor residency). Christian religious leaders expressed concern this was a significant element in the continuing decline of the Christian population, including in Jerusalem, which negatively impacted the long-term viability of their communities. Other factors included political instability; the inability to obtain residency permits for spouses due to the 2003 Law of Citizenship and Entry; limited ability of Christian communities in the Jerusalem area to expand due to building restrictions; difficulties Christian clergy experienced in obtaining Israeli visas and residency permits; loss of confidence in the peace process; and economic hardships created by the establishment of the security barrier and the imposition of travel restrictions. The government stated such difficulties stemmed from the “complex political and security reality” and not from any restriction on the Christian community.
While the law does not authorize the Israel Land Authority (ILA), which administers the 93 percent of the country in the public domain, to lease land to foreigners, in practice, foreigners have been allowed to lease if they could show they would qualify as Jewish under the Law of Return. The application of ILA restrictions historically limited the ability of Muslim and Christian residents of Jerusalem who are not citizens to purchase property built on state land, including in parts of Jerusalem. In recent years, however, an increasing number of Palestinian residents of Jerusalem have acquired property built on ILA-owned land.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that during the year the government positively addressed two longstanding visa cases involving foreigners married to citizens.
NGOs reported incidents in which authorities violated the freedom not to practice religion, particularly in the secular public education system and the military. For example, the Secular Forum criticized the MOE’s “Jewish Israeli culture curriculum” for students in first to ninth grade, referring to it as “religious indoctrination to young children.” The Secular Forum also opposed religious programs in those schools by private religious organizations, such as presentations about Passover in March by the Chabad ultra-Orthodox Jewish movement. The government denied students were subjected to religious indoctrination or coercion, stating the secular public school curriculum included lessons “on the culture of the Jewish people,” including elements of the Jewish faith and traditions, such as the Jewish calendar and holidays.
In some instances, the IDF did not permit soldiers to cook or heat water for a shower on Shabbat, according to media reports. The government stated soldiers were expected to respect Shabbat and kashrut in IDF base kitchens “in order to accommodate religious and kosher-observant soldiers.” The government said it was not aware of limitations on heating water for showers on bases.
Women’s rights organizations cited a growing trend of gender segregation reflecting increased incorporation of Jewish religious observance in government institutions, including in the IDF, as accommodation to increase the enlistment of participants who follow strict interpretations of Jewish law prohibiting mixing of the sexes. For example, IDF commanders sometimes asked female soldiers serving in leadership or instructor positions to allow a male colleague to assume their duties when religious soldiers who objected to interacting with females were present, according to the Israel Women’s Network. In response to this claim and similar allegations in media reports, IDF Chief of Personnel Director Major General Almoz said such practices “are in violation of Army orders and policy, do unnecessary harm to large groups serving in the Army, and are inconsistent with IDF commanders’ responsibility.” According to many observers, the trend in recent years has been toward greater inclusion of women in the IDF, including in combat roles and senior leadership positions.
NGOs monitoring archaeological practices in Jerusalem continued to state the IAA emphasized archaeological finds that bolstered Jewish claims while minimizing historically significant archaeological finds of other religions. In 2017, the Supreme Court upheld the MRS’ declaration that the Western Wall tunnels were an exclusively Jewish holy site, but ruled that the MRS and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation must ensure those sections of the tunnels significant to Muslims and Christians – including excavations of a Christian chapel, an Islamic school, and Islamic Mamluk-era buildings – were properly managed to protect the antiquities and to ensure access for members of other religions. The government stated the IAA conducted impartial evaluations of all unearthed archeological finds and by law the IAA must document, preserve, and publish all findings from excavations. It added that IAA researchers “have greatly intensified their research of ‘non-Jewish’ periods in the history of the land of Israel, [including] the Prehistoric, Early Bronze, Byzantine, Muslim, Mamluk, and Ottoman periods.”
The interreligious council convened on May 8 and discussed the integration of Bedouin Muslims into the Israeli economy and higher education, according to the government.