There is no constitution. 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.
According to Supreme Court rulings, the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty protects freedom to practice or not practice religious beliefs, including freedom of conscience, faith, religion, and worship, regardless of an individual’s religion. The law incorporates religious freedom provisions of international human rights covenants into the country’s body of domestic law.
The Chief Rabbinate retains the authority to issue certificates of conversion to Judaism within the country under Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law. The Council of the Chief Rabbinate consists of Orthodox rabbis chosen by an assembly consisting of rabbis, local government leaders, government ministers, and laypersons appointed by the government.
The government provides funding for both Orthodox and non-Orthodox conversion programs. Relatives of Jewish converts may not receive residency rights, except for the children of male or female converts born after the parent’s conversion is complete. A law which took effect in May authorizes local rabbinates to determine who can use their mikvahs, potentially preventing Reform and Conservative Jews from using these facilities for conversions.
The law recognizes Judaism, Christianity, Islam, the Druze, and the Bahai Faith. Christian religious communities recognized according to the adopted Ottoman millet (court) system include: Eastern Orthodox, Latin (Roman Catholic), Gregorian-Armenian, Armenian Catholic, Syrian Catholic, Chaldean (Chaldean Uniate Catholic), Greek Catholic Melkite, Maronite, Syrian Orthodox, and Evangelical Episcopal. The Anglican and Bahai communities are recognized through a British Mandate-era law adopted by the government. The government does not recognize other religious communities, including major Protestant denominations with a presence in the country, as distinct ethnoreligious communities. There are two legal pathways to formal recognition, according to laws adopted from the British Mandate period: through a government declaration in response to a petition to the Prime Minister’s Office according to the Order in Council, or by petitioning the Ministry of Interior (MOI) for recognition. Groups may appeal rejected applications to the Supreme Court.
Recognized religious communities are exempt from taxation of places of worship and may have separate courts to apply their religion’s personal status law. Some nonrecognized religions, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, receive a property tax exemption on their houses of worship, although others, such as Buddhism and Scientology, do not. The government has stated that tax collection from nonrecognized religions is conducted by local authorities in accordance with the law, but has not stated why some nonrecognized religions receive a property tax exemption and others do not. While members of recognized religious communities only require approval for resident visas from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, visas for members of nonrecognized religious communities also require MOI approval for stays longer than five years.
Legislation establishes religious councils for Jewish communities and for the Druze. The Ministry of Religious Services (MRS) has jurisdiction over the country’s 133 Jewish religious councils, which oversee the provision of religious services for Jewish communities. The government finances approximately 40 percent of the religious councils’ budgets, and local municipalities fund the remainder. The MOI Department of Non-Jewish Affairs has jurisdiction over religious matters concerning non-Jewish groups and oversees the religious council for the Druze. The Department of Non-Jewish Affairs convenes an interreligious council of all recognized religions, including Judaism, which serves as a discussion forum for recognized religious communities.
The law criminalizes willfully and unjustly disturbing any meeting of persons lawfully assembled for religious worship or assaulting someone at such a meeting. It also criminalizes intentionally destroying, damaging, or desecrating any object held sacred by any group of persons, with punishment of three years’ imprisonment.
The law requires individuals to obtain a permit from the minister of interior or the prime minister for travel to “hostile” countries, including Saudi Arabia, which is the destination for those participating in the Hajj. Illegal travel is punishable by a prison sentence or fine if the traveler does not request prior approval.
Proselytizing is legal, although it is illegal to proselytize to a person under 18 years of age without the consent of both parents. The law prohibits offering a material benefit in the course of proselytizing.
The law criminalizes the damage, destruction, or desecration of religious sites (subject to seven years’ imprisonment) and actions to “harm the freedom of access” of worshippers to religious sites (subject to five years’ imprisonment). Certain religious sites considered antiquities are provided further protection under the antiquities law. The Ministry of Tourism is responsible for the protection and upkeep of non-Jewish religious sites, while the MRS protects and maintains Jewish religious sites. The law also provides for up to five years’ imprisonment for actions “likely to violate the feelings of the members of the different religions” with regard to their religious sites. The law grants the government, not the courts, the authority to decide the scope of the right to worship at certain religious sites, and the Supreme Court has upheld this governmental authority.
The government provides separate public schools for Jewish children, conducted in Hebrew, and Arab children, conducted in Arabic. For Jewish children there are separate public schools available for religious and secular families. Individual families may choose a public school system for their children to attend regardless of ethnicity or religious observance. By law, the state provides the equivalent of public school funding to two systems of ultra-Orthodox religious schools, the United Torah Judaism-affiliated Independent Education System and the Shas-affiliated Fountain of Torah Education System.
The law provides the right for any Jew, or any child or grandchild of a Jew, to immigrate to the country from a foreign country with his or her spouse and children. The minor children of a grandchild of a Jew are granted humanitarian status, but are not automatically granted citizenship. Non-Jews have no such route to immigration. Under the Law of Return those who completed an Orthodox conversion inside or outside the country are entitled to immigration, citizenship, and registration as Jews in the civil population registry. Those who completed conversion to Judaism outside the country, regardless of affiliation, are eligible for these benefits even if they are not recognized as Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate; this would include Reform, Conservative, and other affiliations of Judaism. Immigration rights (including citizenship) under the Law of Return are also extended to those who complete private (non-Rabbinate) Orthodox conversions in Israel. Descendants of Jews qualify for immigration under the Law of Return regardless of the religious beliefs with which they were raised, although the law considers those who as adults convert to other religious groups, including Messianic Judaism, to no longer be eligible for benefits under the Law of Return.
According to the law, persons are classified as “lacking religion” if they do not belong to one of the recognized religions as recorded in the National Registry. This includes approximately 322,000 immigrants and their children, primarily from the former Soviet Union, who gained Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return but are not recognized as Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate, which applies the Orthodox definition of matrilineal descent.
The Chief Rabbinate determines who may be buried in Jewish state cemeteries, limiting this right to individuals considered Jewish by Orthodox standards. The law provides for the right of any individual to be buried in a civil ceremony, and requires that civil cemeteries be established in various areas around the country. The law criminalizes the intentional desecration of, or trespass on, places of burial, which is punishable by three years’ imprisonment.
Laws inherited from the Ottoman Empire and British Mandate periods establish the legal authority of religious courts operated by officially recognized religious communities over their members in matters of marriage, divorce, and burial. The law allows for civil registration of two persons as a married couple outside of the religious court system only if they married outside the country, or if the partners are of different religions and their respective religious courts do not object to a civil registration, or if both partners are listed as “lacking religion” in the population registry. A 1951 law on women’s equality explicitly excludes issues of marriage and divorce and appointments to religious positions.
The law imposes a two-year prison sentence on those who conduct a Jewish wedding but fail to officially register it, i.e., conduct a Jewish wedding outside the Rabbinate’s authority.
Religious courts have exclusive jurisdiction over divorce cases in which a husband and wife are registered with the same recognized religion. Members of religious groups not permitting divorce, such as Catholics, may not obtain a divorce unless they convert to a different religion that authorizes divorce. Paternity cases among Muslim citizens are the exclusive jurisdiction of sharia courts. Civil courts have jurisdiction over personal status cases when religious courts lack jurisdiction, as in cases of mixed-religion and same-sex couples.
Matters stemming from divorce proceedings, including alimony, child support, child custody, guardianship, and property division, are under parallel jurisdiction of both religious courts and civil courts, and the first court to receive a case acquires exclusive jurisdiction over it. A 2014 law requires spouses to meet with the Family Assistance Unit, a dispute-resolution body promoting settlement outside of courts, before filing such lawsuits in either court system.
In accordance with halacha, a Jewish woman whose husband refuses to give her a get (Jewish-legal writ of divorce) may not legally remarry in the country. While a rabbinical court may order a husband to give a get, it does not have the power to terminate the marriage if he refuses. In February the Supreme Court upheld the authority of rabbinical courts to impose community-based punishments, such as avoiding financial dealings with a get-refuser, excluding him from community activities, and advertising these decisions to the public. The Supreme Court, however, rejected a prohibition on giving a get-refusing man a Jewish burial, since his death would already have terminated the marriage.
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.
Military service is compulsory for Jewish citizens, male citizens who are Druze, and male citizens in the Circassian community (Muslims originally from the northwestern Caucasus region who migrated in the late 19th century). On September 12, 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. Orthodox Jewish women and Arab Christian and Muslim citizens remain exempt from mandatory military service, although some voluntarily enlist.
Membership in a recognized religion is recorded in the National Registry and generally passed from parents to children, unless a person changes it through a formal conversion. Those who identify as Jewish but do not meet the Chief Rabbinate’s criteria as “Jewish” under Jewish religious law, as well as members of religious groups that are not recognized, are recorded as “lacking religion.” All citizens who meet the Chief Rabbinate’s criteria as “Jewish” are recorded as Jewish, whether Orthodox or not (unless they convert to something else).
The law criminalizes calling for, praising, supporting, or encouraging acts of violence or terrorism where such actions are likely to lead to violence, including calls for violence against religious groups.
The law criminalizing statements demeaning or degrading or showing violence toward someone on the basis of race provides an exception for statements citing a religious source, unless intent to incite racism is proven.
There is no legal requirement regarding personal observance or nonobservance of the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat), from sunset on Fridays until sunset on Saturdays, and on Jewish holidays. A 1951 law, however, declares in the context of labor rights that Shabbat and Jewish holidays are national days of rest, while permitting non-Jewish workers alternate days of rest. The law criminalizes those who open their businesses and employ Jews on Shabbat, but not the workers, except those who are self-employed. There are exceptions, however, for essential infrastructure and the hospitality, culture, and recreation industries. Following a series of political crises relating to train infrastructure work on Shabbat, the Knesset passed a law on December 25 instructing the labor and welfare minister to take into account “Israel’s tradition,” among other factors, when considering whether to approve permits to work on Shabbat. Municipalities and regional councils may pass bylaws relating to commercial activity on Shabbat, with the consent of the minister of interior. Halachaprohibits the use of motorized vehicles on Shabbat. A 1991 law states that public transportation may not operate on Shabbat, with exceptions for vehicles bringing passengers to hospitals, remote localities, and non-Jewish localities, and for vehicles essential to public security or maintaining public transportation services.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights with a reservation stating that matters of personal status are governed by the religious law of the parties concerned, and the country reserves the right to apply that religious law when inconsistent with its obligations under the Covenant.
Summary paragraph: Three Muslim citizens shot and killed two Israeli police officers, both of whom were Druze, near the entrance to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif on July 14, and then escaped to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif where other Israeli police officers shot and killed them. On August 15, Israeli police arrested the head of the banned Northern Islamic Movement, Sheikh Raed Salah, on suspicion of incitement and supporting the activities of an illegal organization. On June 25, following ultra-Orthodox parties’ objections to elements of a January 2016 agreement with non-Orthodox Jewish groups that offered symbolic recognition to the Conservative and Reform movements, the cabinet voted to “freeze” the agreement. Media reported that on September 19, Prime Minister Netanyahu expressed support for greater religious pluralism for Jews in Israel, but stated that he “won’t solve” the disparity between halacha-based laws and public practice by the non-Orthodox majority which largely eschews them. Those who self-identify but are not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate as Jewish, including Reform and Conservative converts to Judaism and others without Jewish matrilineage, remained prohibited from accessing official Jewish marriage, divorce, and burial services in the country, although some Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbis officiated at these ceremonies outside of the Rabbinate (i.e., they did not register it officially). The government maintained its policy not to accept applications for official recognition by evangelical Christian churches and Jehovah’s Witnesses, while stating that members of nonrecognized religious groups remained free to practice their religion. Government resources available for religious or heritage studies to Arab and non-Orthodox Jewish public schools remained significantly fewer than those available to Orthodox Jewish public schools.
Three Muslim citizens shot and killed two Israeli police officers, both of whom were Druze, near the entrance to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif on July 14. The attackers escaped to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, where other Israeli police officers shot and killed them. On September 17, authorities arrested two Arab citizens, including a 16-year-old, on suspicion of planning another terrorist attack at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.
On August 15, Israeli police arrested the head of the banned Northern Islamic Movement, Sheikh Raed Salah, on suspicion of incitement and supporting the activities of an illegal organization. A statement from the police characterized several speeches Salah made as inflammatory, reportedly including a speech at the funeral of the three terrorists who killed two policemen at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif on July 14. In that speech, Salah quoted a verse from the Quran regarding “those who have been killed in the cause of Allah.”
MK Ahmad Tibi compared Salah’s statements with those of rabbis such as Chief Rabbi of Safed Shmuel Eliyahu, which Tibi said “incite to murder and incite to killing Arabs,” with no response from the police. A petition to the Supreme Court by the Israel Religious Action Center to initiate disciplinary hearings against Eliyahu was pending as of September 26. On June 14, authorities indicted Rabbi Yosef Elitzur for incitement to violence, based on two articles he published in 2013.
Some religious minority groups complained of police apathy when investigating attacks against them. Data from the NGO Tag Meir and media reports indicated authorities had indicted few suspects despite 35 attacks on religious sites in the country since 2010.
At the end of the year there were multiple versions of a draft basic law to define the country as a Jewish state. Proponents said such a law was needed because the Basic Law on Human Dignity had led courts to give preference to individual human rights and freedoms over policies that perpetuated Israel as a Jewish state. The version backed by Prime Minister Netanyahu would define Israel as the “nation-state of the Jewish people,” and as a “Jewish and democratic state,” according to press reports. Civil society organizations and some political leaders expressed concern that such a law could lead to discrimination against non-Jewish minorities.
Busloads of Muslim worshippers routinely traveled from different parts of the country to Jerusalem for prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, but the government refused some buses entry to the site on July 21, in the midst of the crisis that began with the July 14 terrorist attack.
Israeli authorities in some instances barred specific individuals from the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif site, including Jewish activists believed to have violated rules against non-Muslim prayer, Muslims believed to have acted violently against non-Muslim visitors to the site, and public figures, including members of the Knesset, whose presence authorities feared would inflame tensions.
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, a view the ultra-Orthodox community supported. Increasing numbers of the self-identified “national religious” Zionist community stated they found meaning in setting foot on the site. Some government coalition MKs, such as Yehuda Glick, called for reversing the policy of banning non-Islamic prayer at the site in order to provide equal religious freedom for all who find the site holy. MK Bezalel Smotrich called for “implementing Jewish sovereignty” there. Glick and some Jewish NGOs, such as the Temple Institute and Temple Mount Faithful, continued to call on the government to implement a time-sharing plan at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif to set aside certain hours for Jewish worship, similar to the practice at the Tomb of the Patriarchs/Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron. Muslim authorities continued to oppose this idea. Some Jewish and non-Jewish MKs condemned the government’s ban on all MKs from ascending the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. Prime Minister Netanyahu allowed MKs to enter the compound for one day in August, and two Jewish MKs did so. One Jewish MK also entered on October 25. On April 2, the Supreme Court rejected a request by Temple Mount activists to sacrifice sheep near the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif for Passover.
Prime Minister Netanyahu reiterated his support for the status quo arrangement at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, for example, in remarks to reporters on July 16.
The government continued to permit persons of all faiths to pray at the main Western Wall plaza, the place of worship nearest the holiest site in Judaism, but with separation of women and men, and with the women’s section being less than half the size of the men’s section. On June 25, following ultra-Orthodox parties’ objections to elements of a January 2016 agreement with non-Orthodox Jewish groups that offered symbolic recognition to the Conservative and Reform Judaism movements, the cabinet voted to “freeze” the agreement. At the same time, Prime Minister Netanyahu ordered the government to expedite construction to upgrade the temporary egalitarian prayer space, a platform for Reform and Conservative Jewish services south of the main Western Wall plaza, but the non-Orthodox movements stated that upgrading the prayer space alone would not fulfill the agreement. In response to a Supreme Court case on the issue, the government stated in September it would not raise the agreement for another government decision, and the court had no grounds to impose an agreement. The case was pending at the end of the year, with the next hearing scheduled for January 2018.
Authorities continued to prohibit anyone from bringing private Torah scrolls to the main Western Wall plaza and to prohibit women from accessing the public Torah scrolls or giving priestly blessings at the site. The authorities 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. The 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, but the media reported that security guards conducted intrusive body searches on some women while searching for Torah scrolls under their clothes on August 23, despite a January 11 injunction by the Supreme Court prohibiting such searches.
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 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 September ultra-Orthodox MK Yisrael Eichler described the non-Orthodox movements who were party to the Western Wall agreement as “enemies of the Jewish religion,” while Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem Shlomo Amar described them as “accursed evil people” and compared them to Holocaust-deniers, according to press reports. Prime Minister Netanyahu condemned Amar’s remarks. Also in September media reported that opposition MK Haneen Zoabi stated the country’s “fascist laws” make it “suitable to compare, logical to compare, Israel … with Germany in the 30s.”
Ultra-Orthodox parties continued to be against legal changes to the status quo regarding issues of halacha and state, which opponents said raised religious freedom concerns. For example, the only in-country marriages the government recognized for Jews were those performed by the Chief Rabbinate, which continued to refuse to perform marriages involving citizens without maternal Jewish lineage, because the Chief Rabbinate did not consider them Jewish according to halacha. Likewise, men with ancestry in the Jewish priesthood (cohanim) were not allowed to marry converts or divorcees, in accordance with halacha. On September 19, media reported Prime Minister Netanyahu expressed support for greater religious pluralism for Jews in Israel, but stated that he “won’t solve” the disparity between halacha-based laws and public practice by the non-Orthodox majority which largely eschews them. Analysts in media and civil society ascribed Netanyahu’s position to the reality of his political coalition with ultra-Orthodox parties.
According to the think tank Israel Democracy Institute, hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jews worked illegally on Shabbat, but the government made little effort to enforce the ban on Jews’ employment on Shabbat, while credit card companies reported 25 to 30 percent of all consumer activity occurred on Shabbat. Four consecutive ministers of interior refused to act on a bylaw allowing 164 grocery stores and kiosks to operate on Shabbat passed by the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality in 2014. The Supreme Court ruled on April 19, and again on October 26, that the protracted nondecision of the ministers of interior was unlawful, and the bylaw could take effect. On September 11, non-Orthodox Jewish groups withdrew a petition to the Supreme Court that had argued the Shabbat ban on public transportation adversely impacted those of low socioeconomic status, after the judges noted their petition was lacking an aggrieved public transportation operator. The petitioners stated they would establish such an operator and apply for a license from the Transportation Ministry to operate on Shabbat, then return to the Supreme Court if the government denied its application. The NGO Hiddush reported in September that 73 percent of Jewish Israelis supported full or partial public transportation on Shabbat, up from 58 percent in 2010.
Following three years of hearings on a petition by women’s rights organizations to appoint a female director-general to the rabbinical courts, the Supreme Court ruled August 15 that since the position was inherently administrative, not religious, it must be open to anyone licensed as a rabbinic pleader, including women. In June the Rabbinical Courts Administration named a female deputy director-general for the first time. Since only men can 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.
A June hearing in the Knesset Committee for Distributive Justice discussed the inaccessibility of Jewish mikvah ritual baths to disabled women.
The MOI continued to rely on the guidance 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.
Those who self-identify but are not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate as Jewish, including Reform and Conservative converts to Judaism and others without Jewish matrilineage, were prohibited from accessing official Jewish marriage, divorce, and burial services in the country, although some Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbis did officiate at these ceremonies outside of the Rabbinate. Ha’aretz reported on September 18 that the Chief Rabbinate had changed the registration status of 900 persons from Jewish to non-Jewish or “pending clarification” in 2015 and 2016, after the highest rabbinical court approved the Chief Rabbinate’s power to revoke Israelis’ Jewish status in December 2016. The NGO ITIM petitioned the Supreme Court against this practice, and the case was ongoing at year’s end.
A group of Orthodox rabbis continued to operate a private conversion court for children of families whose Judaism was not recognized by the state or the rabbinical courts. A ruling by the Supreme Court in 2016 expanded immigration rights under the Law of Return to those who completed private (non-Rabbinate) Orthodox conversions in the country. The Chief Rabbinate continued not to recognize non-Orthodox converts to Judaism as Jews, although they continued to be accepted for the purpose of immigration under the Law of Return. A Supreme Court case to grant immigration rights to those who completed Reform or Conservative conversions was pending at year’s end.
In June the Association for Civil Rights in Israel filed a petition in the Supreme Court against what it said was the IDF’s practice of pressuring soldiers who were not recognized as Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate to convert to Judaism through an expedited Orthodox Jewish conversion course. In its September 17 response to the court, the government stated it changed its procedures to allow soldiers to sign a waiver upon arrival at the course affirming they did not wish to participate. The court scheduled the next hearing for July 2018.
The MRS listed 23 Jewish cemeteries with plots for civil burial, managed by the National Insurance Institute, and 21 dedicated cemeteries for persons the government defined as “lacking religion.” Additionally, 13 cemeteries in 10 agricultural localities were authorized to conduct civil burial for these localities and nearby residents. Some persons, however, who sought a civil burial reported several civil cemeteries near Tel Aviv were unusable because they were full or restricted to local residents.
Pursuant to a 2013 Supreme Court ruling on easing the funding conditions for activities by the Reform and Conservative Jewish communities, the government continued to pay the salaries of 12 non-Orthodox rabbis serving regional councils. The Ministry of Housing continued to provide funding to build non-Orthodox Jewish religious institutions, which it designated “seminaries,” according to the Israel Religious Action Center.
In August the government cable and satellite broadcasting regulator fined Channel 20, the “Heritage Channel,” 100,800 shekels ($29,000) for excluding the Reform and Conservative Jewish movements from its programming, since its license describes the outlet as a platform for all streams of Judaism. Channel 20 appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, and the case was ongoing at year’s end.
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. On August 3, the education ministry supervisor of Jewish religious public high schools testified to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that educators in those schools discouraged girls from enlisting based on a religious ruling from the Chief Rabbinate.
The government maintained its policy not to accept applications for official recognition by evangelical Christian churches and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The government stated members of nonrecognized religions remained free to practice their religion, and that some leaders of these religions were invited and participated along with the leaders of recognized religions at official events or ceremonies.
The only domestic marriages which had legal standing and could be registered were marriages performed according to the religious statutes of recognized religious communities. Members of other nonrecognized groups could attempt to process their personal status documents, including marriage licenses, through the authorities of one of the recognized religious communities if those authorities agreed. The government allowed civil registration of marriages held outside the country. The Interior Ministry continued to register same-sex marriages conducted abroad.
Some church leaders stated a law preventing a spouse from the West Bank or Gaza from obtaining resident status was especially challenging for Christian Israelis because their small population made it difficult to find a spouse within the community in Israel.
The government operated a special police unit of 60 officers for the investigation of “ideologically-based offenses” in Israel and the West Bank, including “price tag” attacks (violence by Jewish individuals and groups against non-Jewish individuals and property with the stated purpose of exacting a “price” for actions the government had taken that the Jewish group opposed, actions by the government against members of the group committing the violence, or violent attacks by other Palestinians).
President Reuven Rivlin attended an interfaith ceremony to mark the completion of the restoration of the Church of the Multiplication in Tabgha on February 12. In 2015 arsonists burned a large section of the church and scrawled on the building’s stone walls sections of the Jewish prayer book that in this context denigrated Christians. In July a court convicted one person of charges including arson and defacing real estate with a hostile motive, and acquitted a second suspect. In January the government paid 1.5 million shekels ($432,000) for the restoration of the church.
The government provided separate public schools for Jewish children, conducted in Hebrew, and Arab children, conducted in Arabic. Government resources available for religious or heritage studies to Arab and non-Orthodox Jewish public schools remained significantly less than those available to Orthodox Jewish public schools.
For Jewish children there continued to be separate public schools for religious and secular families. Individual families were able to choose a public school system regardless of ethnicity or religious observance. Public Hebrew-language state schools taught Jewish history, culture, and some basic religious texts. By law, the state provided the equivalent of public school funding to two systems of ultra-Orthodox religious schools, the United Torah Judaism-affiliated Independent Education System and the Shas-affiliated Fountain of Torah Education System. Public and private 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 commonality and similar storylines in the holy writings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Minors had the right to choose a public secular school instead of a religious school regardless of parental preference.
Many ultra-Orthodox religious schools continued not to offer a basic humanities, math, and science curriculum, and in 2015 a group of formerly ultra-Orthodox students who graduated from these schools sued the state for allowing them to graduate without the requisite knowledge to participate in the economy. They said they were denied basic education and left lagging far behind secular Israelis in topics such as science, math, history, English, and geography. After the government responded to the court that the bearers of the responsibility are parents and educational institutions, and the statute of limitations should apply, a Jerusalem District Court judge dismissed the case.
A May report from the State Comptroller criticized the education ministry for failing to respond effectively to discrimination in educational institutions, including discrimination against girls in ultra-Orthodox schools. In September 2016 the media reported municipal authorities denied at least 50 school girls entry into ultra-Orthodox schools to which they had been assigned because of their lack of “spiritual suitability” stemming from their Sephardic heritage. The government stated approximately 25 girls were denied entry. Reportedly, the Ministry of Education effectively used its control of the budget to persuade schools to change their policy towards some of these students, but in January the newspaper Yediot Ahronot reported 14 cases remained unresolved. In May the education ministry issued new regulations banning demand for a particular “spiritual authority” at home as an admissions criterion.
Christian church representatives stated that government budget cuts to private Christian schools categorized as “recognized but not official” schools could cause their schools to begin closing in five to 10 years. The government offered to fully fund the Christian schools if they became part of the public school system, but the churches rejected this option, stating they would lose control over hiring teachers, admitting students, and using school property. Following a strike in 2015, the government pledged to transfer an additional 50 million shekels ($14.4 million) to the schools, of which church leaders received one-quarter in 2016 and the remainder in 2017. Church leaders stated this transfer helped reduce their debts from 2015, but did not resolve their annual deficits nor the financial disparity with the ultra-Orthodox schools, which were also categorized as “recognized but not official” but which received full government funding.
On July 31, the education ministry published a report showing its per-student annual budget for Jewish religious high schools in 2016-17 was 33,016 shekels ($9,500), 22 percent higher than for Jewish secular high schools and 54 percent higher than Arab high schools, whose students were predominantly Muslim. The amount for Druze high schools was comparable to Jewish secular schools. The report also found the ministry’s per-student budget in Jewish religious elementary schools was 19 percent higher than secular elementary schools and 4 percent higher than Arab elementary schools.
The Custody of the Holy Land, a priory of the Franciscan order, reported local municipalities, such as Tel Aviv and Haifa, continued to charge property tax on monastery property, such as friars’ residences, parish halls, and other buildings that are part of the monasteries and do not conduct business activity. Church officials said they paid part of these disputed taxes during the year and the remainder was under negotiation. The government stated only properties mainly used for worship and having no business activities were exempt from property tax under the law, while religious organizations were obligated to pay taxes on other property and assets.
Christian leaders reported little difficulty obtaining visas for clergy to serve in the country. Church officials, however, 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 acknowledgment of their right to conscientious objection. Since members of the community were not exempt from military service, they could not participate in the national civil service program as an alternative service.
A Supreme Court petition by the organization Yesh Gvul called to change the criteria for exemptions from military service based on conscientious objection to be equivalent to the criteria for exemptions based on religious beliefs. The government’s preliminary response stated the two exemptions are based on different sections of the law for different circumstances, and requested dismissal for lack of cause. The court scheduled the next hearing for June 2018.
Since September 2014, the government has allowed Christians and individuals who spoke Aramaic to register with their national or ethnic group listed as Aramean instead of Arab. A report published on April 3, by the Knesset Research and Information Center, found only 16 persons had changed their registration to Aramean as of February.
The MOI trained Druze and Muslim clerical employees of the state on how to work with government ministries. Approximately half of the Druze and Muslim clerics in Israel were appointed and funded by the MOI. Muslim leaders alleged the MOI routinely monitored and summoned for “talks” those whom the ministry suspected of opposing government policies. The other Israeli Druze and Muslim clerics were nonstate employees due to either the preference of the local community or lack of MOI budget, according to the government. Muslim leaders stated sharia court judges, who were Ministry of Justice employees, were their preferred religious leaders. There remained no Islamic seminaries in the country, and students of Islam traveled to other countries, primarily Jordan or the West Bank, to study.
According to the NGO Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality (NCF), in recent years the government approved plans for the establishment of 15 new towns and settlements in the Negev region, the vast majority intended for the Jewish population. Authorities approved plans for settlements named Hiran, Daya, and Neve Gurion to replace existing Bedouin villages. Authorities planned Daya to replace the unrecognized village al-Qatamat, and Neve Gurion was to replace some houses in the recognized village of Bir Haddaj.
During a police action on January 18 to demolish homes in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran, in preparation to replace it with a Jewish settlement called Hiran, police shot local resident Yaqub Musa Abu al-Qian, and Abu al-Qian’s car subsequently struck and killed one police officer. Abu al-Qian died of his wounds shortly thereafter. Village leaders expressed openness to almost any option that would allow them to remain in place, including living side-by-side with Jewish neighbors in an expanded community. The NGO Adalah wrote a letter to the National Planning and Building Council on August 7, objecting to bylaws drafted by the Hiran cooperative association that would allow only Orthodox Jews to live in Hiran, stating the government intended to replace the Muslim residents of Umm al-Hiran. A group of 35 Jewish families sponsored by the OR Movement, which advocates internal settlements, remained in the forest outside Umm al-Hiran, living in mobile homes donated by the Jewish National Fund, while waiting to obtain the land. The group included an estimated 175 children.
Some former mosques and cemeteries, belonging to the defunct prestate Waqf (different from the Jordanian-administered Waqf of the Haram al-Sharif) until confiscated by the state after the 1948 War of Independence, remained sealed and inaccessible, even to Muslims. Other former mosques continued to be used for secular purposes. Muslim community leaders reported no difficulties obtaining municipal approval for construction of mosques in Muslim-majority localities. They noted, however, that Be’er Sheva’s Muslim population of approximately 10,000 continued to travel to nearby Bedouin towns to pray, since they could not use an Ottoman-era Be’er Sheva mosque the government converted to a museum of Islamic culture following a 2011 Supreme Court ruling, and the government would not authorize the construction of another mosque.
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 June the IDF issued new regulations allowing secular military funerals.
In some ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, “modesty signs” posted by private organizations demanded women obscure themselves from public view so as not to distract devout men, which NGOs stated they perceived as an infringement on women’s equality and human dignity. The local municipality of Beit Shemesh failed to comply with court orders from January 2015 and January 2016 to take down the signs, leading the Jerusalem District Court on June 7 to rule the municipality would face a fine of 10,000 shekels ($2,900) for each day the signs remained up after July 6. The municipality appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which scheduled a hearing on the case for March 2018.
The Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court ruled June 21 that requests by airline staff to female passengers to change seats when an ultra-Orthodox man objected to sitting next to a woman were discriminatory. According to the Israel Religious Action Center, asking a passenger to change seats because of her gender would be no different from asking someone to move because of their race or religion. The court awarded 6,500 shekels ($1,900) to an octogenarian plaintiff who brought a case against El Al after she changed seats at the request of a flight attendant in 2015.
A Supreme Court ruling on September 12 reaffirmed the Chief Rabbinate had sole legal authority to issue certificates of kashrut, which certify a restaurant’s adherence to Jewish dietary laws. It broadened, however, the allowance for alternative non-Rabbinate certification, such as that of the independent Orthodox organization Hashgacha Pratit, stating restaurants without a kashrut certificate were allowed to present “a true presentation regarding the standards it observes and the manner of supervising their observance.” The media reported on September 27 that the Chief Rabbinate levied a 2,000 shekel ($580) fine on a Jerusalem restaurant for displaying a new certificate by Hashgacha Pratit, which the organization stated conformed to the September 12 Supreme Court ruling. A May 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.
In March the NGO Adalah withdrew a petition from the Supreme Court that objected to a law banning meat imports without a kashrutcertificate from the Chief Rabbinate after the judges indicated they did not perceive the law treating secular Jews and non-Jews differently.
Sources stated that some non-kosher restaurants that opened on the Sabbath paid fines that varied according to local laws.
Religious identification was listed in the National Registry, but not on official identity cards.