While Israel touts itself as one of the few countries in the Middle East with freedom of religion, in its annual International Religious Freedom Report the U.S. State Department criticized the Jewish state for its lack of progress in expanding religious freedom.
Ironically the 2016 report, released last week, was compiled before the government suspended a deal to expand a pluralistic prayer area at the Western Wall to include Jewish sects other than just Orthodox — a move that upset many Jewish groups in America.
This year, as in previous years, the report also called out Israel for its treatment of both Messianic Jews and Christians, specifically citing the Ministry of Interior, which has been run by Orthodox Jewish parties for years and gets fed inflammatory information about believers from “anti-missionary” hate groups such as Yad L’Achim.
The State Department report spotlights the discrimination faced by Messianic Jews in immigrating to Israel, a subject KNI has reported on extensively.
“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 have ‘opted out’ of the protections of the Law of Return,” the report reads.
According to the report, the Ministry of Interior relies on information from the Jewish Agency “to determine who qualified to immigrate as a Jew” and “prospective immigrants faced questioning about their religious beliefs to determine their qualifications for citizenship.”
“The government continued to deny immigration benefits to individuals based on their religious beliefs, and also denied or delayed family reunification to some citizens based on their religious beliefs,” the report notes. “This included cases of individuals who immigrated under the Law of Return as Jews but were discovered to hold Messianic or Christian beliefs.”
The report also notes the “anti-assimilation groups,” Lehava and Yad L’Achim, which both demonstrate, sometimes violently, against religious groups they oppose, including Messianics, and usually go unpunished.
The report touches on the phenomenon of ultra-Orthodox Jews spitting on non-Orthodox Jews and especially priests in the Old City.
“There continued to be reports of Haredi men spitting at non-Haredi Jews and persons of other faiths, including those wearing Christian clerical clothing,” it stated.
Rabbi Uri Regev, a lawyer and the head of Hiddush: Freedom of Religion for Israel, welcomed the report and its “scope of coverage,” but said it also “underrates the breaches of religious freedom on a number of issues.”
He noted the religious restrictions by Israel’s rabbinate that affect Jews in Israel more than minority religious groups such as marriage, burial, conversions and issues surrounding the Western Wall.
“These abuses of religious freedom are a clear indication of the wide gap between Israel and other enlightened Western democracies, such as the USA, which are considered the gold standard for religious freedom,” Regev said.
CLARIFICATION – Aug. 25, 2017: While the 2016 report addresses certain issues Messianic Jews and Christians face in Israel, Secretary Tillerson did mention Israel or Messianic Jews specifically in his remarks.