Imagine this image: Jewish believers in Yeshua Ha’Mashiach (Hebrew for “Jesus Christ”) living in Israel. Though loyal Jews who love their nation and their Jewishness, they face persecution from religious zealots who, hating the belief in Jesus as the Messiah, try to make their lives miserable, especially when they seek to witness to other Jews about their faith.
At first glance these scenes sound like they belong in the biblical book of Acts, an account of the early days of the church, which was then composed mostly of Jews who faced persecution from fellow Jews, such as Saul of Tarsus, who “made havoc of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison” (Acts 8:3 kjv).
But the situation described above isn’t first-century Israel, but twenty-first-century Israel. Unlike the first-century persecution, which had official sanction, Jews who believe in Jesus in Israel today are promised the protection of the law, and for the most part enjoy it too. Nevertheless, the parallels are still there, and they present just one of many prickly and difficult issues for Israel itself, a democracy based on many of the principles of freedom and equality that we take for granted in the West, including religious freedom.
What, then, is the status of religious freedom in Israel, and how does the Jewish state deal with the tensions, struggles, and conflicts that arise in any pluralistic democracy that seeks to balance the promises of freedom with the need for stability and security?
The Ideal and the Real
The International Religious Freedom Report for 2012, issued by the United States Department of State, released its report entitled “Israel and the Occupied Territories.” It began: “The country’s laws and policies provide for religious freedom and the government generally respected religious freedom in practice. The trend in the government’s respect for religious freedom did not change significantly during the year. The Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty protects religious freedom through reference to the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel. The declaration describes the country as a Jewish state with full social and political equality, regardless of religious affiliation, and provides for freedom of religion. However, governmental and legal discrimination against non-Jews and non-Orthodox streams of Judaism continued.”
In other words, as with other democracies promising religious freedom, including the United States, the ideal and the real don’t always perfectly match. As Americans have learned through the centuries, balancing freedom and security, freedom and stability, is not always easy. After more than 200 years the United States is still learning how to juggle these crucial principles. How much more so, then, for Israel, a nation less than 70 years old? Nevertheless, especially in contrast to what is found in that part of the world (think, for instance, Saudi Arabia), Israel has done remarkably well in regard to religious liberty.
The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, mentioned in the report, is the Israeli version of the American Declaration of Independence. Like the Declaration of Independence, the Israeli version doesn’t have the force of law, nor is it a binding legal document. However, it does provide guiding principles for the nation in ways that its American counterpart doesn’t. (After all, how often do Americans go back to the Declaration of Independence for legal or moral guidance today?)
The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel does promise that the nation “will be based on freedom, justice, and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”
Unlike the United States, in Israel there is no constitution or laws or policies that specifically provide for religious freedom. But, as the State Department report said, the Israeli government does respect religious freedom. The Israeli Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty protects freedom to practice all religious beliefs, and its rulings incorporate the religious freedom provisions of international human rights agreements into the country’s body of law.
In short, religious freedom is promised, and to a great extent that promise is realized for all faiths. The Jews—pretty much at some point in their history denied religious freedom by everyone—now extend it to everyone.
Yet problems exist, even if in unexpected places. While about 75 percent of the population is Jewish, one quarter isn’t. This quarter includes Muslims, Druze, Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and numerous Protestant churches, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Seventh-day Adventists, Pentecostals, and others. Despite the wide diversity of faiths, and the inevitable tensions that the coexistence of various religions brings (think of the problems that Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses faced in America, for example), the biggest religious liberty challenges generally don’t come from tension between the Jewish majority and non-Jewish minorities, but from tension between Jews themselves.
In fact, a previous (2011) State Department report on religious freedom in Israel expressed concern about the religious freedom of non-Orthodox Jews, by far the vast majority in Israel. According to the report, “a minority of Jews in the country observes the Orthodox tradition, and the majority of Jewish citizens objected to exclusive Orthodox control over fundamental aspects of their personal lives.”
Though the ultra-Orthodox make up about only 10 percent of Israel’s 8 million citizens, these Orthodox Jews hold enough seats in the Knesset to be kingmakers. That is, any prime minister who wants to form a government needs the ultra-Orthodox to do so. But, in order to get ultra-Orthodox support, the government has to acquiesce these people, who at times seem determined to stop at nothing short of a theocracy. Though Zionism, as originally conceived, was a secular movement, the influence of the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) has injected a religious element into national life that most Israelis, generally secular, resent. Here, then, is the source of a great deal of the religious tension in Israel, a big reason for the gap between the ideal and the real. And it comes, not between the Jews and Islam, or between the Jews and Christians, but between the Jews themselves.
“How ironic,” wrote Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, “that the Jewish state is the only democratic state in the world where a non-Orthodox rabbi cannot perform a legal marriage, and where a non-Orthodox congregation has to struggle with the state even to obtain the right to build a house of worship. And what lover of Zion is not deeply offended that Israel is the only state where a Jewish woman is imprisoned for praying the Sh’ma [a Jewish prayer] out loud while wearing a tallit [prayer shawl]?”
Rick Jacobs’ word cut to the heart of a deep divide in Israeli society between the ultra-Orthodox and all other Jews in the Jewish state, even other Orthodox Jews not deemed “orthodox” enough. Because of the power of the Orthodox “religious right,” for instance, civil marriages are not allowed or recognized in Israel. Even worse, only those who are deemed truly Jewish in accord with Orthodox standards are allowed to marry in Israel. Members of other religions can marry spouses of the same religion but only by their own recognized religious authority, and not in a civil ceremony. Jews marrying non-Jews is forbidden, and many Israelis who marry non-Jews or who don’t want an Orthodox ceremony fly to Cyprus or somewhere else and get married. Those marriages are, then, recognized by the state when the couples return.
The matters get even more complicated because only marriage officiated by recognized Orthodox rabbis are legally recognized. Marriages conducted by Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, or Renewal rabbis are not deemed legitimate. And though the Law of Return recognizes converts who converted in a non-Orthodox ceremony, and though these people are given immediate Israeli citizenship, the chief rabbinate does not recognize them as Jews nor as eligible for Jewish marriage. Thus converts to Judaism who convert through progressive movements and, in some cases, Orthodox converts who converted by moderate Orthodox rabbis cannot get married in Israel. Many have asked about the logic and reason behind the thinking of a nation that will grant you citizenship because of your religion but, because of the same religion, will deny you the basic right of marriage.
“The right to marry is one of those universally cherished civil liberties,” Uri Regev, CEO of Hiddush, an Israeli human rights organization, said. “It is the one area in which Israel excluded itself from the international covenant of civil and political rights. The law adversely impacts the lives of hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens who cannot marry at all because of religious coercion and of millions who cannot have a marriage ceremony which fits their lifestyle and beliefs.”
Though polls in Israel show that a majority support civil marriage, it remains a hot-button religious and civil liberty issue, and a cause for a great deal of internal strife. If it’s easier for some Jews to get married in Germany, Russia, or Iran than in Israel, the gap between the ideal and the real obviously remains.
Another religious liberty problem, though on a much smaller scale, deals with the status of another group of Jews: Messianic Jews, who face difficulties in Israel that their counterparts in other countries don’t. How ironic: Jews in Israel face persecution that they don’t face in Gentile nations. Though there are an estimated 175,000 to 250,000 Messianic Jews in the U.S. and about 350,000 worldwide, Messianics are a tiny minority in Israel, estimated at about 10,000 to 20,000. These are Jews who believe that Jesus is the Messiah but who seek to retain their Jewish heritage and Jewish customs, as did the first Jewish believers in Jesus.
And, of course, what could be more Jewish than making Aliyah (moving to Israel)? Messianic Jews view themselves not only as loyal Jews but also as über-Zionists (most willingly serve in the army, in contrast to their Orthodox counterparts), seeing Israel at the forefront of final events that, according to their interpretation of the Bible, must occur before Yeshua returns to earth. Most also support the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and were vehemently opposed to the withdrawal from the Gaza strip.
Even with these fervent Zionist credentials, Messianics are regarded by some in Israel with deep suspicion, and in some cases open hostility, especially because—taking seriously Jesus’ words to preach the gospel to the entire world—Messianics will proselytize. Considering the long, harsh, and bitter history Jews have had with Christian proselytism, most find it exceeding offensive, especially coming from other Jews (though in Israel many challenge the Messianic Jews’ status as Jews because of their belief in Jesus, and some have faced deportation threats). And though proselytism isn’t exactly illegal in Israel, it is frowned upon, and thus Messianic Jews must work under the radar in ways that they don’t in most Western countries or in the United States. Still, over the years they have faced harassment, legal challenges, threats, and police indifference.
Things turned especially ugly five years ago when a package, disguised as a holiday gift filled with chocolate, was dropped off at the apartment of a Messianic Jewish pastor named David Oritz. “When Ortiz’s 15-year-old son Ami plucked off a chocolate,” said an article in Time magazine, “it detonated a bomb powerful enough to blow out all the apartment’s windows and to be heard a mile away. The bomb was packed with nails, screws, and needles. Doctors found more than 100 pieces of metal embedded in the boy’s body by the blast, which sheared off the skin and muscle on his legs and chest. The teenager survived, but still faces six more operations of skin grafts and the removal of shrapnel from his eyes.”
Israelis, even those with no affection for Messianics, were outraged by the attack, and years later the man responsible was tried and found guilty, not only of the Ortiz bombing but of the murder of two Palestinians. He got two life sentences plus 30 years.
Though Israeli attitudes toward Messianic Jews are softening (many Israelis are indifferent), the ultra-Orthodox, with the inordinate influence they wield in Israel, keep the pressure on them. “Persecution is on the rise,” says a Web site for Maoz ministries, a Messianic Jewish ministry. “As the number of Israelis turning to their Messiah Yeshua (Jesus) increases, the need for legal aid has also escalated. Messianic believers in Israel have been severely persecuted, mainly by ultra-Orthodox organizations whose acts of violence and legal harassment in the last few years are meant to intimidate and suppress the free practice of faith in Yeshua the Messiah.” Something like this could have been written in the earliest day of the church in the land of Israel. It was: it’s called the book of Acts.
No question, Israel still has a long way to go in bridging the gap between the reality and the ideal. What else could be expected? The United States has been for centuries the beacon in the world for those who aspire for religious liberty. And there’s no question that in the 225 years since the ratification of the Constitution, the United States’ experiment in religious freedom has been a success. Not an unqualified success, however, as this nation, now in its third century, still struggles with questions about the role of religion in public life, about the extent of free exercise protections, and about what the nonestablishment clause truly means. Other democracies have their struggles in these same areas as well. For instance, think France and the headscarf ban, or Germany and its Scientologists.
Thus it’s no surprise that Israel—burdened by a “religious right” with the kind of political clout that Pat Robertson, James Dobson, or the late Jerry Falwell could only have dreamed about—has its religious freedom challenges as well. Yet, considering the pressures it faces, both from within (the Haredimagainst pretty much everyone else) and from without (Hezbollah in the North, Hamas in the South, and a generally hostile Muslim world everywhere else), it is astonishing that the Jewish state has preserved religious freedom as well as it has.
Author: Clifford R. Goldstein
Clifford Goldstein writes from Mt. Airy, Maryland. A previous editor of Liberty, he now edits Bible study lessons for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.