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Orthodox groups decry State Dept. report on religious freedom

The State Department in its annual International Religious Freedom Report takes issue with Israel's treatment of non-Jews and non-Orthodox Jews. (U.S. State Department)

The State Department in its annual International Religious Freedom Report takes issue with Israel’s treatment of non-Jews and non-Orthodox Jews. (U.S. State Department)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — A U.S. State Department report on religious freedom is drawing sharp criticism from Orthodox Jewish groups over its portrayal of Israel.

The groups are denouncing what they call the unfair and biased criticism of Israel in the annual International Religious Freedom Report. Released last month, the report evaluates the levels of religious freedom in countries throughout the world, dubbing some “Countries of Particular Concern.”

While the 2009 report does not list Israel as a “CPC,” and even credits the country for supporting “the generally free practice of religion,” it does take issue with Israel’s treatment of non-Jews and non-Orthodox Jews.

The report cites the Israeli government’s recognition only of Orthodox authorities in certain civil matters, its refusal to allow interfaith marriages and the lack of public transportation in most Israeli cities on the Jewish Sabbath.

Two Orthodox organizations, National Council of Young Israel and Agudath Israel of America, rushed to defend Israel and called into question the timing of and motivation behind the criticism. And the Orthodox Union’s main representative in Washington, Nathan Diament, said the organization had conveyed its concerns to the State Department but declined to elaborate.

“It just seems somewhat strange that with real issues of international significance facing the U.S. on multiple fronts at this time, including Iran, they would choose [now] to attack Israel, their only democratic ally and friend in the region,” said Aaron Troodler, communications director for the National Council of Young Israel.

In fact, the State Department has been required to file the annual report since 1998, with the U.S. government bound to take diplomatic steps to improve conditions in any nation the report deems a CPC. Among the repeat offenders: Iran, Saudi Arabia, China and Sudan.

The past few reports have similarly scrutinized Israel’s reliance on Orthodox Judaism as a religious compass, but this year’s analysis devotes more space to the matter and appears harsher, explicitly asserting that Israel "discriminates." The 2008 document used milder language, describing Orthodox hegemony over some matters but stopping short of accusing Israel of discrimination.

Criticism of countries identified as CPCs, such as Iran, meanwhile, remained largely the same from 2008 to 2009.

The State Department is standing by its current report.

In response to a JTA query, the State Department issued a statement saying it looks at any “states with an official affiliation with mosque or church through the same lens of concern for the rights of the less observant or minorities.”

Uri Regev, a Reform rabbi who runs the newly created organization Hiddush, said the toughness in tone should not surprise Orthodox groups.

“You can’t escape the irony of Jews seeking freedom in Israel and then turning around and denying other Jews religious freedom,” said Regev, whose organization is challenging the special status in Israel of the Orthodox. “This gives us an opportunity which I hope the Jewish community is going to take advantage of, mainly what is the core character of Israel? It is important that we recognize that Israel is not and should not be a theocracy.”

The Jewish Reconstructionist Federation declined to comment; the Conservative-affiliated Rabbinical Assembly did not return calls.

The New Israel Fund, which fund-raises for Israeli groups that promote civil liberties, said the report underscored the lack of equal access for the non-Orthodox in Israel.

In a statement, NIF noted that there had been some improvements in recent years — particularly for "agunot," women denied the opportunity to divorce recalcitrant husbands — but said the "political stranglehold" of the religious parties on civil matters should concern American Jews.

"The Orthodox hegemony determines that there is only one way to be Jewish, to marry, divorce, be buried, to convert, and to give meaning to the vision of the Jewish state," said NIF President Naomi Chazan. "This monolithic approach confuses unity and uniformity and alienates many groups from the Jewish tradition."

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