Last Updated 12 November 2019

Israel has a population of just over 8.2 million people. Those identifying as Jews represent an estimated 75% of the population, with 17% identifying as Muslim. Smaller religious minorities are Druze (1.6%), Christian (2%) and Baha’is Samaritans Karaites and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Controversially established as a homeland for the Jewish people, many of whom were survivors of the holocaust, Israel’s founding was opposed by neighbouring Arab countries which lead to the first in a series of wars. Israel’s history has been marked not only by conflict with Arab states but also by ethnic and religious violence with Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza. Religion, ethnicity, and nationality are closely linked in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Severe Discrimination
Systemic Discrimination

Constitution and government

Due in part to the lack of agreement between secular and religious Israelis, the country never adopted a constitution after the establishment of the State. Israel’s Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty protects freedom of religion or belief, and freedom of expression. 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 religious freedom and full social and political equality, regardless of religious affiliation. However, governmental and legal discrimination against non-Jews, and non-Orthodox Jews, including those identifying with secular or Humanistic Judaism, persists.

As a Jewish state some laws and policies promote certain Orthodox Jewish values over those of other religious beliefs. For example pig-farming is restricted and some establishments like Jewish hotels are obliged to cater exclusively Kosher food. More prominently, family and personal status law is almost entirely subsumed by religious authority. The state officially recognizes Christian, Druze, and Baha’i religious communities. Muslims have the right to apply their own family law in legal matters, but the Muslim community is not otherwise recognised. Christians do not have a separate court system, however, unrecognized communities are allowed to practice their religion. Proselytizing is allowed for all religious groups, except of the attempt to convert a minor. However, parts of society consider it as religious harassment and oppose missionary activity.

Settler groups and others are known to attack Muslim, Christian, and Jewish religious sites (so-called “price tag” attacks). The “price tag” attacks include also slashing cars and writing slogans such as “Jesus is a cow”, “Mary is a monkey” and “Arabs out”. The government publicly criticizes these attacks, however, the following arrests rarely lead to successful prosecutions.

The desecration of religious sites is punished with seven years imprisonment. Calling and supporting acts of violence against religious groups is criminalized. Numerous reports stated that Haredi men were spitting at non-Haredi Jews and persons of different faith. There are reports of anti-Semitic acts by members of minority religious groups as well. Vandals have used swastikas in graffiti. Terrorist statements against the country often contain anti-Semitic rhetoric.

National ID cards used to identify the religious affiliation until 2007. The new cards note only name and birthday. However birth certificates do not list both parents’ names if one of them is not Jewish.

Education and children’s rights

The majority of Israelis attended the largely secular “State-Schools” (sometimes called Secular Jewish Schools).  There are a significant number of government funded “State-Religious” schools, of which most are Jewish.  In both types of State schools have a 75% mandated curriculum. Public secular schools teach Jewish heritage and culture rather than religion. Minors have the right to choose a secular education even if their parents do not agree. Public Arabic-speaking schools teach religion classes on both Quran and Bible. There are a few mixed Jewish-Arab schools as well.

In 2012 there were reports that government spending was higher per pupil favoured State-Religious compared to secular state funded schools. The disparity was even higher when compared to the funding obtained by religious minority schools (such as Druze, Muslim and Haredi) and has been seen as part of the wider disadvantages experienced by Israeli Arabs.

A study in 2011 found that 65% of State-Religious elementary schools in Israel practice gender segregation.

Family, community and society

According to a 2014 poll by the Rafi Smith Institute, over 50% of Israeli Jews regard themselves as “Hiloni” or secular; they may participate in Jewish customs and holy days but are not explicitly religious.

A left over from the Ottoman legal system, each officially recognized religious community has wide ranging legal authority over its members in matters of marriage, divorce, inheritance and child custody under their own Family law. The state recognizes Jewish, Muslim, Druze, Baha’i and Christian family laws. Some others, as for instance Anglican faith, are not recognized in Israel. Further, the freedom of many individuals who may not otherwise subject themselves to the authority of religious communities is limited by this system.

Not the least affected are women, who are often marginalised by religious laws that limit freedom of choice in matters of divorce and marriage.  Muslim family law often discriminates women in matters of marriage, divorce, and child custody. A Muslim man can marry a non-Muslim woman, but a Muslim woman can only marry a Muslim man. Muslim and Druze men can easily divorce, while the women do not have the same rights. Jewish women have to get a handwritten decree by their husbands in order for the divorce to be finalized. However, inheritance is governed by civil law and women have the same rights as men both widows and daughters. Violence against women is criminalized by the penal code, including physical and mental violence, rape and spousal rape. The law also defines sexual harassment as both a criminal offense and a cause for civil suit. The authorities operate women’s shelters, a national hotline for reporting abuses, and more. However, Orthodox Jewish, Muslim, Bedouin, and Druze communities face significant social pressure not to report domestic abuse or rape. Abortion for economic or social reasons, or on request, is illegal. There are no legal restrictions on women’s free access to public space and freedom of movement.

Except in marriage and some Jewish- and Muslim-specific regulations, citizens can chose between religious and civil courts in many matters of family law. It was only recently that Muslim women in Israel were given the same access to the limited number of civil courts as Jewish and Christian Israelis. However, societal pressures often prevent Muslim women to choose a civil court, while Jewish women generally prefer civil courts because they are considered fairer to women.

There is no civil marriage in the country and those wishing to have a non-religious ceremony must go abroad (the government does recognise foreign civil marriages). Jewish Israelis must be married by an Orthodox Rabbi who has been recognised by the Chief Rabbinate.  This also means that there are no mixed marriages in the country given that Orthodox Judaism does not recognise marriages between Jews and non-Jews. In 2010, a bill was passed that allows a limited right to an alternative form of civil marriage (“couplehood union” status) for Israelis who declare a non-religious status.  However, this still prevents mixed unions. Furthermore, Orthodox Judaism only recognises someone as Jewish if they have a Jewish mother. Israelis who claim their Judaism from their father are not able to marry as it would be considered a “mixed marriage”. This can especially be an issue for recent immigrants from the former Soviet union as many obtained their Israeli citizenship due to their Jewish heritage on their father’s side.

Divorce is a complicated matter. As a “Personal Status” issue, divorce itself is handled entirely by the religious courts.  For the majority Jewish population, this means that the Rabbinical courts have exclusive responsibility over the initial divorce proceedings. Some of the more practical elements of divorce, such as child custody and alimony, can be handled by the small number of civil family courts. Generally both parents are considered as equal and the Capacity of Guardianship Law (1962), which applies to all Israeli citizens, provides parental authority to both parents. The courts however tend to favor maternal custody but some religious courts may rule differently. There have been cases of divorced couples racing to different courts, the man to the Rabbinical court the woman to the civil courts,  in order to get a better settlement. In the Druze community the courts tend to give preference to the father.

There is also no same-sex marriage. Religious parties have regularly prevented the state from enacting anti-discrimination laws for sexual minorities, including proposals to introduce same-sex marriage and gay adoption rights. In November 2013 Jewish Home attempted to veto equal child benefits for same-sex parents fearing a “silent revolution” that would upset what is known as the “status quo” (the tense balance of secular and religious authorities in the country). However, a single sex couple can get married abroad and since the 2006 ruling authorities have to recognize the marriage upon their return. A single sex couple can make a family life agreement in Israel and have it authorized at a family court.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups wish to enforce a gender segregation on public streets and public transport. The High court however has repeatedly ruled that it is illegal and can not be imposed.

In July 2018, Israel passed a controversial law declaring that only Jews have the right of self-determination in the country. The legislation reads:

“The state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment.”

The legislation also strips Arabic of its designation as an official language alongside Hebrew, downgrading it to a special status. The “nation state” law was condemned by multiple parties and defined as an act of discrimination against Israel’s Arabs, who make up about 20% of the population.

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

Freedom of expression, and media freedom, is guaranteed in the Basic Law and usually protected in practice. The Israeli media are vibrant and independent and freely criticize government policy and religious issues. There are some general freedom of speech issues, especially regarding National Security.

De-facto blasphemy law

There is also a de-facto blasphemy law in effect.  Article 173 of the country’s penal code allows for one year imprisonment if: “One publishes a publication that is liable to crudely offend the religious faith or sentiment of others,” or if “One voices in a public place and in the hearing of another person any word or sound that is liable to crudely offend the religious faith or sentiment of others.”

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