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Is Israel like Iran? Hardly

Recently a report about religion in public life, which examined religious coercion and the limits on freedom of religion worldwide, was published in the US. On a number of parameters, Israel was placed in unsavory company, somewhere between Iran and Afghanistan. So are we Iran? Not really. The report builds “dry” parameters that are applied to different countries in an identical manner, so it gives us a twisted result. On the other hand, in Israel there are a number of restrictions on freedom of religion, so the report cannot be dismissed entirely because of its faulty methodology.

The Pew Research Center, apparently the most serious of its kind in the US, spent years collecting data about social, political, economic, and demographic sectors throughout the world. In the past decade, it has spent considerable time on the issue of freedom of religion and how governments limit freedom of religion for religious minorities, as well as interreligious tensions between different religious communities in a given country. The current report finds that a growing number of nations are applying more and more limitations to freedom of religion.

What is surprising and disturbing for Israel is that on several parameters, Israel was at the top of the list. On the list of nations that pass laws to limit freedom of religion, Israel is ranked second-highest, between Qatar and Oman; when it comes to active interreligious hostility between different communities, Israel was ranked near the top, between Afghanistan and Yemen; and for interreligious tension, Israel finds itself placed unflatteringly between Iraq and Nigeria, just ahead of Syria.

One doesn’t need to be a researcher or an expert to see that the authors of the report are missing something. A look at a TV report or an international news website is enough to provide images of Gay Pride parades throughout Israel, compared to the executions of cheating or same-sex couples in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan.

So can the report be waved off as more American nonsense? That’s uncertain. First of all, there are similarities between Muslim states and Israel. Islam, like Judaism, is a holistic religion. Unlike Christianity, Islam and Judaism aspire to arrange the entire public sphere, not just the private lives of believers. So in Muslim states, like Israel, religious officials or the government – when it is religious in nature, like Saudi Arabia – try to conduct their affairs based on religious law.

Secondly, the laws of Israel contain several that do limit freedom of religion by forcing religious laws on the entire population. The most obvious one is the marriage and divorce regime, which remains in the hands of the rabbinate. In Israel in 2019, even a sworn atheist can marry or divorce in Israel only in accordance with Jewish law. This goes along with laws that limit movement – such as the limits to public transportation on Shabbat – or coerce religious norms, such as the prohibitions against selling leavened bread products during Passover or pork products.

So are we part of Europe, or are we entrenched in the Middle East? The US report presents a perverted picture, and the real one is more complicated. Israel is Jewish and democratic. As such, it recognizes Jewish values and even gives them legal standing. The debate about the nature of the nation’s Judaism has been going on since the state was founded, and lies at the heart of the discourse surrounding the upcoming election. All this notwithstanding, Israel is a free country, in which most of its citizens live a life free of coercion most of the time and enjoy many choices.

The article was published in Israel Hayom