To Help the Peace Process, the United States Should Help Religious Freedom in Israel

In light of the recent Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur celebrations, this week’s Cornerstone contributors focus on Israel. In particular, the blog posts explore the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, looking at how religious freedom—or a lack thereof—has played a role in the fighting.  

By: Michael Barnett

If the United States is interested in promoting peace between the Palestinians and Israelis, then it should consider using the International Religious Freedom Act to promote religious freedom in Israel and Palestine.

Does Israel have a problem with religious freedom? Yes. According to a recent Pew Forum study, Israel’s scores on religious freedom place it closer to Turkey, Sudan, and Chad than to the United States. In this respect, it has much more in common with many of its neighbors in the Middle East than it does with Western secular democracies.

What accounts for Israel’s relatively low ranking on religious freedom? It is a product of the very character of the state. Israel defines itself as a Jewish state. Israel is a Jewish State and not simply a state for the Jews. To be a Jewish state requires more than simply a Jewish majority; it also requires that Judaism stamps nearly all aspects of civil, political, economic, and cultural life. Whether Israel deserves the label of “theocratic democracy,” as some Israelis contend, is a matter of debate, but there is no debating that religion is part of Israel’s fabric.

From the very beginning, religious authorities in Israel were granted considerable power and influence, certainly much more power than religious authorities enjoy in secular, liberal democracies. In order to protect and cultivate that identity, Israeli laws delegate various kinds of civil and personal integrity rights to religious authorities, and Orthodox religious institutions and authorities are quite aggressive about using their power. They have used their political perch to ensure that they get a lion’s share of the state’s welfare transfers, to exempt themselves from many basic responsibilities expected of other Israeli citizens, to create ever expanding religious enclaves in Jerusalem and elsewhere, and to impose their views on basic personal integrity laws.

Although religious minorities such as Christians and Muslims enjoy considerable religious freedom, there is a religious minority in Israel that, in fact, gets special attention from the Orthodox religious and political establishment: non-Orthodox Jews, including reform and conservative Jews. If Israel is a Jewish state, then who is a Jew becomes a critical matter. And whoever gets to define who is a Jew, what it means to be a Jew, what sorts of state laws are needed in order to keep Israel Jewish, and who has the right of return, has tremendous political, economic, and cultural power. For the Orthodox community, the pledge to keep Israel Jewish means more than ensuring that the vast majority of Israelis are Jewish. It also means that the Israeli legal and political system must ensure that Judaism, as they define it, remains a core part of Israel’s identity.

But does the lack of religious freedom have any impact on Israel’s position on the peace process? Yes. According to public opinion polls in Israel, the religious community is largely opposed to a two-state solution, at least if it requires withdrawing from the territories and ceding some control over Jerusalem. Religious devotion drives much of their opposition; for what others call “the territories,” they call Judea and Samaria and see as an integral part of the Jewish ancestral homeland. For them, it makes no more sense to withdraw Ariel than it does Tel-Aviv. With an eye toward fulfilling their religious mission and preventing any withdrawal, they have successfully lobbied for settlement expansion. The religious authorities have also injected a climate of fear into Israeli politics. Although they are not the only source of extremism, they have played an important role. The religious settlers are associated with all kinds of acts of terrorism. And they direct their violence not only against the Palestinians and non-Jews. Motivated by religious belief, Yagil Amir assassinated Prime Minister Yitzkak Rabin in November 1995. The peace process has never been the same. Mission accomplished and message delivered. Although it would be unfair to blame the lack of progress toward peace on the Jewish religious community in Israel, it has reduced Israel’s flexibility in negotiations, fueled extremism, and made peace that much more elusive.

If the religious community is able to use its privileged position in Israeli politics and society to obstruct the possibility of peace, then perhaps a campaign to increase religious freedom in Israel might turn things around. Such a campaign would have the goal of moving the line between state and religion closer to where it is in the United States. It would mean reducing the ability of the Israeli state to be used to further the political, economic, and cultural advantages of one religious community over others. These and other kinds of reforms associated with religious freedom campaigns might clip the wings of the religious community.

The United States might be able to give Israel a push in the right direction. Religious freedom is already a central goal of US foreign policy, as expressed through the International Religious Freedom Act. As part of that act, the State Department is obligated to try and promote religious freedom, describe the state of religious freedom in other countries, and report on its activities in different countries to advance religious freedom. The US then, could simply do what it is supposed to. In fact, I might be preaching to the converted because the US government appears to already be moving in this direction. For instance, according to the most recent annual report to Congress, the State Department recounted the US government had “engaged in detailed discussions on religious freedom issues with the government and religious and civil society organizations. Embassy officials raised issues such as strengthening interfaith coordinating councils in support of peace negotiations and countering intolerant or offensive speech and religiously-motivated acts of violence against minority religious groups.” Furthermore, “The embassy offered programs that exposed religiously diverse groups of Israelis to US models of religious diversity, civil society, and the art of negotiation, and supported Jewish-Arab educational programs that brought groups of students of different faiths together…”

I don’t mean to ignore the Palestinians because the Palestinian territories, and especially Hamas in Gaza, are serial violators of religious freedom. Religious minorities such as Christians, offshoots of Islam, and Muslims who do not want to follow the state-sanctioned Islam also are under threat. And, so too are those who are atheists and agnostics. But the Palestinians and Islamic states are the “usual suspects” for the Office of Religious Freedom and already get considerable heat. It is important not to forget that Israel could use a little help, and that a little help on religious freedom might prove important for peace.

Michael Barnett is a professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

This piece was originally authored on October 6, 2014 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.