Rabbi Uri Regev heads Hiddush – Freedom of religion for Israel

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton caused a storm with her remarks about Israel in a closed session at the Saban Forum in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 2. Untypically, Secretary Clinton not only addressed international involvement with Israel, but also chose to express her deep and growing concern over the marginalization of women in the public sphere, a direct result of the growing religious extremism in the country. Clinton even remarked that this discrimination reminded her of what is happening in Iran and drew an analogy to the discrimination faced by Rosa Parks.

Lest recent events appear to be isolated incidents of religious extremism, both Clinton and the State Department are aware that this discrimination has reached untenable levels and can no longer go unaddressed. In addition, Hiddush polling shows 89 percent of the Jewish public in Israel sees recent expressions of religious rigidity resulting in gender segregation in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods and on bus lines as a distortion of Judaism (42 percent) or exaggerated and unnecessary (47 percent).

While issues of women’s rights are close to Clinton’s heart, her condemnation of the dangers of the rights against women do not exist in a vacuum. Israel is continuously shown to be the Western democracy that lags furthest behind in its implementation of religious freedoms overall. The U.S. State Department’s comprehensive annual reports on International Religious Freedom track Israel’s disturbing performance in this arena, and the Israel Democracy Institute shows that Israel ranks among the likes of China, Saudi Arabia and Syria in an international comparative religious freedom scale, giving Israel a score of zero.

With international Human Rights Day approaching on Dec. 10, it is critical that Clinton and all who stand for human rights see the bigger picture of these disturbing events: The exclusion of women is one symptom of a deeper and more dangerous problem in Israel. Women’s rights cannot be divorced from the system that denies of right of marriage to hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens for religious reasons only, including all Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist converts to Judaism; forces women to divorce through an anachronistic and discriminatory religious court system; and includes government policies that consistently discriminate against both non-Orthodox Jewish movements and non-Jews.

The universally cherished human rights of religious freedom and the right to marry both enjoy overwhelming public support in Israel, as evidenced year after year by Hiddush’s Israel Religion and State Index and other similar studies, including that of Israel’s governmental Central Bureau of Statistics. According to Hiddush’s 2011 index, 83 percent of Israeli Jews want to see freedom of religion and equality become a reality, and 80 percent are dissatisfied with the government’s handling of matters of religion and state.

In 1948, there were two historic events: the establishment of the State of Israel and the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which Israel was a signatory. But the Israeli government and Knesset have continued to thwart the principles of both the Declaration of Human Rights and the Israeli Declaration of Independence, hindering the right to marry and the religious freedoms promised in both. On this celebration of Human Rights Day, we must remember the rights that are yet to be realized and continue to work toward their fulfillment.

Rabbi Uri Regev is president of Hiddush for Religious Freedom and Equality.