Report on religious freedom also cites ongoing religious discrimination in Israel, including preferential treatment of Orthodoxy

Illustrative photo of anti-Semitic graffiti in Europe (CC BY-SA Beny Shlevich/Flickr)
Illustrative photo of anti-Semitic graffiti in Europe (CC BY-SA Beny Shlevich/Flickr)


WASHINGTON — Europe is having trouble grappling with an upswing in anti-Semitism, much of it tied to criticism of Israeli policy, an annual US report on religious freedom found Wednesday, while also sparing few words in expressing concern over issues of religious freedom in Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Warning that non-state actors — rather than countries — have become the “principal persecutors and preventers of religious tolerance and practice,” Secretary of State John Kerry unveiled Wednesday the State Department’s annual report on the state of religious tolerance worldwide.

Kerry presented the Annual Report on International Religious Freedom together with Ambassador At Large for Religious Freedom David Saperstein at the State Department, where both warned of the implications of the rise of groups like ISIS and Boko Haram.

The scope of the report, however, was worldwide, with Saperstein expressing specific concern that “in Europe, many governments are struggling to cope with the aftermath of terror attacks such as those in France, Belgium and Denmark, along with increased anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim actions and sentiments.”

Pressed on the connection between anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiments, Saperstein emphasized that “criticism of the public policy of any nation…no matter what the nation is, that’s appropriate. That’s part of the free marketplace of ideas and discourse.” Criticism, he said, “has often crossed the line when groups try to argue that Israel is an inherently illegal state and doesn’t have a right to exist as a Jewish state here and takes actions to delegitimize those fundamental rights.”

Such statements, the ambassador said, are “right on the cusp of that line when it holds one country to different standards than it would hold any other country.”

Anti-Semitism runs rampant in Europe

The report, which included the period of the summer 2014 Gaza conflict, noted upswings in anti-Semitic incidents in most western European countries during the fighting.

“Countries such as France and Germany,” the State Department wrote, “witnessed a wave of anti-Israel sentiments that crossed the line into anti-Semitism, which “left many pondering the viability of Jewish communities in some countries.”

The report noted that although “most anti-Semitic incidents consisted mainly of hate speech and the desecration of institutions, monuments and cemeteries, others turned violent,” including the May 24, 2014 shooting attack at the Jewish Museum of Belgium, perpetrated by French national Mehdi Nemmouche, “who had been radicalized in prison.”

In Austria, the head of the Jewish community reported “an increase in the number of anti-Semitic incidents committed by Muslims” while Belgium also experienced an “increase of public expressions of anti-Semitism.” In many cases, the upswing coincided with Operation Protective Edge.

In the midst of the conflict, the Netherlands’ government-sponsored Independent Registration Center for Discrimination on the Internet (MDI) recorded the highest spike in anti-Semitic incidents in its history and, the State Department noted, “anti-Semitic expressions by certain groups continued at public rallies and events.” Anti-Semitic incidents also increased in the United Kingdom and in Switzerland during the period of the conflict.

In other countries, particularly in Central Europe, anti-Semitism was coupled with anti-Muslim sentiments as part of continued efforts by far right groups. In the Czech Republic “right-wing groups held rallies and published Internet blogs that included anti-Semitic statements, Holocaust denial, Nazi propaganda and anti-Muslim sentiments,” as well as incidents of anti-Semitic vandalism and the desecration of a mosque.

In Hungary, “anti-Semitic incidents and public statements, in particular by the Jobbik Party, continued to raise concerns in the Jewish community,” the reported noted. A survey conducted by one non-governmental organization found that approximately one-third of the adult population had prejudices against Jews.”

Whether in response to the Gaza conflict or the rise of far-right groups, a general upturn in anti-Semitic incidents seemed widespread. France reported a 101 percent increase in anti-Semitic acts during the year in comparison with 2013, including “numerous cases of physical violence against the Jewish community where individuals were targeted and beaten and synagogues were firebombed.” In Germany, the State Department wrote that anti-Semitic speech and actions increased, even though “leading politicians, celebrities and media representatives spoke out against anti-Semitism and in favor of moderate Islam.”

In many cases, European governments took steps to combat the phenomenon — in the Netherlands, following an increase in anti-Semitic incidents during the conflict in Gaza, the government “issued a statement rejecting anti-Semitism and met with the Jewish community to discuss additional measures and programs to counter anti-Semitism” while local governments provided supplemental security resources to protect Jewish institutions.

Focus on Israel

The report examined the state of religious freedom in each country on a case-by-case basis. The report for Israel was lengthy, gesturing frequently to the argument that the nature of sectarian conflict meant that it was hard to disaggregate religious tension from the overarching conflict and resultant security considerations.

The State Department annual report noted that Israel’s Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty establishes freedom of religion, and that “the government continued to enforce legal protection for religious freedom.”

Discussing “price tag attacks by settler groups against Christian and Muslim religious sites,” the report acknowledged that “the government arrested dozens of persons…and government officials quickly and publicly criticized the attacks,” but also that “non-governmental organizations (NGOs), religious institutions and press reports noted that those arrests rarely led to successful prosecutions.”

Worship in the Old City of Jerusalem was also discussed in the report, which mentioned that “the government limited Jewish religious observance at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif” and that attempts to conduct Jewish prayer at the site “were at times followed by a violent response from Muslim worshipers.”

It also discussed the government-enforced prohibition on mixed gender prayer services at the Western Wall, noting that “a public debate about accommodating “egalitarian prayer”…continued throughout the year,” and that the Mughrabi Ramp platform was opened as a partial accommodation. At the same time, it emphasized an active debate in Israel surrounding “governmental and legal discrimination against non-Jews and non-Orthodox streams of Judaism,” discrimination manifested through the government’s provision of “proportionately more funding to Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox religious institutions, sites and services than to non-Orthodox and non-Jewish institutions, sites and services.”

It also cited the Chief Rabbinate’s “hegemony over Jewish marriage and conversion procedures” and that “while civil union legislation remained pending, non-Orthodox or interfaith couples could not exercise their right to marry in their denomination or in a civil ceremony within the country.”

The report listed the long timeline of violent incidents throughout the year as related to questions of religious freedom. “Because religion, ethnicity and nationality are closely linked in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, it was difficult to categorize many societal actions against specific groups as being solely based on religious identity,” the report surmised. In this field, the State Department reported an increase in violent attacks between segments of the Jewish population and segments of the non-Jewish Arab population, many of whom self-identify as Palestinian, including an increase in attacks on Muslim and Christian religious sites and Arab-affiliated property during Israeli military operations in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Israeli government ministries fell under particular scrutiny for religion-based discrimination. The Ministry of Interior was cited in the report as undertaking a number of practices that discriminated on the basis of religious belief, including denying citizenship or deny or delaying services such as child registration and issuance of social benefits, identity cards and passports to some citizens based on their religious beliefs, including people who immigrated under the Law of Return but were discovered to hold Messianic or Christian beliefs. The Ministry of Religious Services also was mentioned for failing to “fully implement a 1996 law which established the right of any individual to be buried in a civil ceremony.”

Restrictions that the government argued stemmed from security considerations were also subject to scrutiny. The report cited restricted access through security checkpoints to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre during major Christian holidays, citing unnamed Christian leaders who claimed that “these restrictions significantly reduced the ability of congregants and clergy to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.” The more general restrictions on movement across the Green Line and in and out of Gaza was described as “limiting the access of both Israelis and Palestinians to religious sites and gatherings.”

The report also emphasized that “the process by which the Israeli government granted Palestinians access to various sectors of the Occupied Territories at times involved de facto discrimination based on religion” and explained that the construction of the so-called separation barrier provided a physical obstruction to religious practices, limiting the ability of Christian pilgrims and West Bank Christians to reach holy sites.

Palestinians also under scrutiny

The Palestinian Authority also came under scrutiny for governmental practices ranging from discrimination against religious minorities to anti-Semitic incitement. The report noted that the “PA refused to recognize certain religious groups, forcing them to seek personal status documents, such as marriage certificates, through other denominations or abroad.”

While the State Department acknowledged that “the PA policy of preventing preaching that could be perceived as encouraging violence or sermons with intolerant or anti-Semitic messages continued…intolerant and anti-Semitic material, however, was still sometimes broadcast over official PA media.”

The State Department also cited NGOs as noting an increase in “incidents of violence against Jewish visitors to the Mount of Olives by Palestinian youths.”

In Gaza, the US emphasized that Hamas remains a US-designated terror organization, and still “exercises de facto authority over the Gaza Strip, despite the fact that the PA appointed an interim technocratic government in May 2014.” In Gaza, according to the State Department, “Hamas “morality police” enforce a strict interpretation of Islamic law” including arresting women for “ethical crimes” such as “illegitimate pregnancy.”

As reported by The Times of Israel