For those willing to level an unblinkered look at Israel today, the most obvious, glaring breach of its endlessly self-lauded democracy is the military occupation which still, after 42 years, holds millions of Palestinians stateless and right-less. However, Israel's illustrious "democracy" is also severely undemocratic inside the 1967 borders (or "green line"). A recently published US State Department report on freedom of religion focuses on one of the main axes along which the Israeli state differentiates between citizens, seriously discriminating those of them who are not Jewish or who the state does not consider Jewish and also, to some degree, discriminating observant Jews who do not conform to the state's definitions of orthodoxy. The first item below offers a brief overview of the State Department findings.
As reflected by this item, a central means for both practicing and concealing state discrimination in Israel is differential budgeting. The second item below refers to the discrimination practiced in the educational system in Israel, citing it among the reasons why Israeli universities should be viewed as part of the mechanism suppressing the Palestinian citizens of Israel and maintaining Israel's military occupation of the West Bank and its effective occupation of the Gaza Strip.
The item is a letter from Palestinian university students, citizens of Israel, calling the Board of Governors of Trondheim University in Norway to a vote in favor of a boycott of Israeli academic institutions at a vote scheduled for later this week. Their letter offers "another angle which affirms the need for boycott" and, among other things, they cite the discriminatory educational practices to which Palestinian students are subjected. Key among these and equally difficult to pin down with detailed, comparative data, is again economic discrimination. "Our schools," the students write the Trondheim board, "lack the basic facilities needed for education…"
In addition, they:
"are not allowed to express our collective sentiments or ideas publicly. It is quite often that our public gatherings are not only violently interrupted by extreme right-wing Jewish students, but also in various occasions the universities called on the police to intervene. In several occasions, as during our peaceful demonstration in Haifa University against the War on Gaza, the police sent in large number of its special units which are infamous for their brutality … Moreover, the universities collaborate with the internal security services (the feared Shin Bet) and provide it with names of the activists among the students who are regularly summoned, investigated and threatened."
The students' letter, describing the systematically racist practices at both the state and the particular university level, provides a look at the extensive involvement of Israeli society in upholding, enabling and supporting the military occupation along with all its breaches of international law and conventions. Given the non-democracy they experience on a daily basis, the students argue, people the world over have an obligation to pressure Israel into abiding by international law, rather than aspiring to rewrite it to its benefit.
Haaretz Sunday, November 08, 2009
The unenlightened ones?
By Akiva Eldar
Tags: Israel news
Tolerance toward minorities, egalitarian treatment of members of all ethnic groups, openness toward various streams in society, respect for sites holy to the other - these are all clear tests of a tolerant and pluralistic society. The new report from the United States Department of State on religious freedom in numerous countries around the world gives Israel a failing grade on all of these practices.
It's hard to find many democratic nations that provide the Americans with so much varied material on groups lacking a strong political pillar of support: from Muslims to Jehovah's Witnesses, from Reform Jews to Christians, from women to Bedouin. The report states that the U.S. Embassy in Israel "consistently raised concerns of religious freedom with the [Israel] Foreign Ministry, the police, the Prime Minister's office, and other government agencies."
The comprehensive document, written by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the State Department, places both question marks and exclamation points after the banner of religious freedom for all - a cornerstone of Israel's public relations line. Ever since "the reunification of Jerusalem" in 1967, the government of Israel has boasted of freedom of worship for people of all religions. The American report notes that the 1967 law on the protection of holy places refers to all religious groups located throughout the country - including all parts of Jerusalem - and then adds: "The 1967 Protection of Holy Sites Law applies to holy sites of all religious groups within the country and in all of Jerusalem, but the government implements regulations only for Jewish sites. Non-Jewish holy sites do not enjoy legal protection under it because the government does not recognize them as official holy sites."
In certain areas of the country, according to the report, the government allows private individuals or local authorities to transform old mosques into galleries, restaurants and museums; restrictions on entry into non-Jewish holy sites and the policies concerning their protection have contributed to tensions in a religious context. A long-standing government policy has denied the unrecognized Bedouin locales ownership claims, applications to build and municipal services for their 80,000 inhabitants, and so this weak population has not been able to build new mosques or maintain existing ones.
At the end of 2008, there were 137 officially recognized holy sites, all of them Jewish. Moreover, the government of Israel has passed regulations for the identification, preservation and guarding of Jewish sites only. While well-known and familiar sites do receive protection de facto, because of their international importance, many Christian and Muslim sites are neglected, inaccessible or at risk of exploitation by real estate entrepreneurs and local authorities. The Christian pilgrimage sites around Lake Kinneret face creeping threats from regional planning commissions that want to use some of these areas for recreational purposes. In the past, only diplomatic intervention has succeeded in blocking such attempts.
The authors of the report, which is based on data compiled by the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, human rights organizations and various publications, note that government policy supports "the generally free practice of religion," but immediately thereafter they go on to say: "Government allocations of state resources favored Orthodox (including Modern and National Religious streams of Orthodoxy) and ultra-Orthodox (sometimes referred to as "Haredi") Jewish religious groups and institutions, discriminating against non-Jews and non-Orthodox streams of Judaism." Funding last year for institutions serving Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews came to NIS 1.6 billion, whereas religious minorities, which constitute 20 percent of the population, received only about NIS 54 million - less than 5 percent - of the budget.
The U.S. State Department has also taken note of the following practices carried out by the Israeli government: it does not recognize conversions to Judaism conducted by non-Orthodox rabbis; it funds Orthodox conversion programs, but does not support Reform and Conservative programs; it implements a policy based on Orthodox interpretation of religious law; it has discriminated against citizens belonging to other religious groups; and it funds the building of places of worship and cemeteries for Jews only. According to the government, however, while the budget does not cover the costs of building non-Jewish places of worship, it does support their maintenance - albeit at a very low level in comparison to synagogues.
The report makes it clear that phenomena which have become part of the standard practice in Israel are considered unacceptable in enlightened countries and should be corrected. More than 300,000 immigrants who are not considered Jews under rabbinical law are not able to marry and divorce in Israel or be buried in Jewish cemeteries. Civil marriage, non-Orthodox Jewish marriage or marriages between two people who belong to different religions must be performed outside the country to receive government recognition. A mite of consolation: In 2007 the government announced that it would permit consular marriages performed by diplomatic representatives in Israel for those who are listed as having no religion, or whose religious affiliation is with a sect not recognized by the state.
The document devotes considerable attention to what is sees as the customary discrimination of women: "The government, through the Chief Rabbinate, discriminates against women in civil status matters related to marriage and divorce. Under the Jewish religious court's interpretation of personal status law, a Jewish woman may not receive a final writ of divorce without her husband's consent. Consequently, thousands of women, so-called agunot - chained women - are unable to remarry or have legitimate children because their husbands have either disappeared or refused to grant divorces.
"The state transportation company, Egged, which operates the country's public transportation system, continued to operate sex-segregated buses along city and intra-city routes frequented by ultra-Orthodox Jews. Women who refuse to sit at the back of such buses risk harassment and physical assault by male passengers," the report continues. "Governmental authorities prohibit mixed gender prayer services at religious sites in deference to the belief of most Orthodox Jews that such services violate the precepts of Judaism. At the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, men and women must use separate areas to visit and pray. Women also are not allowed to conduct prayers at the Western Wall while wearing prayer shawls, which are typically worn by Jewish men, and are not permitted to read from Torah scrolls."
The report also quotes from a brochure the Chief Rabbinate distributes to bridegrooms, who are required to participate in pre-marital counseling by the Orthodox religious authorities in order to register for marriage. The brochure compares woman to clay and calls upon the husband to "shape and mold her as he pleases." The report says that the husband is also instructed not to become "spineless or tolerate disrespectful behavior from his wife: 'If she is disrespectful you must not give in; you can become angry and stop talking to her until she realizes she is wrong.' The husband is also admonished to compliment his wife regularly, 'even if it is a lie' because 'a woman who has not been complimented is like a fish out of water.'"
The U.S. State Department also reiterated its displeasure this year with a series of incidents in which Messianic Jews and Jehovah's Witnesses have been harassed. The latter group reported an increase in assaults and other crimes against them, specifically noting the difficulties their members have encountered when they've tried to urge the police to investigate and apprehend the suspects. Between September of 2007 and September of 2008, members of the Jehovah's Witness community filed 46 complaints against anti-missionary activists, most of them members of the Yad L'Achim ("Jewish Outreach") organization. According to the Jehovah's Witness' legal department, the police have stated that they responded to 15 of the 35 calls for help during that time period. "Exacerbating these tensions," the American report states, "was the widespread but false belief that proselytizing is illegal in this country."
Interestingly, despite the harassment, the report notes that the number of Messianic Jews and Evangelical Christians in Israel has grown in recent years through immigration and conversions.
The report further details how the law allows the government to subsidize approximately 60 percent of the budgets for ultra-Orthodox schools, even though these schools do not adhere to the stipulation that all educational institutions funded by the taxpayer must teach a core curriculum that includes subjects such as English, mathematics and science.
The government resources allocated to the study of religion and tradition in Arab and non-Orthodox Jewish schools are significantly lower than those allocated to Orthodox public schools. According to the Israel Religious Action Center, in 2006 the latter was granted 96 percent of the total government funding for Jewish religious education.
Dan Tamir and Gitit Ginat contributed to this report.
Open Letter to the Board of Governors of Trondheim University Haifa, 5 November 2009
We are Arab students at the Israeli universities writing to you in support of the proposed academic boycott of Israeli academic institutions. We believe that the boycott is timely and hopefully will help in upholding moral values of fairness, justice and equality which have been sorely missed in our region.
While the reason for the boycott is rightly what has been going on in the 1967 occupied territories, we propose another angle which affirms the need for boycott, namely our daily experience as Arabs in Israeli institutions. We are the lucky ones who have been able to pursue our studies in institutions of Higher Education, to which we arrived against great odds. Only very few among our generation have been qualified to attend universities due to the State's discriminatory policies. Our schools mostly lack the basic facilities needed for education, and the curriculum is structured to serve the State's goal in socializing the pupils for self-estrangement. It contains very little, if any at all, on our history and culture. Additionally, it aims to erase our historical memory and promote the official policy line of divide and rule. In short, it is modeled on curriculums that dark regimes, like Apartheid South Africa, have used to indoctrinate rather than educate. We arrive to
universities with this "educational"
The idea that Israeli universities adhere to the values of free academic institutions, where academic freedom, objectivity and meritocracy prevail is widely accepted in the West. From our experience we attest – and indeed prove beyond doubt - that this is not the case. In recent years Israeli universities have changed the criteria of acceptance to various faculties in order - as a certain president of an Israeli university put it - to prevent large number of undesirable [i.e. Arab] students from attending prestigious faculties such as Medicine and Natural Sciences. Moreover, lecturers who presented findings which are at odd with the official ideology – such as Ilan Pappe and Neve Gordon – are bullied and harassed or forced to resign. Meanwhile raw racist statements by many lecturers are considered by the administrations of the universities as benign or even objective statements. For example, recently Dr. Dan Scheuftan stated in one of his lectures: "The Arabs are the biggest
failure in the history of the human race... there's nothing under the sun that's more screwed up than the Palestinians"; "Throughout the Arab world, people fire guns at weddings in order to prove that they have at least one thing that's hard and in working order that can shoot."
It goes without saying that none of these lecturers has ever been disciplined. Moreover, foreign students are warned by the security authorities of Haifa University not to visit Arab villages or towns.
Although some Israeli universities – such as the University of Haifa – pride themselves on promoting "co-existence", yet nothing is further from the truth than this. We are prevented from forming our [i.e.
Arab] students' union, and racial discrimination against us – under the pretext of not serving in the army – is widely practiced in the granting of scholarships, as well as in the provision of housing at the universities' residential halls . This is particularly grave as the universities are located in Jewish towns, and Arab students face many obstacles and hardships in finding appropriate housing due to prevailing prejudices and anti-Arab sentiments in Israeli society.
Yet, the restrictions imposed on our freedom of expression are more stifling. We are not allowed to express our collective sentiments or ideas publicly. It is quite often that our public gatherings are not only violently interrupted by extreme right-wing Jewish students, but also in various occasions the universities called on the police to intervene. In several occasions, as during our peaceful demonstration in Haifa University against the War on Gaza, the police sent in large number of its special units which are infamous for their brutality (pictures and videos attached). Needless to say that they do the job they are trained for . Moreover, the universities collaborate with the internal security services (the feared Shin Bet) and provide it with names of the activists among the students who are regularly summoned, investigated and threatened.
In the end, we are hopeful that you will take a decision which reaffirms the true meaning of human values, and provide a proof that racism, religious tribalism, obfuscation and disregard for human dignity are no longer tolerated.
Abnaa el-Balad- The Student Movement
Iqraa Student Association- Islamic Movement
National Democratic Assembly (NDA)- The Student Movement
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