It was surely a significant development when Congress last
year passed the "International Religious Freedom Act." To the
Jewish community, whose history is replete with subjugation
and oppression, the new law has special meaning and may prove
useful in aiding acheinu bais Yisroel living in
foreign lands. (It is not without irony, though, that it was
the persecution of Christians that served as the primary
impetus behind this landmark legislation.)
But with such promise and potential, why is the first major
initiative carried out by our government pursuant to the Act
cause for concern?
The statute directs the White House to take action against
countries that engage in a pattern of religious persecution.
It offers the President a list of options ranging from
diplomatic protest to economic sanctions. It further mandates
that the State Department investigate charges of religious
persecution and report its findings to Congress.
The Department has now released its first report and,
considering the formidable task the agency faced, it is an
impressive achievement. While the report has its flaws -- as
would be expected of any initial attempt to address such an
extraordinarily complex issue -- it is clear that the
approximately 1,100 page document represents painstaking
research and provides much valuable information.
Of particular interest to our community are the sections
covering Jewish populations in virtually all regions of the
world. These surely require close and careful attention.
There is also a discussion of "religious freedom" in Israel.
The usual criticism is there -- inequities between the
treatment of Jews, Muslims and Christians are highlighted.
But there is more. And it is here where one feels the
The report makes several references to the tensions between
Israel's Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities. In the
governmental context, it points to the policy that yields to
the Orthodox exclusive control over specific areas of Jewish
life. The denial of official recognition to non-Orthodox
clergy is also mentioned.
Addressing societal attitudes, the report draws attention to
the "often strained" relations among the "different branches
of Judaism" and the fact that non-Orthodox Jews have
complained of "discrimination and intolerance." It further
cites increasing harassment -- both verbal and physical -- of
Jewish citizens by "ultra-Orthodox" groups.
One can only wonder what the Department's purpose is here. Is
the American government taking up the "pluralism" issue? It
is indeed hard to imagine that -- as Israel struggles for its
soul -- the State Department would want to inject itself into
this very internal, very personal Jewish religious dispute.
American foreign policy interests would hardly be served by
such an intrusion.
Equally astonishing is the fact that the societal complaints
cited in the report come exclusively from the non-Orthodox
side. Reading the document, one would think that Orthodox
Israelis -- still a minority in the state -- have suffered no
harassment, no threats, no abuse from the secular and non-
Orthodox public. Of course, we know this not to be the case.
We likewise know that governmental attitudes and actions vis-
a-vis the non-Orthodox increasingly reflect a very different
Even more painful is a second focus of the report:
missionaries. After discussing consideration by the Knesset
of "anti-missionary" legislation, the Department points out
that evangelical Christians have complained that the police
have been slow to investigate incidents of harassment,
threats, and vandalism directed against their meetings,
churches and other facilities. The alleged "ultra-Orthodox"
culprits -- Lev L'achim and Yad L'Achim -- are referred to by
name. Societal attitudes towards conversion, the report
continues, are "particularly negative" and the country's
religious and lay leadership "are largely hostile to
To Torah Jewry, it can only be described as gratifying that
both government and society in Israel have declared a firm
"no" to religious groups who seek to draw Jews away from
their faith. We reject the notion that "freedom of religion"
necessarily requires us to accommodate missionaries and their
efforts to undermine Yahadus. Even in this country,
American law recognizes that, under certain circumstances,
proselytizing can rise to the level of unlawful
Most of all, what is sorely missing from the report --
whether in regard to "pluralism" or "missionaries" -- is
"Incidents" and "complaints" are cited in the report but the
circumstances surrounding these allegations are paid no
attention. The historical and philosophical underpinnings of
the "pluralism" debate -- so critical in understanding the
current clash -- is totally ignored. Nary a word on the
"status quo" principle or the effort underway to radically
alter the religious contours of the state.
In a similar vein, no appreciation is evident in the document
of how sensitivities regarding proselytization and conversion
are so deeply rooted in the bloodbath of Jewish history. Or
how offensive it is to give free rein to groups seeking to
steal Jewish souls -- in a Jewish State, built upon the ashes
of the Holocaust, which was established as a "haven" and
which, for many, is their only link to Jewish identity.
Sadly, the very fact that the State Department believes that
these issues merit mention in a report of this nature at the
very least implies that they are barometers of religious
This is where the danger lies. Torah Jewry must be on guard
both here and in Israel against possible arguments that these
findings might be viewed by the U.S. as religious freedom
"violations" that require Israel -- government and society --
to allow greater access and power to non-Orthodox Jewish
groups, or even to non-Jewish groups. We must be vigilant
against specious attempts to use the report -- and the threat
of sanctions -- as a weapon in the battle over the character
and essence of the state.
And so we are left with a challenge. The report indicates
that U.S. embassy officials maintain a dialogue on religious
freedom with human and civil rights organizations. It is
perhaps telling that those explicitly mentioned include: the
Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the Israeli Religious
Action Center for Reform Judaism, and the Anti-Defamation
As Agudath Israel will continue to follow developments in
Washington, our Am Echad colleagues will have to direct their
attention to a new and unexpected audience.
Abba Cohen is the director of the Washington, D.C. office
of the American Aguda. This article appears in the current
issue of Coalition, an internal publication of Agudath Israel