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Persecution Context
Abba Cohen Esq.

Persecution Context

Abba Cohen Esq.

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 uneasiness.

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 reality.

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 --Yad L'achim and Lev 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 missionary activity."

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 accomodate 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 harassment.

Most of all, what is sorely missing from the report -- whether in regard to "pluralism" or "missionaries" -- is context.

"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 persecution.

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 League.

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.


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