(TMU) — While Israel likes to boast that it is the “only democracy in the Middle East,” a new study by the Pew Research Center has found that the country has restrictions on religious freedom on par with theocratic countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The report, published Monday by the center, tracks the rise of religious restrictions globally and found that Israel is among the top 20 most religiously restrictive states in the world, with the fifth-highest level of “social hostilities related to religious norms” and the “sixth-highest level of interreligious tension and violence”—outstripping even the war-ravaged nation of Syria, which has been engulfed in sectarian violence between religious and ethnic groups.
The report pointed to such common incidents of religious bigotry in the settler-colonial state such as the harassment of motorists who traverse through Haredi Orthodox neighborhoods on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, as well as government figures who regularly “defer in some way to religious authorities or doctrines on legal issues.”
Out of the 20 nations listed, 19 of them are in the Middle East and all, besides Lebanon, have an official state religion or preferred or favored religion. Israel is the only country on the list that does not favor Islam as its main religion, despite the fact that the country has a Muslim community that comprises 17.6 percent of the population, according to a Pew social survey from 2016.
The country’s ultra-orthodox Haredi Chief Rabbinate exercises total control over the country’s marriage, divorce, burial and Jewish conversion activities in the country, rendering non-Orthodox weddings, divorces, funerals and conversions invalid in the eyes of secular state authorities. Intermarriages conducted in the country are also not recognized by the state.
Israel, which defines itself as a “Jewish state,” has come under criticism for the de facto apartheid conditions faced by its religious and ethnic minorities, especially its original Palestinian Arab population who comprise about a fifth of the country’s population and face regular discrimination and accusations of disloyalty.
Last year, the country parliamentary body—or Knesset—passed the Nation-State Law that codifies the privileged status of Jews, relegating all citizens belonging to other religious groups to second-class status.
The people of Palestine are also banned from about 40 percent of all Israeli communities by exclusionary “Admissions Committees” that screen residents based on their perceived social suitability.
Regardless of its dwindling support from people across the globe, including non-Israeli Jews, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doubled down on his religious bigotry earlier this year when he asserted that Israel is “the national state, not of all its citizens, but only of the Jewish people.”