Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Israel has no freedom of religion? (UPDATE)

A perfect example of media bias from Ha'aretz:

What do Israel, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan have in common? All of them scored a big fat zero on the annual freedom of religion index published by CIRI, the Cingranelli-Richards Human Rights Dataset.

The index, which measures governmental restrictions on freedom of religion and freedom from religion, ranks 195 countries. Of these, fully 52 scored zero, including Russia, Romania, India, Mexico and Turkey. Israel has scored zero on CIRI's scale for several years now.

The index ranks countries on a scale of zero to two, where zero indicates severe and widespread governmental restrictions on religious freedom, one indicates moderate restrictions and two indicates almost no restrictions. The countries that received a score of two included many Western states, like the United States, Sweden, Austria, Belgium and Poland, as well as non-Western states like South Africa, Angola and Lebanon. Countries with a score of one included Italy, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Ukraine, Thailand, Spain and Mongolia.

CIRI has been collecting data on parameters comprising 15 "internationally recognized human rights" annually since 1981. The project is run out of Binghamton University in upstate New York, with funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation. It is headed by two professors, David Cingranelli of Binghamton and David Richards of the University of Connecticut.

Rabbi Uri Regev, president of Hiddush - For Religious Freedom and Equality, said the CIRI index "reveals to the world the sorry fact that when it comes to freedom of religion, Israel is closer to extremist Islamic countries than to the democratic Western world. In no other enlightened democracy is the principle of freedom of religious undermined to such a large extent."

"What causes this shameful situation is the practice of [political parties] buying power in exchange for capitulation to religious coercion, while ignoring the wishes of the majority of people in both Israel and the Diaspora. Israel is becoming famous worldwide as the leader of the democratic world in assailing freedom of religion and conscience, something that is liable to deal a mortal blow to our status in the free world and to Western countries' attitude toward us."
Let's first look at the bias in the Ha'aretz article.
  • The words "big fat zero" are hardly indicators of a reporter digging deep into the story.
  • The only person interviewed is a person who is inherently biased in one direction.
  • The person interviewed obviously does not know the reasons why Israel got the score it did, and makes a guess based on his own unfounded assumptions.
  • Ha'aretz itself made no attempt to figure out what CIRI's criteria were for their scoring.
  • Ha'aretz made no attempt to see if CIRI's methodology itself may be flawed.
  • CIRI released many different scores, and Ha'aretz chose only one of them.

Now, why did Israel score a zero?

I don't know. Despite CIRI's claims that its data is objective, reliable and replicable, they do not specify the sub-criteria they use to determine each individual country score.

Here is their description of how they determine freedom of religion:

Government restrictions on religious practices are:
(0) Severe and Widespread
(1) Moderate
(2) Practically Absent

When coding freedom of religion, you should score the country based on the government’s practices. Even if a country has laws to protect freedom of religion, that country should be scored based on the actual practices of the government in relation to freedom of religion.

The following constitute restrictions on religion:
• Instances where citizens are prohibited from proselytizing,
• Instances where members of the clergy are prohibited from freely advocating partisan political views, supporting political candidates of their choice, and otherwise freely participating in politics (Note: Voluntary restraints on clergy as part of tax-free arrangements do not qualify as a restriction on freedom of religion),
• Arrest, detention, physical violence, or official government harassment of religious authorities or officials should be coded as a ZERO,
• Forced conversions or restrictions on conversion to minority religions by government officials,
• Instances where citizens are arrested, harassed, or physically assaulted/intimidated for their religious activities,
• Restrictions on access to places of worship and on building permits, especially by minority religions,
• Instances where stringent laws apply only to religious minorities (as opposed to all other religions) is religious discrimination. Examples include burdensome or unfair registration requirements for minority religions only; restrictions on proselytizing and on forced conversions to minority religions; restrictions on access to places of worship; and denial for the permission of construction of churches and places of worship,
• Instances of government restrictions on the types of religious education offered in public schools. An example could be a student who adheres to a minority religion being forced to receive religious education in the dominant religion.
• Imposing religious beliefs through public laws. For instance, imposing Shari’a law on persons that do not follow Islamic law or do not wish to follow Shari’a law should be considered a restriction on freedom of religion.

What kind of governments score a zero, one or two?

• Governments that arrest, detain, use physical violence, or harass religious authorities or religious minorities or atheist.
• Governments that force conversions to a dominant or state sponsored religion or restrict conversions to minority religions.
• Countries where citizens are harassed, arrested, or physically assaulted or intimidated for religious activities.
• Governments that place restrictions on access to places of worship or interfere with a group’s ability to hold worship services in private settings such as homes.
• Instances where stringent and burdensome laws apply only to religious minorities (as opposed to laws uniformly applied to all religious groups) or to atheists are considered religious discrimination. Examples include burdensome or unfair registration requirements for minority religions only, forced conversions to minority religions, restrictions on access to places of worship. Bans on proselytizing, denial of building permits, and interference with building places of worship are NOT considered stringent and burdensome laws.

For a country to receive a score of ONE for freedom of religion, the government will not have restricted any of the above rights listed in the category for ZERO (Severe and Widespread Restrictions), but it may be the case that:
• Governments that place bans on proselytizing. This includes proselytizing bans uniformly applied to all religious groups in a country, as well as instances where proselytizing bans target only certain religious minority groups.
• Governments that deny building permits or construction of places of worship to minority groups, as long as there is no mention of governmental interference with communal worship in private settings such as homes.
• Reports that mention the government denying groups recognized religious organization status, nonprofit association status, corporation status, or classify certain minority groups as cults, even if such classification prevents the group from receiving government benefits such as tax-exemption or subsidies.
• Governments that prohibit clergy from freely advocating partisan views, supporting political candidates, or participating in politics unless this restriction only prevents the group from receiving government benefits such as tax exemption or subsidies. In this event the country should be reported as a TWO.
• Governments that place restrictions on religious education that is offered in public schools.
• Governments that have policies that discourage atheism or modestly discriminate against atheists.

Countries in which the government respects the rights to freedom of religion for ALL citizens in practice should be coded as TWO. No mentions of restrictions on freedom of religion should be listed in a country that is scored as a TWO.
So how does Israel get a score of zero? From these criteria one would expect Israel would receive a one. (Note that even by Uri Regev's criteria quoted in Ha'aretz, Israel should still get a one.)

Could it be that CIRI is including Palestinian Authority and Hamas practices under the Israel score? Or is it because Israel arrested someone like Raed Salah who is a radical anti-Israel terrorist supporter but who is also a cleric, making the score an automatic zero ("Arrest, detention, physical violence, or official government harassment of religious authorities or officials should be coded as a ZERO")? Perhaps the fact that Israel does not allow Jews to pray on the Temple Mount  is the reason ("Governments that place restrictions on access to places of worship")? Or is CIRI not quite as objective as it pretends to be?

We don't know the answer.

And neither does Ha'aretz.

(h/t CHA)

UPDATE: CIRI replied to me:

Thank you for your interest in the CIRI Human Rights Data Project. There are several reasons that Israel receives a 0 for Freedom of Religion in 2010.  According to our coding guidelines (which can be viewed at http://ciri.binghamton.edu/documentation/ciri_coding_guide.pdf), any state “where citizens are harassed, arrested, or physically assaulted or intimidated for religious activities” receives a score of 0 on our Freedom of Religion indicator.  According to the U.S. State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report on Israel (http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2010/148825.htm), following an episode in late 2009 where a member of Women of the Wall was arrested for wearing a prayer shawl and reading aloud from the Torah at the Western Wall, “In January 2010, Israeli police detained Anat Hoffman, a founder of Women of the Wall and advocate for Reform Judaism in Israel, on suspicions of disturbing the peace for her role in organizing prayer services for women.”
The US State Department lists several other restrictions on Freedom of Religion imposed by the Israeli government in both Israel and the Occupied Territories.  For instance, the State Department reports that:

“For example, the government continued to discriminate against non-Orthodox Jewish citizens through some policies based on Orthodox Jewish interpretations of religious law. A minority of Jews is Orthodox, and the majority of Jewish citizens objected to exclusive Orthodox control over fundamental aspects of their personal lives. Approximately 360,000 citizens who immigrated to the country from the former-Soviet Union under the Law of Return but are not considered Jewish by the Orthodox Rabbinate cannot be buried in Jewish cemeteries, divorce, or marry within the country. A 1996 law requiring the government to establish civil cemeteries remained inadequately implemented…In order to marry in government-recognized ceremonies, Jews had to undergo marriage counseling administered by the Orthodox religious authorities. As part of this counseling, all Jews--including the secular majority and those who practice Reform or Conservative Judaism--were instructed to respect traditional Orthodox family roles.”

Also, the U.S. State Department states that Israel imposes significant religious restrictions on Bedouins and other Arab groups throughout Israel and the Occupied Territories.  For instance:

“The approximately 80,000 Bedouin living in unrecognized villages were unable to build or legally maintain mosques as a result of longstanding government policy to deny ownership claims, building requests, and municipal services in such communities. Mosques existed in unrecognized Bedouin communities but, as with homes and other community structures, the government considered them illegal and therefore subject to demolition…The government of Israel continued to apply travel restrictions during the reporting period that significantly impeded freedom of access to places of worship in the West Bank and Jerusalem for Muslims and Christians. Citing violence and security concerns, the Israeli government imposed a broad range of strict closures and curfews throughout Jerusalem and the Occupied Territories since 2000… All Palestinian religious groups faced restrictions in practice, such as closures and long waits at Israeli border crossings, which often impeded travel for religious purposes.”

Finally, the State Department report makes manifest that almost all religious groups in Israel and the Occupied Territories face government-imposed restrictions, to some degree, on their ability to visit and worship at religious sites throughout the country.  Furthermore, it makes clear that Orthodox Jews face the fewest restrictions while Muslims and Arab Christians likely face the most.

Taken together with our coding guidelines, these events require us to give Israel a score of 0 for Freedom of Religion in 2010.
I replied with why I disagree:
Thanks for your reply.

If I understand your criteria correctly, the only example you give that would necessitate a score of zero is the single episode concerning the Women of the Wall. Every other example seems to fit better with a category of a one. The restrictions on Bedouin mosques is effectively a zoning issue; synagogues were demolished as well in illegal outposts. Restrictions on Palestinians praying in Jerusalem are based on purely security considerations, in no way can this be construed as discriminating against religion.

Even the episode with Anat Hoffman does not seem to be a strict violation of freedom of religion, as it was only for a single place that has rules approved by Israel's Supreme Court. She can certainly pray and read from the Torah in other synagogues around the land.

Obviously Israel is not perfect but it seems that a score of zero, which Israel seems to have had for many years now placing it in the same category as Saudi Arabia, seems excessive.