One could argue that Israel is the country where non-Orthodox Jews have the least religious freedom: They can’t marry, divorce or convert according to their own religious preferences.
Welcome to Moment’s religious freedom issue. I’d like to be able to report that religious freedom in the world is on the rise, but sadly, the facts don’t support this. Indeed, there was a growing tide of restrictions on religion between 2009 and 2010, as tallied in a new study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
Overall the study shows that fewer people have the rights laid out in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion,” including “freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” This means that religious minorities, such as Baha’is and Sufis in Iran, Christians in Egypt, Muslims in a range of regions including Europe, and Tibetan Buddhists—still suffer for their beliefs.
It’s troubling that for the first time in the four years Pew has been studying this topic, the United States went from being in the “low” category of religious restrictions to “moderate,” with more incidents in which individuals faced restrictions on their ability to practice their faith. In one example, a Sikh inmate in California was forced to cut his facial hair, which violated his religious beliefs.
Even more disturbing is the United States’ rise on what Pew calls the social hostility index, which measures the antagonism private citizens and organizations express toward religious groups. The United States has gone from the “lower moderate” to “upper moderate” category after incidents such as the attempt in Murfreesboro, Tennessee to block the construction of a mosque by claiming that Islam is a “political ideology rather than a religion.”
Thanks to the First Amendment, the Murfreesboro mosque opened its doors in 2012 (although its opponents continue to challenge it in federal court) and the United States remains a bedrock of religious freedom in the world. But as anyone who lives here knows, there are heated debates every day over the First Amendment on subjects such as the construction of mosques and the outlawing of sharia law, abortion, contraception and health care, circumcision, school prayer and parochial schools. This issue’s symposium explores the latest clashes between religious freedom and minority rights and between religious and secular law, asking: What is the future of religious freedom in the United States? Many of the “rock stars” of First Amendment scholarship join in the discussion, including University of Virginia professor Douglas Laycock, New Yorker staff writer Jeffrey Toobin, Religious Action Center head Rabbi David Saperstein, Religious Freedom Education Project director Charles Haynes and Cardozo Law School professor Marci Hamilton. We’ll also have this conversation in person. You can join Moment, the Religious Freedom Education Project and the Committee on Religious Liberty of the National Council of Churches for an expanded discussion on this critical topic at Washington, DC’s Newseum on March 18th from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. See page 17 for details.
You might notice that I have not yet mentioned Israel, where religious freedom is fraught with complexity. In the Pew study, Israel ranks “high” in government restrictions and “very high”—number seven in the world—on the social hostility ranking. It’s an interesting study, but it doesn’t specifically address the conundrum of a Jewish democracy in which Muslims, Christians and members of all religions are free to pray as they choose—except non-Orthodox Jews. One could argue that Israel is the country where non-Orthodox Jews have the least religious freedom: They can’t marry, divorce or convert according to their own religious preferences.
American Jews, even the Orthodox, have become increasingly indignant over injustices occurring in what is supposed to be a Jewish homeland. Particularly worrisome are incidents such as women being forced to sit in the back of buses and being spat upon by ultra-Orthodox men who perceive them to be dressed immodestly. Recently, the struggle of the group known as the Women of the Wall has been making headlines for its fight to read Torah at the Western Wall. In this issue, we profile Israeli firebrand Anat Hoffman, who has emerged as the face of this struggle. Whether you consider her a visionary or a troublemaker, her relentless campaign for religious freedom in Israel has forced the Israeli government to take heed.
In “Solar Eclipsed?”, we take an honest look at the mixed results of Israel’s 65-year-old experiment with solar power. Did you know that Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, was an early solar visionary? The saga of Israel’s solar industry is the latest installment in Moment’s ongoing coverage of Israel’s environment. Our Jewish Word, moser (informant), hurls us head-on into tensions inside the ultra-Orthodox community. In our columns, Sarah Posner takes on abortion while Gershom Gorenberg and Naomi Ragen address the aftermath of Israel’s elections. Marshall Breger tells us about the surprising findings of a recent study that examined Palestinian and Israeli textbooks.
In Moment’s books section, Jon Levenson explores what humanity has gleaned from Genesis over thousands of years. Stefan Kanfer discusses father-daughter team Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger’s take on the importance of language; Marc Fisher tackles the perennial question of whether FDR was good for the Jews; and Morris Dickstein waxes eloquent on A.B. Yehoshua’s new novel.
And don’t forget to enjoy Talk of the Table (are you a sweet or dry wine lover?), the cartoon caption contest, Spice Box and special for Passover, our Haggadah brain teaser on page 21.
All of us here at Moment wish you a happy Passover!