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Based on its pre-1967 borders, Israel has an area of 7,685 square miles. Israel has a population of 7.4 million (including settlers living in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem), of which 5.6 million are Jews, 1.5 million are Arab Muslims and Christians, and 320,000 are classified as "other"--mostly persons from the former Soviet Union who immigrated under the Law of Return but who did not qualify as Jews according to the Orthodox Jewish definition used by the Government for civil procedures.

A "religious denomination" is a religious group or community of believers having some form of ecclesiastical government, a creed or statement of faith, some form of worship, a formal or informal code of doctrine and discipline, religious services and ceremonies, established places of religious worship, religious congregations, or comparable indicia of a bona fide religious denomination. Judaism is not a religious denomination in itself; rather, it comprises several denominations with distinct practices and doctrines, such as Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Orthodox. The last group, itself, contains several distinguishable groups.

There are an estimated 13.5 million Jews in the world, approximately 6 million in the United States, 4.8 million in Israel and the remainder dispersed throughout the world, many of them in Eastern Europe. In the Holocaust of World War II, some six million Jews were annihilated in Nazi-occupied Europe, as Hitler's armies sought to "purify" the "Aryan race."

According to figures from the Central Bureau of Statistics for 2007, the latest year such information was available, 7 percent of the Jewish population is ultra-Orthodox, 10 percent is Orthodox, 39 percent describe themselves as "traditional religious" or "traditional non-religious," and 44 percent describe themselves as "non-religious/secular" Jews, most of whom observe some Jewish traditions. It also estimates that 30 percent of the country's Jewish population was born outside the country. A growing but still small number of traditional and secular Jews associate themselves with the Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist streams of Judaism. Although not officially recognized for purposes of civil and personal status matters, groups composed of adherents of these streams of Judaism received a small amount of government funding and were recognized by the courts. There is a small but growing community of approximately 10,000 Messianic Jews (people who identify as Jews and follow Jewish traditions but who believe Jesus was the Messiah).

The law provides for freedom of religion, and the government generally respected this right in practice. The Basic Law and Declaration of Independence identify the country as a "Jewish and democratic state," while also providing for full social and political equality, regardless of religious affiliation. In practice the government recognized only Orthodox Jewish religious authorities in personal and some civil status matters concerning Jewish persons.

Under the Law of Return, the government grants immigration and residence rights to individuals who meet established criteria defining Jewish identity. Included in this definition is a child or grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew, and the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew. The government uses a separate, more rigorous standard based on Orthodox Jewish criteria to determine the right to full citizenship, entitlement to government financial support for immigrants, the legitimacy of conversions to Judaism performed within the country, and Jewish status for purposes of personal and some civil status issues.

The government implemented policies including marriage, divorce, education, burial, and observance of the Sabbath based on Orthodox Jewish interpretation of religious law, and allocations of state resources favored Orthodox Jewish institutions. According to government figures, during the year the budget for religious services and religious institutions for the Jewish population was 96 percent of total funding. Religious education amounted to more than 1.1 billion NIS ($263 million) of the approximately 1.5 billion NIS ($405 million) of the overall budget. Religious minorities, comprising slightly more than 20 percent of the population, received approximately 55 million NIS ($14.5 million).

The American denominations of Conservative Jews and Reform Jews, although they have enrolled between them the vast majority of affiliated American Jews, have achieved a very modest presence in Israel. Neither Reform nor Conservative rabbinical ordination is recognized by the Israeli chief rabbinate; thus, these rabbis are generally forbidden to perform weddings or authorize divorces. (In the mid-1980s a few Conservative rabbis were granted the right, on an ad hoc basis, to perform weddings.) In the early 1980s, there were twelve Reform congregations in Israel and about 900 members--almost 90 percent of whom were born outside the country. During the same period there were more than twenty Conservative congregations with more than 1,500 members; only about 14 percent were native-born Israelis (and, as in the case of Reform, the great majority of these were of Ashkenazi descent).

Although both Reform and Conservative movements dated their presence in Israel to the 1930s, they experienced real growth, the Conservative movement in particular, only in the late 1960s to mid-1970s. During this period, relatively large numbers of American Jews immigrated--more than 36,000 between 1968 and 1975. Nevertheless, the opposition of the Israeli Orthodox establishment to recognizing Conservative and (particularly) Reform Judaism as legitimate was strong, and it continued to be unwilling to share power and patronage with these movements. Neither of the newer movements has attracted native-born Israelis in significant numbers. The importance of the non-Orthodox movements in Israel in the late 1980s mainly reflects the influence they have wielded in the American and West European Diaspora.

The law confers recognition on some religious communities, granting them some authority over their members in personal status matters. Recognized communities are: Eastern Orthodox, Latin (Roman Catholic), Gregorian-Armenian, Armenian-Catholic, Syrian (Catholic), Chaldean (Uniate), Greek Catholic Melkite, Maronite, Syrian Orthodox, the Evangelical Episcopal Church, Orthodox Jewish (both Ashkenazic and Sephardic rites), Muslim, Druze, and the Baha'i. The status of several Christian denominations is defined by arrangements with government agencies. Legislation enacted in 1961 afforded Muslim courts exclusive jurisdiction in matters of personal status concerning Muslims, although the state regulates judicial appointments to these courts. Secular courts have primacy over questions of inheritance, but parties may bring cases to religious courts by mutual agreement. Muslims also may bring alimony and property division matters associated with divorce to civil courts.

Separate religious court systems adjudicate personal status, such as marriage and divorce, for the Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Druze communities. Jews can marry only in Orthodox Jewish services, although the great majority of Jewish Israelis are not Orthodox. Civil marriages, marriages of some non-Orthodox Jews, marriages in non-Orthodox ceremonies, or marriage to a non-Jew must take place outside the country to be legal. According to the NGO New Family Organization, more than 5,000 couples married in civil ceremonies abroad each year, most in Cyprus, and then registered in Israel's population register. Procedures for divorce from such marriages and changing one's personal status in the population register were unclear; a divorce must take place abroad, as the Supreme Court has ruled that the Rabbinical Court cannot dissolve such marriages, since they were not performed according to Halachic law. The government allows consular marriages as long as both parties have no religion or belong to a religious community that the state does not recognize.

Many Jewish citizens objected to exclusive Orthodox rabbinic control over aspects of their personal lives. Approximately 310,000 citizens who immigrated, either as Jews or as family members of Jews, are not considered Jewish by the Orthodox Rabbinate. They cannot be married, divorced, or buried in Jewish cemeteries within the country. The estimated 20,000 Messianic Jews, who considered themselves to be Jews, also often experienced this infringement in their personal lives due to the Orthodox Rabbinate not considering them as Jewish. A 1996 law requiring the government to establish civil cemeteries has not been fully implemented, although eight civil cemeteries exist.

The 1967 Protection of Holy Sites Law protects all holy sites, but the government implemented regulations only for 137 Jewish sites, leaving Muslim and Christian sites neglected, inaccessible, or threatened by property development. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre and other well-known sites have de facto protection as a result of their international importance; however, community mosques, churches, and shrines faced threats from developers and municipalities that Jewish sites did not face. Christian pilgrimage sites around the Sea of Galilee faced regular threats of encroachment from government planners who wanted to use parts of the properties for recreational areas. The law provides for a hearing of objections to any plan or construction, including submissions by representative bodies such as the NGO Arab Center for Alternative Planning.

While it is illegal to destroy books or icons deemed holy by a religious community or to incite religious prejudice, there were no indictments as of the end of 2009 in the May 2008 public burning of hundreds of Christian Bibles by residents of the Tel Aviv suburb of Or Yehuda. Deputy mayor Uzi Aharon organized the event, reportedly after he received complaints about the Messianic Jewish presence from residents. Aharon told the newspaper Maariv that the municipality operated a team of activists devoted entirely to uprooting missionary activity, including the burning of New Testaments, and that their activities were a fulfillment of the commandment to "burn the evil from your midst."

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Page last modified: 14-01-2018 18:39:24 ZULU