Tension between Israel’s secular and ultra-Orthodox populations represents one of the most difficult issues facing Israeli society today. When Israel was established, the country’s founders made an agreement, referred to as the “status quo agreement,” with the political leaders of the ultra-Orthodox community. The agreement gives ultra-Orthodox leaders authority over religious matters, a widely inclusive topic, as Israel has no separation of church and state. It has led to deep-rooted tensions between Israel’s ultra-Orthodox citizens and the rest of the population, and has put the country at odds with human rights norms. Israel’s policies regarding religion and state demonstrate a divergence from several human rights norms, including freedom of religion, women’s rights, and minority rights. These rights are protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD).

According to the agreement, the ultra-Orthodox leadership has authority over all personal status issues for Israeli Jews. This includes marriage, divorce, and religious conversion. The lack of civil marriage or divorce options in Israel forces all citizens to wed and divorce according to state-sanctioned religious authorities. Under this policy, many Israelis cannot get married in Israel, including: anyone without an official religion, inter-faith couples, same-sex couples, and anyone who does not want to be married according to state-sanctioned religious authorities. These citizens must therefore leave Israel to get married. Article 18 of the ICCPR defends “the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” Israel’s lack of civil marriage and divorce violates Israeli citizens’ right to freedom of religion by forcing them to wed and divorce according to state-sanctioned religious authorities. The ICCPR also protects people against coercion. Even though Israel has signed and ratified the ICCPR, and is thus legally bound by it, Israeli citizens are not free to make their own choices regarding religion.

The status quo agreement has had far-reaching effects on women’s rights in Israel as well. In recent years, public spaces throughout the country have succumbed to illegal, forced gender segregation, with women increasingly forced from the public sphere in the name of modesty. Article 7 of CEDAW asserts that states must safeguard women’s rights as strongly as men’s, obliging states to “eliminate discrimination against women in the…public life of the country.” Although Israel has ratified CEDAW, it is not upholding this convention because it is not defending women’s rights against religious coercion. Article 7 also stipulates that the burden to protect women’s rights lies on the state to “take all appropriate measures.” Appropriate measures include stifling religiously motivated exclusion of women from the public sphere. Radhika Coomaraswamy, the former UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, explained that states have a responsibility to protect women from religiously motivated violence, and that religious and cultural norms cannot justify violence against women. There is no reason why the states’ responsibility should not carry over to defend all aspects of women’s rights outlined in CEDAW against religiously motivated violations. Israel’s status quo agreement cannot be used as justification for ignoring the marginalization of women in society.

Israel’s practices also violate its obligations under CERD. Israel’s minority groups have recently been hit with a wave of racism and discrimination, inspired and perpetuated by public figures and religious leaders. Racist incitement is a criminal offense in Israel, but there is a trend of community leaders using religious law to justify racial discrimination. Throughout the past year, several state-employed rabbis have repeatedly referred to Israel’s Arab citizens as “the enemy” and have preached that all Arabs have a violent nature. These rabbis have also urged Jews not to rent or sell apartments to Arabs and not to employ Arabs or shop from stores that do employ Arabs. Article 2 of CERD states that countries must “condemn racial discrimination and… pursue…a policy of eliminating racial discrimination in all its forms and promoting understanding among all races.” As a country that has ratified CERD, Israel is legally bound to denounce and eradicate all forms of racial discrimination, while taking freedom of speech into account. By allowing racial discrimination and racist incitement to continue, Israel is not upholding its duties outlined in CERD.

These examples demonstrate the tensions that exist between Israel’s status quo agreement and issues of religion and state. Through legal work in Israeli courts and advocacy in Israel’s parliament, several Israeli human rights organizations are striving to bring change in the area of religion and state in Israel, and to push the government to uphold its international legal obligations. The Israeli government has a legal obligation to make the necessary reforms to bring its policies into sync with the human rights treaties that the country has ratified.