Posted on April 29, 2017 in Washington Watch
by James J. Zogby
This week, nearing the end of four years of service as an Obama Presidential appointee to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), I felt compelled to issue a public dissent to USCIRF's 2017 Annual Report.
While the larger part of my dissent dealt with the way the Commission does its work (which I will discuss in a future column), what moved me to go public was the glaring refusal of some Commissioners to allow even a consideration of religious freedom in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
I did not bring this matter before the Commission. It was brought to our attention by two letters urging us to consider Israel's discriminatory behavior toward Palestinian Christians and Muslims, and non-Orthodox Jews. The first of these was signed by leaders representing 11 major U.S. religious communities and 34 Christian groups from the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem.
Their letter noted that the Commission had "never reported on religious freedom in Israel and the occupied territories" calling it a "conspicuous gap." They argued that Israel has established "the dominant privileged position of Jewish Israelis in a manner that discriminated against the Christian and Muslim Palestinian population in Israel and the occupied territories...[while] also negatively affecting non-Orthodox and secular Jews." They cited "discriminatory laws that impact the freedom to marry, family unification, discrimination in housing and land ownership, the freedom of movement, and the right to worship and to main holy site."
The letter closed by urging USCIRF to conduct "a comprehensive review of religious freedom in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, consistent with the principles it has established with respect to other states."
The Commission also received a letter from the Chair and President of Hiddush, "an organization of Israeli and North American Jewish leaders...who work to promote religious freedom and diversity in Israel." Their letter cited a broad range of concerns, including the "freedom to worship (such as...women's worship rights in the Western Wall plaza...), discrimination in State funding for religious services,...prohibition of public transport on the Sabbath, obstacles to non-religious and non-Orthodox burials" and "the excessive power of the Orthodox religious parties over the rights and dignity of the population as a whole."
The Hiddush letter closed by requesting that USCIRF " conduct a serious review of religious freedom issues in Israel... [and] that the standards and principles used to monitor religious freedom issues throughout the world be used as you study and review these issues in Israel."
While I was troubled that a slim majority of Commissioners voted against both requests, more disturbing was the way the debate took place. The level of vehemence was so great that it was clear that there could be no rational discussion of this issue. Some Commissioners expressed concern that if we were to conduct a review of Israeli policy it would consume the Commission in endless rancorous debate, paralyzing us for the rest of the year. The upshot was that these appeals were dismissed and the Commission was, in effect, bullied into silence.
This was not the first time during my tenure that the Commission rejected an appeal of this sort. In 2014, we were visited by the Latin Patriarch—the Roman Catholic Bishop of Jerusalem. He raised four concerns, asking for our help: the impact of the Wall which Israel was building to separate its settlements from Palestinians, citing, in particular, its impact on a Catholic convent and monastery—threatening irreparable damage to the operations of both; the hardships imposed on Palestinians as a result of Israel's refusal to allow family unification in East Jerusalem; restrictions on the freedom of movement of clergy; and Israel's efforts to create a "Christian ID" that would divide the Palestinian citizens of Israel by religion.
The Patriarch was treated so harshly by some Commissioners that he left the meeting shaken by the hostility he had encountered. When I raised the Patriarch's concerns at a later meeting, I was asked why I was singling Israel out for criticism. In response I noted that I wasn't singling Israel out for criticism, I just couldn't accept that Israel be singled out as the one country that could not be criticized.
My concern in all of this is threefold. By refusing to examine Israeli behavior, the Commission is not only insulting the major faith leaders who wrote to us, it is also saying to Palestinian Christians and Muslims, and non-Orthodox or secular Jews in Israel that their freedoms and rights do not matter. In addition, USCIRF's silence contributes to Israel's sense of impunity and exposes it to the charge of having a double standard—that it will criticize every other country, but never Israel. In fact, many of the behaviors we cite in our criticisms of other countries (for example, Turkey in Cyprus or Russia in Crimea) are replicated by Israel in the occupied territories.
In this context, it is important to consider the findings of the annual Pew Study of religious freedom in countries around the world. In its most recent study, Pew gives Israel the world's fifth worst score on its "Social Hostilities Index". On Pew's "Government Restriction Index", Israel's score is worse than many of the countries the Commission examines in its annual report.
The charge that USCIRF has a double standard particularly undermines its ability to effectively advocate for religious freedom in other countries, the leaders of which can ignore the substance of USCIRF’s critique of their record and instead dismiss the Commission as hypocritical.
Given this, I decided to make my dissent public because I value religious freedom and cannot turn a blind eye to any victim community and because I know that the Commission's refusal to be balanced in its assessment of religious freedom concerns reduces its stature and calls into question its credibility.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Arab American Institute. The Arab American Institute is a non-profit, nonpartisan national leadership organization that does not endorse candidates.