The Commission of International Religious Freedom:  Criticism of Israel Stifled


In 1998, then-President Bill Clinton signed into law the International Religious Freedom Act, which was unanimously supported by both the House and Senate.  The purpose of IRFA is to promote religious freedom abroad via several tools designed to influence U.S. foreign policy.  One tool is the Commission on International Religious Freedom, a group of nine members appointed by the  president and by both parties in the House and Senate.  The Commission’s mandate is to make foreign policy recommendations to the State Department, the administration, and Congress regarding countries engaged in violations of religious freedom.

During my tenure as a presidential appointee for the past two years, the Commission did not establish any objective criteria by which to determine what countries would be selected for review.  Based on the group’s discussions, coupled with the power of persuasion of any given member, a list of countries was selected for review in 2000.   Until the fall of that year, Israel was not on the Commission’s agenda.

Sharon’s Visit: 

Attempts to highlight the numerous violations of religious freedom in Israel and the Occupied Territories proved unconvincing to the majority of Commission members.  Finally, the eruption of the second intifada following Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Haram al-Sharif prompted the Commission to issue a statement to then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright urging U.S. denunciation of attacks on holy places, restoration of access to religious sites “when legitimate security interests are met,” and condemnation of the use of incendiary religious rhetoric.

Any attempt to place blame on Sharon’s provocative visit were quickly thwarted by the Commission, which also refused to criticize Israel’s use of collective punishment in its barring of thousands of Palestinian Christians and Muslims from reaching their houses of worship in Jerusalem.  As a presidential appointee to the Commission, I sent a separate letter to Albright expressing my concerns about the severity of the closures, the use of lethal force and other forms of violence against unarmed worshippers, and the prohibition of access to holy sites in Jerusalem by men between the ages of 16 and 45.

The Commission’s statement was met with strong objections by members of the Muslim and Arab American communities for being far too weak regarding Israel’s violations of religious freedom.  The leadership of these communities met with the Commission staff and with its chair Elliott Abrams.  During the meeting, assurances were given that Israel would remain on the Commission’s agenda along with the possibility of a fact-finding trip.

The Commission had already been contemplating trips to Egypt and Saudi Arabia.  It was therefore suggested that Israel and the Occupied Territories be included on the itinerary because anti-U.S. sentiment in the region would likely intensify if an official delegation condemned abuses of religious freedom in Egypt and Saudi Arabia while ignoring Israeli actions.

The Findings Dispute: 

The commissioners were in disagreement about issuing findings at all.  One proposed alternative was to comment publicly on the findings in Egypt and Saudi Arabia without similarly addressing those in Israel considering the likely disagreements that would ensue.  Such an approach would give the Commission cover by lending legitimacy to the trip while letting Israel off the hook.

Ultimately, the findings of the trips to Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia were classified as “internal documents,” which are inaccessible to the public because the Commission is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. The Commission did, however, issue public recommendations on religious freedom in Egypt and Saudi Arabia although not in Israel and the Occupied Territories.  In the words of Abrams, in testimony before the House International Relations Committee on 24 May 2001, recommendations were not made in the case of Israel because the Commission “sees its study of the situation . . . as a complex matter requiring additional work.”

In protest, I submitted my own statement to the Commission outlining serious violations of religious freedom in Israel and the Occupied Territories.  In Israel, the control by the Orthodox rabbinate over most religious affairs-such as marriage, conversion, burial, and circumcision-results in discrimination against non-Orthodox Jews.  In addition, non-Orthodox groups (Jews, Muslims, and Christians) receive only 2 to 4 percent of the Ministry of Religious Affairs budget for the maintenance and restoration of houses of worship and religious services and educational programs.  Palestinian Christians and Muslims face widespread and systematic discrimination throughout Israel with respect to ownership of property, education, employment, and government representation.  The Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to anyone of Jewish heritage, is inherently discriminatory on the basis of religion.

In East Jerusalem and the rest of the Occupied Territories, discrimination against non-Jews is egregious in terms of the distribution of resources, the allocation of social services, and the effectiveness of law enforcement.  House demolitions by the Israeli government and occupation of Palestinian Christian and Muslim sections of Jerusalem by Jewish Israelis are a form of ethnic cleansing, designed to rid the city of its non-Jewish population.  In addition, the ongoing siege by Israeli forces throughout the Occupied Territories impedes the right to worship in Jerusalem and elsewhere, such as in Hebron, while Jews continue to have unfettered access to holy sites.  Finally, while assaults on houses of worship of all faiths have increased, of particular concern are the attacks by Israeli security forces on religious sites in the Occupied Territories.  (For the full text of my dissent see the Commission’s Website.)

Much of the substance of my statement was derived from a draft document the Commission was working with that was later abandoned.  By ensuring that the only criticism of Israel would come from a Muslim American of Palestinian descent, other commissioners would conveniently be able to distance themselves from my statement and dismiss it as biased.  In addition, by waiting until the eleventh hour, the Commission was able to relieve itself of any responsibility to pursue the matter further, knowing that the next group of commissioners would be under no obligation to take up the issue.

Turning a Blind Eye:

In Washington, and particularly on this Commission, the issue of religious freedom is tainted by politics that cater to certain groups at the expense of the truth.  Since there is no well-defined standard for determining which countries deserve scrutiny, the Commission to date has largely followed the agenda of the general religious freedom movement and its supporters in Washington among congressional representatives and lobbyists alike.  The most vocal of the Washington insiders all share unquestioning support for Israel.  This support renders them blind to Israel’s human rights atrocities and religious freedom violations, which have been documented by Amnesty International, B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch, and the State Department.  In May, at a hearing before the House International Relations Committee, Tom Lantos (R-Calif.), in an unbridled display of apologetics, singled out my statement as an irresponsible and deliberate attempt to confuse religious freedom violations with a government’s legitimate right to defend itself against “terrorism”.

The choice of the Commission on International Religious Freedoms to willfully ignore Israel’s blatant human rights abuses will only add to the Commission’s credibility problems, where Americans, whose tax dollars finance these endeavors, expect the Commission to serve as a true and honest advocate for religious freedom for all people of faith.

Laila Al-Marayati is a founding member and past President of the Muslim Women’s League.  The final report and all documents referred to here can be found at the Commission’s Website.