For almost two thousand years, the Jews lived as a religious minority in a great number of countries, sometimes tolerated and at other times persecuted. Only in 1948 did they succeed in establishing a state where they constitute the majority of the population.
Moreover, this state was formally established as a "Jewish State." These circumstances explain the special interest in the question of how and to what extent Israel recognizes and implements the right to freedom of religion and of conscience.
Since its establishment, Israel has been committed to and has endeavored to guarantee freedom of religion for the various religious communities. In particular, the right to access and worship at holy places, as well as the equality of rights for adherents of different religions, have been protected and preserved by law and by the administration. Walking through the streets and picturesque alleys in Jerusalem, one meets many different religious groups, including pilgrims, on their way to their places of worship and holy shrines.
We will not merely rely on such impressions, however, but will carefully examine the various aspects of freedom of religion and their implementation in Israel. Like all other human rights, this one as well has to be judged not simply by a general proclamation of the right but by the details of its implementation and by its limitations. After a few preliminary remarks, we will start with an examination of the Jewish character of Israel, the principle of freedom of religion and conscience, and the limitations of this freedom.
A study of the implementation of this freedom requires an analysis of certain related aspects: the status of the holy places, equality of rights for members of different religions, the right to change one's religion, regulation of proselytizing activities, the right to a religious education, matters of personal status, and the status of people who do not belong to any religious group. Most of these subjects are mentioned in the 1981 Untied Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion and Belief as ingredients of freedom of religion. Others are relevant to a few countries only, including Israel (e.g. the status of holy places and jurisdiction in matters of personal status). The general discussion will be supplemented by some specific remarks about Muslims.