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JUNE 29, 2015

Israel’s Supreme Court Upholds Witnesses’ Right to Peaceful Assembly

Israel’s Supreme Court and the local police upheld religious freedom by protecting the rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses to meet for worship. In a recent decision, the Supreme Court obligated the city of Ra’anana to honor its contract with Jehovah’s Witnesses to rent the city’s Metro West Sports Center for two religious assemblies. Under pressure from some other religious groups, the municipality had canceled the contract only 36 hours before the first assembly was to begin.

Courts Reject Municipality’s Discriminatory Cancellation

Jehovah’s Witnesses had signed a contract with the city of Ra’anana to hold assemblies on April 18 and May 2, 2015. They first suspected that the assemblies were in danger of cancellation when on April 15, the city’s general manager expressed her concerns for the security of the upcoming April 18 event. Despite receiving assurance from the local chief of police that the police would guarantee security, the city of Ra’anana unilaterally canceled the contract the next day. News media reported that the city bowed to pressure from religious council members who threatened to withdraw their political support if the city allowed the Witnesses to hold their assemblies.

Although the Witnesses immediately filed for an injunction with the Lod District Court to force the city to honor the contract, there was not enough time to avoid the cancellation of the April 18 assembly. While the Witnesses succeeded in renting another venue for their event, they had to pay six times the price that they had contracted with the city for the sports center.

On April 29, the Lod District Court issued an injunction requiring the city to honor its contract, ruling that “the [Ra’anana] Municipality infringed the constitutional rights of [Jehovah’s Witnesses] to freedom of religion and ritual, freedom of association and assembly, the right to dignity and freedom and the right to equality.” The city immediately appealed for a suspension of the injunction, which the Supreme Court rejected on May 1. A further appeal was canceled, and the district court judgment stands.

Police Protect the Witnesses

The timely ruling by the Supreme Court enabled Jehovah’s Witnesses to hold their assembly on May 2. Local religious leaders, including the city’s chief rabbi and members of an ultraorthodox organization known for its aggressive tactics, reacted to the ruling by organizing a “collective prayer” session that drew an estimated 1,500 participants. They gathered in front of the sports center as 600 Witnesses arrived to attend the assembly. The “collective prayer” quickly turned into a mass protest. Some of the protesters attacked the Witnesses—including women and children. They insulted them, spit on them, jeered at them, made obscene gestures, and damaged personal vehicles. The police quickly intervened to contain the protesters. The police action allowed the Witnesses to enjoy their religious assembly and return home safely at the end of the day.

Jehovah’s Witnesses in Israel are grateful to the Israeli authorities who took a stand against religious intolerance and discrimination by defending their right to gather for peaceful worship.