March 28, 2018
According to a report issued by The Citizen’s Empowerment Center in Israel (CECI), 10 percent of Israeli citizens have declared that they do not want a religious burial, but in all of Israel, there are only 20 civil burial sites.
The civil battle between religious and secular groups over what constitutes the Jewish character of the state hounds the nation’s citizens all the way to their graves. It has been 22 years since the state legally bound itself to create a secular burial alternative for citizens of all religions, for those who claim no religion at all, and for secular people or atheists from all of Israel’s ethnic groups. Nevertheless, at present, there are only 21 civil cemeteries or burial sites under government supervision.
Only three of these sites are available to citizens, regardless of their place of residence, and one has already closed because it is full; six others are regional, and all the rest are for local residents only. According to Central Bureau of Statistics Data, 10 percent of Israelis declare in advance that when they pass they do not want to be buried in a religious manner. But for anyone who desires a civil burial, his or her family will be forced to pay tens of thousands of shekels for a burial plot that, in many cases, will be far from their home or the home of the deceased.
The 1996 law actually places the responsibility for ensuring an alternative to religious burial on the Religious Affairs Ministry, rather than on the Interior Ministry. A government ministry whose sole function is to ensure religious services to the population, and is traditionally controlled by ministers from religious parties, is the one obligated by law to create a civil / secular burial alternative. The government was supposed to have corrected this absurdity four years ago when it established an Inter-Ministerial Director-General Committee to resolve the issue, but since then nothing has happened. The Interior Ministry, which is in charge of local government, was not given any legal authority to compel heads of local government to allocate land for regional civil cemeteries. For their part, municipalities and regional councils are not willing to volunteer to offer this option to citizens who do not reside within their jurisdictions.
CECI, which follows up on government and Knesset decisions, has issued a new report, being published here for the first time. It has tracked Government Decision 1484, which resolved to establish an Inter-Ministerial Director-General Committee to recommend the steps needed to provide civil burials in Israel (in terms of budgets, authority, obstacles, and so on). The committee was in fact established in 2014 and held its first meeting in April of that year. However, despite the government decision requiring the committee to submit recommendations within three months, the committee’s only decision was to establish yet another committee, this one made up of professionals from the Religious Affairs Ministry, the Interior Ministry, the Finance Ministry, and the Israel Land Authority. This second committee articulated its recommendations to the director-generals, but the Religious Affairs Ministry has admitted that “The committee failed to reach conclusions that would be acceptable to all parties.” The recommendations of the professional committee got stuck at the political level as well, and the Religious Affairs and Interior Ministries, both currently controlled by “Shas Party” (an ultra-Orthodox party) were in no hurry to resolve the differences of opinion.
The government decision four years ago also mandated that the Interior Ministry had to help remove any obstacles vis-à-vis local government on this issue, but CECI’s report discovered that part of the decision was never implemented, and that, as of now, the Interior Ministry is not an influential factor in the matter. In a conversation with the Israeli daily Maariv Hashavua, Einat Fischer-Lalo, General Manager of CECI, and Noa Rosenfeld, Government Affairs Director at CECI, stressed that “The 2016 State Comptroller’s report already declared there was a significant lack of civil burial plots. The law explicitly states that people have the right to be buried in civil cemeteries should they so wish, and the state must make this right available. The law also says that the minister charged with executing this task is the religious affairs minister and this minister is authorized to grant licenses to civil cemeteries. However, he is not using his authority and without the involvement of the Interior Ministry as the interface with local government, that authority is meaningless."
"Not Picking Up The Gauntlet"
Fischer-Lalo and Rosenfeld emphasize that there is a need for change in legislation to give “teeth” to the Interior Ministry vis-à-vis local government with regard to allocating land for civil burial plots. “Our investigation found that not only does the Interior Ministry lack the required authority in law, it is also not picking up the gauntlet to create incentives for municipalities and regional councils.” CECI’s report notes that “Municipalities and local and regional councils are authorized to act only within their own jurisdictions on behalf of their own residents; therefore, obligating them to work towards establishing regional cemeteries runs counter to the basic principle upon which their authority is based.
To resolve this conundrum, the Inter-Ministerial Committee recommended examining the possibility that the state would participate in the cost of developing cemetery infrastructures in the jurisdiction of local authorities, formulate a mechanism to compensate or help finance the costs of local authorities which provide regional civil burial services, generate mutual incentives between local authorities and help them finance the costs of joint development to establish a regional cemetery serving several local authorities. But the Interior Ministry has failed to help remove these obstacles and the recommendations document was never signed.”
In 2014, an Israeli citizen submitted a petition to the High Court of Justice after he was unable to bury his late wife in a civil burial plot with state financing. Back then, the High Court determined that the state had been negligent in fulfilling its legal obligation and ordered that the man be compensated and allowed to act as he had requested, but even that precedent failed to produce significant change. The result is that a non-religious person who is uninterested in religious burial will in most cases – certainly if she / he cannot afford an alternative – be forced to accept the religious default and not rest in peace.