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Reprint of an important article not available elsewhere online

Messianic Jews from Beersheba
Sue Local Rabbi and Yad L’Achim

by Jorg Luyken,
The Jerusalem Post Christian Edition June 2007

In a case which Pastor Howard Bass says is “opening up a hornets’ nest” for the Rabbinate, the small Nachalat Yeshua Messianic congregation from Beersheba is taking the city’s chief rabbi Yehuda Deri and the anti-missionary organization Yad L’Achim to court this October. The case stems from an incident in December 2005, when Bass’ church was attacked by an angry mob of 500 Orthodox Jews.

Deri is believed to have called the demonstrators to the church after being informed by Yad L’achim that 10 bus loads of Jewish children were about to be taken there to be baptized, recounts Bass. This claim, he says, was wildly exaggerated. “Only two people were supposed to be baptized on that day. Bot were over 18 and were exercising their rights under Israeli law.”

Three of the demonstrators were arrested that night, but no charges were brought against them.

Bass is unsure about his chances of success. “It seems like so many laws were broken that an honest judge should see that, but this is Israel, and given the unpopularity of followers of Yeshua here, the pressure he will face from the people and the Rabbinate will make it very difficult for him to come to that decision.”

This is not the first time Deri, the brother of former Shas leader Aryeh Deri, has been at the center of violent protests against Beersheba’s Messianic community. In remarkably similar circumstances in 1999, Deri says he called on the city’s Ultra-Orthodox Jews to make a “peaceful” demonstration after it had be rumored that Messianics were baptizing children. One observer noted that “some were throwing rocks. They were in a frenzy. This wasn’t a demonstration; this was a mob.”

On that occasion the police made no arrests.

Yad L’achim has also been suspected by Messianic congregations of causing criminal damage. The leader of the congregation at Kiryat Yam, Eitan Shishkoff, has previously told The Jerusalem Post that in 1997 continual harassment by the organization led to the fire-bombing of his church’s warehouse. [Actually the “church” was located in the warehouse, it wasn’t just a warehouse the congregation also used, but it was the congregational facility!]

Indeed, a Yad L’achim member by the name of Menachem Ferster was taken to court last year by Messianic pastor Eddie Beckford, who was asking that a restriction order be placed on him. However, in a surprising turnaround, Beckford himself ended up being charged after it emerged that he had assaulted Ferster. Yad L’achim has video footage showing him trying to run Ferster over in his car and then getting out and beating him.

Art Artovsky, an administrator at Yad L’achim, says, “we absolutely deny inciting anybody to attack or take any action that is against the law. This is nothing but a vicious accusation.” Asked if some members in their eagerness to contribute to the cause, might occasionally go beyond orders, he answers emphatically “no, absolutely never.” He says the claims by Messianics that they are victims of organized violence is part of a propaganda campaign to paint themselves as victims.

Bass denies this. He believes that if the judge does not rule in Nachalat Yeshua’s favor it could lead to more cases being brought against the Rabinnate, given what he describes as the commonplace discrimination against Messianic Jews in the country.

There certainly seems to be some evidence pointing in this direction.

The Jerusalem Congregation is a church of around 200 members Kibbutz Ramat Rahel. However, according to a member of their congregation, when the Rabbinate found out that Christians were worshipping there, it threatened to take away the hotel’s kashrut license. Facing a serious blow to its main source of revenue, Ramat Rahel had little choice but to stop renting them the hall. Yad L’achim claims to “support the measures taken by the Chief Rabinate to withdraw the kashrut certificate of any catering hall in which missionary events take place.”

Yoyakim Figueras is pastor at the Chasdei Yeshua church in Arad. He says his congregation has faced constant harassment from Yad L’achim for the past three years.

Every Shabbat at least two of them sit outside our meetings and taunt members of the congregation in a very personal way. For example, if someone is fat they will mock them for this. There are two children whose family attends the congregation. They were told by these people that their father would die in a fire.”

Figueras has also had stones thrown through the windows of his house, but he says the police are reluctant to protect them. “Volunteers at the police station and members of the actual force have told me they have direct orders not to interfere. I believe that these orders come from the chief of police in Beersheba. At the start of the troubles our Ultra-Orthodox Jews were arrested, but I was told by members of the force that they were soon released after three different Knesset members called about the matter.”

This case is complicated because Artovsky claims he has evidence that Figueras has proselytized to people under 18, which is illegal. Like Figeuras, he complains that the police never followed up his complaints. But he claims that a member of the police in Arad told him it is because of pressure put on them by wealthy evangelicals via the Knesset.

Even if Nachalat Yeshua is successful, Figueras says his church is unlikely to follow suit. “At this moment we have decided not to take them to court,” he says. Even if we go to court, who is to say that the harassment will stop?”

This type of harassment is just one part of a wider problem. Calev Myers is an Israeli lawyer and the founder of the Jerusalem Institute of Justice. He says such cases as those in Arad and Beersheba are rare, but that discrimination, particularly in the Interior Ministry, is more widespread.

Shas has controlled the ministry off and on since 1988, when Aryeh Deri took over. Myers claims that during this period, workers have been indoctrinated into thinking that Messianic Jews are a threat to Israeli society. This has led to many citizenship applications being rejected.

In a Supreme Court case scheduled to be heard May 31, the Interior Ministry is trying to prevent four families from entering the country because it claims they are missionaries. According to Myers these claims are false and have come about because of close co-operation between the Ministry and Yad L’achim.

The peculiarity of this issue is that the discrimination Messianic Jews face in Israeli is fairly well known, yet scant action is taken. For Jews of even a semi-religious persuasion, the fact that many of the congregations are proselytizing is a big problem because they see it as threatening the Jewish character of the state. According to Artovsky “Messianic Jews, like other missionaries, want to see the Jewish people wiped out. Their sole objective is to bring the Jewish nation to Christian belief. This objective is one against which any Jew would protest.”

Even the Christian Allies Caucus in the Knesset seems to be in agreement with Yad L’achim, which whom Caucus chairman Benny Elon recently told Arutz 7 he “works closely.” Josh Reinstein, the Caucus’ director, told The Jerusalem Post Christian Edition that “any Christian who faces harassment is a concern to us” but that “the Caucus does not work with” and is “fully against” the work of Messianic Jews in Israel.

Bass openly admits to proselytizing, and believes that this will have an affect on the outcome of the case. But he doesn’t think it should be counted against him, saying “we are neither forcing anyone to convert, nor are we offering tem any inducements.”

But Artovsky says that the methods the missionaries use are morally bankrupt since, in a country where the majority are fairly ignorant of their religious heritage, they claim to be “real Jews” in order to lure people in.

All this could change if a new law proposed by Rabbi Meir Porush of the United Torah Judaism party, which would make proselytization illegal, comes into effect. But such a law would come into conflict with the pre-existing freedom of religion legislation, since it can be argued that evangelism is an essential tenet of Christianity. At present, there are only two laws limiting missionary activity in Israel:

1) No one can offer a material inducement for someone to change their religions; and
2) No one can discuss changing religion with a minor (under 18 years of age) without their parent’s permission.

Prosecutions under either law have been extremely rare.

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