On the Shabbat of May 3rd, Jews of all persuasions attended a prayer vigil in protest of a Jehovah's Witnesses (JW) event being held at a sports arena in Ra’anana. After attempts to stop the event in Israeli court failed, some 2000 plus demonstrators, religious and secular alike, staged a mass protest to voice their opposition to the proselytizing sect's activities in Israel and in their community in particular.
The "Witnesses" are a christ-centered missionary sect with many millions of adherents world-wide. The anti- assimilation organization Yad l'Achim told JewishIsrael that of the estimated 2500 Jehovah's Witnesses adherents residing in Israel, approximately half of those are Jewish Israelis who were converted to Christianity by the sect. As of two years ago, the "Witnesses" claimed to have grown to 23 congregations in Israel.
The press reports leading up to the event, including accounts of the various decisions rendered in the Israeli courts, were a source of confusion. Some articles placed an emphasis on concerns of baptisms, proselytizing and offending Jewish sensitivities, while others placed a focus on the matters of "freedom of religion and ritual" and contractual obligations.
JewishIsrael investigated the background behind the provocative missionary group and their activities in Israel and conducted interviews with Yad L'Achim, as well as community activists and concerned citizens who were present at the protest.
A Word About Proselytizing, Baptisms, And Cults– It's Not Funny
The persistent knock on the door by aggressively proselytizing "Witnesses" has left a legendary and sometimes comic mark on western culture. The Urban Dictionary defines Jehovah's Witnesses as "a group of people whose faces are flat from getting doors slammed in their faces." The Jehovah's Witnesses' relentless evangelism, and unorthodox doctrines and rituals have, for years, had psychologists, Christian leadership and even governments debating the question as to whether the organization should be classified as a "sect" or as a "cult".
The missionary cult/sect is also known for their mass public baptisms, with news reels dating as far back as the 1950's featuring the phenomenon. There are YouTube videos from as recently as three months ago bragging about the biggest mass baptism in the history of Jehovah's Witnesses.
"For Witnesses, baptism represents the most important step that a person can take in life" and this initiation ritual takes place before a congregation and is often held in a stadium, sports arena, or conference hall.
Yad L'Achim confirmed in an interview with JewishIsrael that baptisms of Jews were indeed scheduled for the May 3rd Jehovah's Witnesses "Circuit Assembly" in Ra’anana, "but due to the publicity and court process the actual baptisms may have taken place prior to the actual event scheduled for Shabbat."
[JewishIsrael's full interview with Binyamin Vulcan of Yad L'Achim can be read at the end of this report.]
This very well could be the case, as JewishIsrael notes that online discussion threads, posted prior to the event on a Jehovah's Witnesses social media forum, proclaim that Jews are "blocking our Baptisms on Sabbath", with one member responding "…have them the day before or the day afterwardsor after sunset, etc."
While the proselytizing and baptism fixation may appear to be very foreign and funny to the average Israeli, the "Witnesses" take their missionary work in the Jewish state very seriously, and they take it to court when challenged.
History: Oppressive Religious Freedoms Directives by Courts and Government Officials
Despite having a cult-like status and being shunned by much of the Christian world for a doctrine that deviates from normative Christianity, Jehovah's Witnesses have nevertheless been credited by numerous sources with having secured the rights for evangelizing Christians in America and throughout the world.
Excerpts from an article in Christianity Today (June 2004):
"First, Jehovah's Witnesses have long been a bellwether for religious freedom, in this country and around the world. Without the Jehovah's Witness court victories here in the U.S., for example, religious organizations might have to seek licenses to solicit aid or even to worship. Evangelists might be forced to pay fees to hand out Bibles and tracts—and might be taxed even for giving them away. And school children would be forced to pledge allegiance to whatever the government wished.”
"The Jehovah's Witnesses," Supreme Court Justice Harlan Stone once famously said, "ought to have an endowment in view of the aid which they give in solving the legal problems of civil liberties."
The Jehovah's Witnesses and other evangelical groups raise the banner of religious freedom and the right to proselytize, frequently accompanied by a cry of church "persecution".
The May 3rd event in Ra'anana was far from the first time that official city representatives in that town and other parts of Israel have resisted hosting Jehovah's Witnesses in their districts, only to have the local or national courts interfere and eventually force the municipality to comply.
Over the years Jehovah's Witnesses have effectively used the American State Department and independent administrative tribunals, affiliated with the United Nations, to persistently keep the heat on Israel and to accuse the Jewish state of being in violation of International religious freedoms legislation for its reluctance and resistance to host the proselytizing sect. The following is but a sampling of reports spanning the last 16 years.
"WASHINGTON -- Israeli police have responded with 'indifference' to complaints of death threats against Jehovah's Witnesses, the U.S. State Department charged in a report released this week…Advocates of religious freedom hope that having the State Department's imprimatur on charges of religious discrimination will aid them in their quest.
The report described a March 8, 1997 incident in which 'a mob of over 250 haredim (ultra-conservative Orthodox Jews)' attacked a meeting hall of the Jehovah's Witnesses in Lod, 'broke into the building, destroyed the interior, and burned religious literature, books and furnishings.'
The report says the State Department had 'expected active prosecution' of the perpetrators, rather than the warning that they received.
The 86-page report also touches briefly on a bill being considered by the Knesset that would ban all forms of proselytizing."
"The attorney general's emphasis on the democratic character of the state as opposed to its Jewish character has opened the way for missionary groups such as Jehovah's Witnesses to operate in Israel, according to former justice minister Yaakov Neeman."
Israel: Situation of Christians; antimissionary legislation and its use in practice; activities of Yad L'Achim in relation to Christians, Jehovah's Witnesses and Messianic Jews (excerpts):
Meir Cohen, the coordinator of Yad L'Achim's anti-missionary program, says his organization receives a dozen telephone calls a day from people complaining about the activities of Jehovah's Witnesses (Haaretz 28 Mar. 2008). Yad L'Achim contends that Jehovah's Witnesses '[target] society's weaker elements, including new immigrants, the poor and the handicapped' (ibid.). However, a representative of the Jehovah's Witnesses in Israel, David Namer, counters that 'their movement cuts across ethnic and socioeconomic lines'.
"After Jehovah’s Witnesses held several meetings in the Ra’anana sports hall in November, city council member Ilan Cohen called publicly for halls to refuse to rent space for 'missionary activities.' Afterwards the sports hall could no longer find an available date for any future Jehovah’s Witnesses’ gathering. In Netanya on December 13, police fined two members of Jehovah’s Witnesses NIS 730 ($200) each for sharing their faith from door to door and passing out free literature, stating in the citation that such religious activity was 'peddling' without a license. Authorities also confiscated their Bibles."
"During the year members of Jehovah’s Witnesses reported assaults, threats of violence, and other crimes and noted the difficulties their members faced in convincing the police to investigate or apprehend the perpetrators. On August 13, in Holon, approximately 15 Haredi men disrupted a religious meeting held at a sports hall and one of them punched a member of the community. However, after police questioned the attacker, authorities only gave him a restraining order."
"Jehovah’s Witnesses reported an incident in which soldiers and police told them that proselytizing was illegal and issued a summons to appear at a police station for questioning related to these activities… Societal attitudes toward missionary activities and conversion were generally negative. Most Jews opposed missionary activity directed at Jews, considering it tantamount to religious harassment, and some were hostile to Jewish converts to Christianity. Messianic Jews and Jehovah’s Witnesses were reportedly harassed regularly by Yad L’Achim and Lev L’Achim, Jewish religious organizations opposed to missionary activity and intermarriage. There were no violent attacks against Messianic Jews or Jehovah’s Witnesses." ---
The Jewish Right to Reject Proselytizing in Israel
JewishIsrael's Academic Adviser, Professor Richard Landes reaffirms his take on religious freedoms and proselytizing.
[Note: The following quotes attributed to Professor Landes originally appeared in an article by Diane Bederman, posted on her Times of Israel blog. The article was removed at the behest of Israeli evangelical/messianic attorney Calev Myers, who was the subject of the article at the time.]:
“Given that the US began as an overwhelmingly Christian nation, and Christianity is a quintessentially missionary faith, it would have been hard for American notions of religious freedom not to have included the right to missionize.
“Since Jews have rarely if ever been a missionary religion (preferring example to preaching as a means to communicate religious values) it is entirely within the rights and values of a Jewish interpretation of religious freedom not to include the freedom to missionize.”
“Given that no other religion has ever held sovereignty in Jerusalem and given all religions the rights and freedoms to practice their religion there, it seems somewhat inappropriate to be giving Israel lectures on the matter. And given that Israel’s Muslim neighbors not only missionize aggressively, but punish with death anyone who tries to convert Muslims and any Muslims who convert, it seems entirely fitting and just that the US should, if it wishes to advance religious freedom on this troubled planet, find another whipping boy than Israel.”
Since its inception JewishIsrael has expressed concern that "due to Israel's close alliances with American and Western Europe she is prone to importing prototypes of democracy and personal freedoms which run contrary to the national aspirations and values of the Jewish people. In addition Israel often finds herself at the mercy of religious freedoms legislation which was formulated to promote ideas that run counter to Jewish tradition." The quest for uniquely Jewish democratic solutions which will lay the foundations for, and enable, Israel to be a true "light unto the nations" is an integral part of JewishIsrael's mission.
Strictly Business – A Contractual Dispute
An attorney and Ra’anana resident who was very upset about the Jehovah's Witnesses event, and who attended the Shabbat vigil, told JewishIsrael that he believes the District Court decision in favor of the Christian sect had more to do about contractual obligations than about religious freedoms and the right to proselytize.
It seems the municipality of Ra’anana found itself bound to a long-term contract that was agreed upon prior to Mayor Ze'ev Bielski's recent term as Mayor of Ra’anana. JewishIsrael was told by that same source and others that Mayor Bielski tried very hard to prevent the Jehovah's Witnesses event and that letters of encouragement should be sent to him for his efforts.
The source also told JewishIsrael that the contract with Jehovah's Witnesses will not be renewed for 2016.
This matter should serve as a heads-up to all venues and those who choose to do business with evangelizing Christian enterprises. There should be a clear and full understanding of the nature of these events and red lines should be drawn with an option to cancel the contract if Jewish sensibilities, souls, or the integrity of the land or the people of Israel are at stake.
Just last month, JewishIsrael published a report on a messianic business forum held in Jerusalem, which was surprisingly sponsored in part by Israeli venture capital firm OurCrowd. The mission of the conference was aimed at economically empowering and developing the messianic christian movement in Israel.
The Jewish Soul on Fire – Zero Tolerance for Those Seeking to Destroy Judaism
JewishIsrael spoke with teacher and pro-Israel advocate Bat Zion Susskind-Sacks, who attended the vigil in Ra’anana. She was very distressed by the Jehovah's Witnesses event and had little to say about the religious freedoms issue, telling us that she is strictly focused on Israel retaining its Jewishness and Jewish tradition. Susskind-Sacks, who is a proud traditional Jew, said ”there is only one Jewish state and we must maintain our spiritual essence and fiber, otherwise we are facing a spiritual holocaust.”
Meanwhile, Drora Cohen a Torah Observant city councilwoman, representing the Bayit Yehudi faction in the Ra’anana municipality, resigned in outrage over the missionary event.
As seen through history time and time again, the authentic Jewish individual, whether religiously observant or not, as well as the Jewish collective soul, cannot tolerate being torn from its source and faith. The State of Israel must lay down the law against proselytizing, because “freedom of religion” rhetoric or "contractual obligations" to missionary entities means nothing to those who take their Jewishness seriously. And it seems the Israeli public will no longer be silent on this issue.
JewishIsrael interviewed Binyamin Vulcan, director of Field Operations in the Department of Missionaries and Cults for Yad l’Achim, in order clarify some outstanding points surrounding the Jehovah's Witnesses event and the protest vigil.
JewishIsrael: We know that JW is an aggressive proselytizing sect and that Yad l’Achim has been battling them for years, but was the cry of “mass baptisms” a way to draw attention to the situation or were there actually large numbers of baptisms scheduled for the event? If yes, how many Jews were involved?
Yad l'Achim: Baptisms of Jews were scheduled and baptisms are always a part of JW initiation ceremonies, but due to the publicity and court process the actual baptisms may have taken place prior to the actual event on Shabbat.
JewishIsrael: Did the Lod District Court rule that baptisms per se could be held at that venue or that the Ra’anana Municipality had to honor their contract with JW?
Yad l'Achim: It was the Municipality of Ra’anana that tried to cancel the contract and was involved with the courts, not Yad L’achim. The municipality based their case on the issue of the JW event offending the sensitivities of the residents of the community – both religious and secular alike - and not on the baptism issue. Yad L’Achim did work behind the scenes to assist the municipality.
JewishIsrael: Is Yad l‘Achim working in cooperation with the municipality and residents of Ra’anana to stop future events?
Yad l'Achim: Yes. There was tremendous cooperation on many levels, something [neither] Yad l’Achim nor the Ra’anana municipality has seen before. Even Meretz representatives came out in opposition to such an event. Many people from many walks of life were present at the protest.
A great number of French Jews who have recently made Aliyah were present and especially distraught, because they came to Israel to escape anti-Semitism only to find that their new Jewish home and community is being pursued by aggressive Christian missionaries
JewishIsrael: There were some reports of violence, provocation, and incitement at the event. Was Yad l’Achim encouraging this?
Yad l’Achim: Yad l'Achim representatives spent Shabbat in Ra’anana and passed out thousands of flyers asking participants in the vigil not to get violent in words or actions. Any such reactions would have been detrimental to our cause.
JewishIsrael: Will this matter be pursued in the courts?
Yad l’Achim: Yad l"Achim is presently putting efforts into pressuring the Israeli government to adopt stringent anti-missionary legislation.
JewishIsrael: What can the public do?
Yad l’Achim: Write letters to Zeev Bielski, Mayor of Ra’anana, because he really put forth his best efforts and he should be encouraged.
JewishIsrael: What are the statistics on the numbers of JW cult members in Israel? How many of them come from Jewish backgrounds, and how many converted while in Israel?
Yad l’Achim: There are approximately 2500 members of the JW cult in Israel and half of them converted from Judaism and are Israeli.
JewishIsrael: Apart from Jehovah's Witnesses, what are your current stats on messianic Christians?
Yad l’Achim: Out of the 15,000 -20,000 people claiming to be messianic in Israel (many are Russians who came here as Christians), there are between 6000 -7000 Jewish Israelis who have converted to Messianic Christianity.