The Religious Freedom Follies: State Department levels accusations at Israel

Every year at around this time, the U.S. State Department releases the International Religious Freedom Report. In keeping with the International Religious Freedom Act which was passed by the U.S. Congress in 1998, these reports offer a critical review of the laws, customs and practices of almost 200 countries and territories. 

Israel did not fall into the category of a severe offender of religious rights in 2012.  Nevertheless, the Jewish state fell short of the standards that have been set by America, an overwhelmingly Christian nation. So Israel doesn't make the grade when it comes to accepting "messianic Jews" ("Jewish believers in jesus"), welcoming missionaries and embracing proselytizing. As in the past, this year's report depicts Orthodox Judaism as oppressive and is obsessively fixated on Israel's internal affairs. However, Jewishisrael will keep this article focused on issues of "Christian rights".

The editorializing and slant of this State Department report borders on the humorous, with a curious focus on "messianic Jews" (covert Christians):

"While Jews who are atheists or who state their adherence to other religions are conferred immigration benefits, Messianic Jews are routinely excluded..."

Of course to any thinking Jew, even one living in a nation striving to be reasonably pluralistic and democratic, the answer to that accusation is elementary:

"We should point out that we regard belief in the Trinity as such an aberration that we would rather have a Jew remain an agnostic or atheist than accept these doctrines which for a Jew would involve apostasy or idolatry."--- Rabbi Walter S. Wurzburger

The report would indeed be laughable, except that, according to the State Department and other sources , the population of "Messianic Jews" in Israel has apparently taken a quantum leap over the past three years – growing from 10,000 adherents in 2009 to 20,000 in 2012.

One could attribute the demographic intrigue to large numbers of closet Christians who took gross advantage of Russian and Ethiopian aliyah opportunities. But the major waves of Russian and Ethiopian aliyah ended in 2002 and 2004 respectively. While the majority of these Christians likely joined Russian Orthodox congregations in Israel, some Ethiopians as well as Russians were drawn to messianic congregations.  Mixed marriages are a reality in Israel, but most of these couples identify with the Jewish faith. So none of this can account for the leaching of an additional 10,000 souls into the "messianic" movement in the last three years?

It seems that evangelical missionaries who came through Israel's backdoor, planted messianic congregations and have produced indigenous Israeli believers are having a degree of success in changing the face of Israel. In addition, Christian missionary television stations such as the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) have purchased property and set up studios in Israel with the express purpose of gaining Christian converts through Hebrew and Russian programming:

"Christian broadcasters boast to their viewers that they are seeing a record number of Jews convert to Christianity. ’The harvest is coming in so fast,’ Crouch said." - Daystar, TBN ready for Messiah in Jerusalem, Los Angeles Times October 1, 2012

There are other explanations.  The Jerusalem Institute of Justice (JIJ) feeds information and opinions to the State Department which are used in these religious freedom reports. JIJ's evangelical Israeli attorneys Calev Myers and Michael Decker have been playing the messianic population numbers game (give or take several thousand) for years. Definitions are also changing, with "evangelical Christians", "messianic Jews" and "Christian Zionists" often becoming one and the same in Israel. For example, evangelical missionaries from Christ for the Nations in Dallas made aliyah to Israel and started a large proselytizing "messianic Jewish" ministry called Maoz Israel, which is endorsed by leading pro-Israel church and messianic leaders from America.

Whether the presence of a dynamic and growing messianic community in Israel is truth, fiction or somewhere in between may not matter much, because the US Department of State has affixed its seal on yet another religious freedom report which puts the Jewish state under pressure. And with Israel being ever more dependent on evangelical donations and political support, it is becoming increasingly uncertain as to whether or not the Jewish state will be able to hold its ground on the faith front.

 It is nothing less than a betrayal of Judaism to adopt definitions of democracy and freedom which enable Christianity or other foreign belief systems to be spread without restraint to the Jewish people in the state of Israel.  It is not a violation of religious freedom nor is it "church persecution" if the Israeli government chooses to establish unique parameters which uphold the integrity of Jewish law and tradition and ensures Jewish spiritual preservation in the land of the Jewish people.

Jewishisrael has excerpted the relevant material from the State Department report which deals with messianics, missionaries and proselytizing (we've added subtitles as well as highlights in red). It is a required, albeit pathetic and painful read for any Jew concerned about the state of Israel and Jewish continuity. The full report can be read by going to the US State Department website for the International Religious Freedom Report for 2012 and selecting "Israel and The Occupied Territories".

Excerpts from the State Department report:

 

 

Number of "messianic jews "in Israel

"A 2012 Guttman Institute poll shows that approximately 500,000 traditional and secular Jews associate themselves with the beliefs of the Conservative or Reform streams of Judaism. There is also a community of approximately 20,000 Messianic Jews.

 

While Jews who are atheists or who state their adherence to other religions are conferred immigration benefits, Messianic Jews are routinely excluded, despite the Supreme Court repeatedly upholding the right of Israeli Jews who believe Jesus is the Messiah to retain citizenship. Descendants of Jews qualify for immigration under the Law of Return regardless of their religious beliefs. Following a 2011 government decision, the Ministry of Interior (MOI) now relies on the Jewish Agency’s guidance on who qualifies to immigrate as a Jew, rather than on the Chief Rabbinate. Non-Orthodox converts to Judaism are entitled to the civil right of return, citizenship, and registration as Jews in the civil population registry."

 

Denying proselytizers their rights

"Proselytizing is legal for all religious groups. A 1977 law prohibits offering a material benefit as an inducement to conversion. It is also illegal to convert a person under 18 years of age unless one parent is an adherent of the religious group seeking to convert the minor. Despite the legality of proselytism, the government generally discourages proselytizing and encourages the popular perception that it is illegal. The MOI occasionally cites proselytism as a reason to deny student, work, and religious visa extensions, as well as to deny permanent residency petitions."

 

Restricting Christian visas

"According to representatives of some Christian institutions, visa issuance rates for some religious workers remained low. The MOI only granted multiple-entry visas to a limited list of clergy and religious workers traveling to and between their parishes in the country and in the Occupied Territories. Other clergy who wished to return to or visit their parishes and congregations were required to apply for a new single-entry visa at Israeli consulates abroad--a process that at times took months."

 

Revoking the citizenship

"MOI officials continued to revoke citizenship or deny services (such as child registration, social benefits, identity cards, and passports) to some citizens based on their religious beliefs, according to the JIJ. This included cases of individuals who immigrated under the Law of Return as Jews but were discovered to hold Messianic or Christian beliefs. According to the JIJ, on July 4 the MOI granted residency to a Holocaust survivor whom it previously had refused in May 2011 due to her profession of Messianic Jewish beliefs."

 

Destroying missionary materials

"In July Knesset member Michael Ben-Ari tore the New Testament out of a Hebrew language Bible the Bible Society sent to all members of Knesset. A legislative aide photographed him and sent the pictures to a newspaper. A spokesman for Prime Minister Netanyahu criticized the incident and the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land (CRIHL) called on the government to censure and take appropriate action against Ben-Ari. The CRIHL is an umbrella body of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religious institutions that includes the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, the PA Ministry of Islamic Waqf, the PA Islamic Sharia courts, and the leaders of the major Christian denominations in Jerusalem. The government took no further action.

The government operated a special department in the state attorney’s office for prosecution of incitement-related crimes."

 

Attacks on Missionaries

"There were no violent attacks against Messianic Jews and notably fewer physical assaults against Jehovah’s Witnesses during the year. The police investigated all known instances of religiously motivated attacks and made arrests when possible…"

 

Negative View of missionaries

"Societal attitudes toward missionary activities and conversion were generally negative. Most Jews opposed missionary activity directed at Jews, and some were hostile to Jewish converts to Christianity. Messianic Jews and Jehovah’s Witnesses were harassed regularly by Yad L’Achim and Lev L’Achim, Jewish religious organizations opposed to missionary activity. During the year, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported assaults, threats of violence, and other crimes to the police. On July 22, a Beersheva resident assaulted a 62-year-old woman, breaking her nose by butting his head against hers when she and another woman shared their faith with him outside his front door. The police arrested the perpetrator at his house on August 28, the same day the victim identified him to the police."

US pressure on Israel

"Embassy officials engaged in detailed discussions on religious freedom with the government, as well as with religious and civil society organizations. The ambassador hosted and attended many events with Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Druze, and Bahai religious leaders, including on many of their holidays. The U.S. embassy consistently raised concerns about religious freedom with the MFA, the MOJ, the police, the Chief Rabbinate, and other government agencies. Issues included expanding the list of officially recognized religious groups; investigating religiously motivated acts of violence against minority religious groups, including Messianic Jews and Jehovah's Witnesses; investigating vandalism of mosques and churches; upholding women’s rights against religious or social coercion in public spaces and on buses; and ensuring that the practice of preventing entry into the country based on the MOI’s lists of suspected “missionaries” was indeed ended."

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