|A Letter from Israel|
|SCP Newsletter, AUTUMN 1998, Volume 23:1|
For many centuries Jewish people have been seen as victims of unjust treatment and irrational hatred. Some say that, as a people, this has become part of a cultural self-definition. It was hoped that the creation of a Jewish national homeland would produce a remedy for chronic worldwide mistreatment of the Jewish people. Immigrants flooded into Israel from a wide variety of cultures, and for some time it was believed that a solution to religious discrimination had been found.
The foregoing emphasizes the irony that is now taking place in Israel. There is a danger that the persecuted can now become the persecutors. Jews of Sephardic or Mediterranean descent sometimes suffer from lower wage and other discrimination, possibly because of their darker complexions. Almost a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union have been absorbed but find themselves feeling that they are thought of by a portion of the population as the "dirty Russians". Many thousands of Ethiopians find themselves treated as "non-Jews". As Israelis, we reluctantly admit that Arabs are a discriminated minority, and we wish we could change this. These truths are ugly, and individual Israelis agree that this is hardly the basis for our country to be a "light unto the nations".
We, the believers in the New Testament, are the bottom rung of the ladder. Although passionately patriotic, we are falsely thought by many to be enemies of the Jewish people. We simply have an understanding of the Jewish Bible that is not traditional. We celebrate the Biblical Jewish holidays and delight in our sense of cultural heritage. Although small in numbers, we are treated as a threat to national existence.
DEMOGRAPHIC PROFILE OF MESSIANIC BELIEVERS IN ISRAEL
Numerical estimates of the number of Messianic believers in Israel range from 5,000-7,000 individuals. A mid-range figure of 6,000 would be the most agreed-upon. With such small numbers it might be more accurate in Israel to call us a phenomenon, rather than a movement. There are 53 congregations and approximately 70 independent home groups.
Perhaps a third of these people live in the greater Jerusalem area. Another 1,000 are counted along the greater Tel Aviv coastal area. The Haifa metro vicinity count approximately 500, the city of Tiberias 400, and BeerSheva about 300 Messianic believers. The remainder are in less populated and sometimes remote areas.
Among Messianic Jews that arrived from the former Soviet countries it is thought that there are 2,000 believers in the New Testament. Half came to New Testament faith prior to arrival and half while living in the Land. The Ethiopian congregations number their adherents at possibly 400. Considered estimates of Israeli-born Messianic Jews are between 750 and 800. There are no estimates of how many Israelis recognize Yeshua as the Messiah, but who have not made a public profession.
It would be admitted by most that, for the present, Messianic Jewish leadership is largely populated by immigrants from Western nations. However, these proportions are expected to change in the immediate years ahead, with one-third to one-half of our community still minors. As they mature to adulthood, they are expected to be more assertive, more linguistically authentic, and without other national roots. Even children who arrive under the age of ten have little or no remembrance of former identity. It is this future prospect that, for some, causes our small numbers to be so threatening.
For almost 2,000 years, a rabbinical strategy of forbiddance, exclusion and ridicule has worked to repress expression of even the possibility that Yeshua (Jesus) is actually the Jewish Messiah.
Rejection often tends to beget more rejection, and so the Jewish and Christian religious establishments found it convenient to separate us into neat categories. However today, democratic values and Christian tolerance have expanded. Rabbis in most segments of traditional Judaism have more limited social control than in previous generations.
Though still few in numbers, Messianic believers are considered a subversive threat. Yet, how can one-tenth of one percent of Israel's population be taken so seriously that laws need to be promulgated to shut us up? Two rabbis who are members of the Knesset have introduced separate legislative proposals calling for imprisonment for using the mails or even discussing our particular viewpoint. From our perspective, it is evident that there is concern that our challenge to a 2,000-year old cover-up might be taken seriously. What's next, the "thought police"?
Older members of our community sometimes say that as few as a dozen or less New Testament believers of Jewish lineage came as refugees at the time of the State's inception in 1948. Others recall that by 1967 there were possibly 250 in the Land. By the end of the 1970's, the common figure used was 1,000.
The five to sixfold increase of the last 20 years has produced legal repercussions. On Christmas Day, 1989, the Israeli Supreme Court rendered a major decision, whereby Jews who believe that Yeshua is the Messiah are not to be considered Jewish for purposes of Israel's Law of Return. This ruling, together with historical prejudice, legislative actions and unofficial media censorship or bias, has resulted in occasional vigilante activity. In the minds of a few, it is now a crime to be a Messianic Jew. It is clear that such an immoral philosophy needs to be addressed, with or without the help of the police.
Included within the numerical estimates given above are Evangelical Christians. There are about 150 missionary visas granted to these people, which are now renewed annually. The duration and number of such visas has slowly been shrinking over the last decade. There are a few cases of churches having their clergy visas reduced. However, the main problem is with the reduction in visas that are known as "volunteer visas". For example, the Garden Tomb is allowed one clergy visa and the remainder are vitally essential volunteers (approximately 12 who are responsible for guiding hundreds of pilgrims daily).
Orthodox religious militants are fond of calling all New Testament believers "missionaries". Local understanding of "missionaries": mercenaries, head-hunters, spiritual Nazis.
Most born-again Christians of non-Jewish descent are honored and vital pillars of our community. Yet, they mostly insist on trying to stay out of the public eye. They agree that Jews should remain Jews, even after coming to a Messianic belief. The self-sacrificing and self-effacing lives of these people has earned them a high degree of respect within our community.
For the sake of completeness, it should be mentioned that the total number of missionary visas granted is about 2,000. Almost all but the 150 Evangelicals mentioned above are sent as foreign representatives to officiate and maintain relic churches. This higher figure includes religious streams such as Mormons, who have signed an agreement that they will not proselytize in Israel, with whom we obviously are not in theological agreement. These groups do not seek to persuade and, therefore, are viewed as harmless by the Orthodox Rabbinical establishment.
Heretofore, the unofficial rules have been simple. "Keep your mouths shut and we will leave you alone." Yet, suppose your understanding of your faith calls for open expression? To have a belief, but only as an abstraction is, in our eyes, not a faith at all. Thus, we see current legislative initiatives now in Knesset Committee as strident attempts to make our faith illegal in its practice.
The United Christian Council in Israel (UCCI) has a current membership of 27 member organizations. Charles Kopp, its chairman, is a member of the MAC, as is Nizar Touma, who was appointed by the UCCI to represent the Arab Christian community. Nizar was appointed to be a liaison between MAC and the Arab Christian community and received the blessing of the UCCI.
Paralleling the populations suggested above are an additional 6,000- 8,000 Arab Evangelicals who are organized in some 30 churches. They represent a minority of the 120,000 nominal Arab Christians who identify mostly in name only.
So, we have a possible total of 11,000-15,000 Jews, Arabs and other Evangelical Christians worshipping together, socializing together, intermingling in education and functioning together on committees in common cause. We genuinely like and respect one another.
We few here in the Land think, indeed know, that we have the answer to the Middle East peace problem. Some would make legal sanctions against our small voice that may have the answer the politicians and diplomats are seeking. Given the history, nature and severity of the problem, and the lengthy, arduous and clearly unsuccessful efforts to resolve the same, can Israel or the world afford to make our opinion in Israel inconsequential and even worse, illegal? We think not and hope you agree. Please write letters regarding the separate bills of MK's Gafni and Pinchasi to: The Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, Room 117, Knesset, Israel -- or fax to them at: 972-2-675-3199.
The Pinchasi Bill: (Passed preliminary reading on May 20, 1998)
"Prohibition on calling for a change of religion" 174c
Anyone who preaches with the goal of causing any other person to change his religion is liable to three years' imprisonment or a 50,000 Shekel fine.
The Messianic Action Committee-- Paul Liberman, Chairman, Noam Hendren, Charles Kopp, Marvin Kramer, Esq. Nizar Touma Daniel Yahav. P.O. Box 5462, Herzliya 46100 Israel. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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