Shalom from Tel Aviv!
As most of our readers know, the religious parties in the Israeli Knesset (parliament) have been attempting for almost two years to outlaw in Israel the freedom to speak in a positive manner about the New Testament and Yeshua the Messiah. We have reported this concern in April and May 1997, and again February 1998.
Now the Knesset is returning to work on October 20 after the summer break and the High Holidays. The threat of renewed attempts to pass anti-religious freedom legislation again looms before us. There is no doubt that the Orthodox political parties in Israel intend to stamp out religious freedom for all New Testament believers, if at all possible.
There are presently two anti-freedom bills in committee. The first would ban the distribution, or even possession, of materials relating to the New Testament and Yeshua as Messiah, punishable by one year in jail, later changed to a mere three months. The second would forbid preaching “with intent to change one’s religion,” punishable by three years in jail or $13,000 fine, and would make illegal “changing one’s religion.” The last bill makes assurances that only those who preach “under the shadow of the cross” would be affected by the law.
HOW ISRAEL’S LEGISLATIVE BRANCH WORKS
At this juncture, it would be beneficial to review the internal mechanisms of the political system in Israel. It is through this system that the attempts will be made to deny Israelis the opportunity to choose for themselves the simple truths of the Bible.
The Israeli people vote for parties, not individual candidates (except for the Prime Minister). The parties in turn choose their own candidates for Knesset. Therefore, the allegiance of the elected members is to their party, not to a constituent of voters. For this reason, most of the time party leaders can and do demand that legislators vote according to party dictates.
There are three main political parties (23 Knesset seats out of a total of 120) that represent the Orthodox community. They are all considered to be to the political right of the conservative Likud party that leads the present government coalition and is headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (There are two other small non-religious far right parties that are considered more extreme.)
Within the religious bloc there are gradations of religious dogma. The National Religious Party (NRP) is considered to be the most moderate. A good many of its constituents are modem Orthodox or those who are traditional in their beliefs but not necessarily active Orthodox.
Agudat Israel, which includes the United Torah Judaism faction, has long been a solid mainstay religious political party. It can consistently be depended upon to vote as a guardian for the religious "status quo," including annual treasury raids and demands for inflated political patronage, exemption from military service for Orthodox men, tax funding for yeshiva education, etc.
These two parties have been dominated by Ashkenazi Jews - Jews coming from Western Europe, Eastern Europe and Russia. Ashkenazi Orthodox have traditionally been considered the most fanatical and intolerant religious element in Israel.
SHAS -THE PARTY ON THE MOVE
But now the fastest growing and most virulent political force in the Orthodox community is the Shas party. In the most recent election, they captured 10 seats. Shas is dominated by Sephardic Jews - those from North Africa and the Mediterranean area - who were traditionally far more tolerant and moderate in their religious observance and in their attitude towards non-Orthodox and non-Jewish people.
However, now elements within the Sephardic Jewish community in Israel, which has long been treated as second class citizens by many Ashkenazis, have taken up the challenge to show themselves more aggressively Orthodox (i.e., more kosher) than their European counterparts. And they are doing it with a vengeance.
Shas has become the most fanatical political party in Israel, seizing immense governmental powers. By granting or withholding their political support, Shas is able to extract massive amounts of tax money and thereby provide multi-faceted cultural, educational, social and religious programs that have won the hearts of the poorer segment of Israeli society, especially those of Sephardic extraction.
Shas is the religious party furthest to the political right. Its rapid growth, fanaticism and influence over the ruling coalition of Prime Minister Netanyahu give it predominance over the other two religious political parties. In some cities, Shas and the NRP are joining forces in local elections, giving the religious even greater control over city councils and local politics.
Unless he could negotiate a national unity coalition with Labor (the other large party that is to the left and is thus Likud's natural opposition), Netanyahu knows that he is completely dependent upon the religious parties if he is to stay in power. At the present, if anyone of the Prime Minister's coalition partner’s defect, his government will fall. Netanyahu's coalition now has 61 seats, a majority of one vote out of total of 120!
Furthermore, Netanyahu is in the process of offering an additional 13% of the West Bank to Arafat - if he will take it - in an interim stage of withdrawal outlined in the Oslo Agreement. These proceedings are completely opposed by the three Orthodox parties, plus the two secular rightist parties. That is almost Netanyahu's entire coalition!
NETANYAHU NEEDS SACRIFICIAL LAMBS
This is the type of on-going crisis that could cause Netanyahu to consider surrendering freedom of religion as a necessary sacrificial lamb. Theoretically, he could offer to shut down all followers of Yeshua the Messiah in exchange for the Orthodox parties' acceptance of his proposed land withdrawal. Not that he wants to give away land to Arafat. But under the pressure of the U.S., Europe and the United Nations, Netanyahu simply feels he has no other choice but to yield to Arafat's demands. His dilemma is that, in order to save his government, he must convince the Orthodox to support his withdrawal from Biblical lands promised to Israel by God!
MESSIANIC ACTION COMMITTEE URGES PROTEST
The Messianic Action Committee (MAC), an Israeli organization representing the Body in Israel, has been actively fighting the threat of anti-religious legislation in Israel. Through their sources, they have learned that the Shas party is increasingly dissatisfied that no legislation against believers in Yeshua has yet been passed.
Therefore, the likelihood that the Shas party will make increasingly extreme demands for this legislation is especially threatening. Shas is a party on the move. Its leaders are constantly looking for opportunities to manipulate government policy. They offer their votes in time of government crisis in exchange for Netanyahu's backing for their own religious demands. Aryeh Deri, the powerful and brilliant leader of Shas and the darling of the Sephardic Orthodox, has been under police investigation and on trial for political corruption for the last few years. Nevertheless, he has virtually unlimited access to the Prime Minister. If Netanyahu wants to stay in power, he knows he must retain the support of Deri in particular.
The only way for both Messianic Jews and Israel's Christian community to maintain religious freedom is through diligent prevailing prayer and the vocal opposition of Israel's international friends. There is no doubt that the protest letters which have been sent to the Prime Minister and other Israeli politicians, as well as to government officials in Western nations, have produced intense pressure in Israel against the passing of such a bill.
PRIME MINISTER RECEIVES 15,000 LETTERS OF PROTEST
Recently, MAC members Paul Liberman and Chuck Kopp were given clear evidence of the impact that the international letter writing campaign is having on government policy makers. Liberman and Kopp were invited to the Prime Minister's office for a meeting with David Bar Ilan, Netanyahu's media advisor. Bar Ilan stated that his office alone had already received 15,000 pieces of mail addressing the anti-religious freedom law, and he has not been the sole target of the protest letters. He also acknowledged that he had seen the MAC's Messianic ads in both the Hebrew and English press in Israel [Maoz has been an active participant of the ad campaign]. As MAC chairman Liberman later reported, "We have struck a nerve. Suddenly, we have awareness and access."
The question now is who will have the endurance and tenacity to see the battle won the Orthodox or the believers? There is little chance that the Orthodox will bow our of this prolonged struggle. Their stated aim is to create in Israel a Rabbinical theocracy (on the line of Iran’s Islamic state), and they see the Messianic Jews and Christians as a direct threat to the realization of their objectives.
ISRAELI GOVERNMENT FUNDS MASSIVE ORTHODOX PROSELYTIZATION
The spiritual bankruptcy of Rabbinical Judaism in Israel can be seen by the following statistics. Out of a total Jewish population of 5 million, we would estimate that about a million (20%) consider themselves extreme Orthodox (called Haredi in Hebrew). They have the sympathy of another 20% of Israeli’s population who are modern Orthodox or observant.
According to a recent series of reports by HaAretz, a major Israeli newspaper, the Israeli government awards 200 million shekels (approx. $55 million) annually to fund recruitment to Orthodox Judaism. The funds flow through the Ministries of Interior, Education and Religion and own to the many rabbinical organizations that actively recruit secular Israelis to Rabbinical Orthodoxy. The religious political party Shas receives another $33,000,000 a year to create Haredi schools for Isreali youth, not including the funds they get for busing children to their schools and for construction of new schools and classrooms.
According to the report, over 35,000 Israelis have converted to Orthodoxy in the last 10 years. The state provides incentives by granting $4,772 to each student who averages two to five years in yeshiva classes, and allows them to be exempted from military service. This trend, says HaAretz, will inevitably affect Israeli society, because most such converts withdraw from the labor force and receive state doles, imposing an ever-growing tax burden on the non-Orthodox in Israeli society. The average religious family has 608 children to the secular family’s 2.0 children. The children of the Orthodox are expected to continue the lifestyle of their parents. These 35,000 converts would almost certainly give to the religious parties at least one additional chair in the Knesset. (HaAretz, March 24, 1998)
Yet with all their numbers and their hundreds of millions of shekels in state funds spent to attract and finance new converts, they cannot tolerate some 6,000-7,000 Messianic Jews and a couple of thousand born-again Christians whom they are determined to silence.
ISRAEL’S POLITICAL RIGHT AND LEFT
In Israel, “the right” of the political spectrum primarily represents a propensity to accept or to demand that Rabbinical Jewish politicians control large sectors of the government, such as the ministries of education, finance, and housing allocations, including domination of local political bodies, such as city councils. At the present, the rightist/religious parties are the sole agents who decide who can or cannot marry, who can be buried where, and who can or cannot immigrate to Israel. They are the inspectors who insure compliance with kosher laws in hotels and kosher restaurants and who check to see if businesses are obeying Sabbath laws.
A second feature that marks a rightist is his belief that the areas of the Middle East, given to Abraham and his seed by God, still belong to Israel today. Therefore, parties on the right are against a Palestinian state and against giving any further land to Arafat.
On the other hand, the leftist parties tend to believe that, if Israel does not give land to the Palestinians and does not allow Arafat to establish a Palestinian state, there will inevitably be war in which Israel’s existence will be endangered. Those in leftist parties tend to be non-religious and resent Orthodox intervention in Israeli personal freedoms. The largest is the leftist party (Labor) of the assassinated Prime Minister Izhack Rabin, which is at the present the opposition in the Knesset. Meretz is further to the left, and Hadash, an Arab party, further left still.
There are a couple of small centralist parties an immigrant party led by the famous former Prisoner of Zion, Natan Sharansky, and a second, The Third Way meaning neither Likud’s nor Labor’s way.
SECULAR RADIO EDITORIAL: I SUPPORT ANTI-DEMOCRATIC BILL
There are many non-religious Israelis who either don't care, or else readily accept legislation against Messianic Jews and Christians. One example is popular radio personality Tommy Lapid who gave this editorial on July 18, 1998 on Israel's Station 2:
"The Messianic Action Committee in Israel this week published an ad against the bill in which Member of Knesset Raphael Pinchasi from Shas proposes that all who preach their faith in public with the aim to persuade another of its correctness will be sentenced to three years’ imprisonment or fined 50,000 shekels. Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu has promised his Christian supporters in the United States that Pinhasi’s bill will not be passed in the Knesset, but the bill worries the Messianic community in the land which is occupied with missionary activity. The statement asserts that this bill will return all of the residents of the country to the dark days of the Middle Ages.
“The meaning of the bill, says the statement, is the trampling of freedom of expression and faith in Israel and the trampling of its democratic character. If tomorrow peaceful citizens would be sent to prison, says the statement, only on account of their faith that Yeshua is the Messiah of Israel, no one will be able to say we didn’t know. The expression “we didn’t know,” that the Germans used after the holocaust, is a hint that this is Nazi legislation.
“The ad calls us to come out to defend democracy, and I refuse. I support Pinchasi’s anti-democratic bill. From my perspective, all religion is superstition, but two thousand years of persecution have granted us the right to be left alone in our Land. If we hadn’t been murdered, if we hadn’t been forced to convert to Christianity, then today we would have been a nation of two hundred million people. The source of all anti-Semitism is Christianity; all the troubles that have come upon us are because of that rebel rabbi whom Christianity sees as the Messiah. Let them enjoy him, let them adore him, let them pray to him and let hem believe that his God, but not in our schools. Here we have immunity. We bought it with our blood.
“Regarding the claim that it (the bill) is undemocratic, every society places limitations on the freedom of the individual. In even the most liberal regime there are laws which forbid the promulgation of racism. In my view, preaching about Christianity is a kind of racism. A Christian missionary tells a Jew that he is deficient, that his religion is not the right religion, like the racist who says about the Negro that he is deficient because the color of his skin is not right. I am sensitive to my right to be Jew like the Negro is sensitive to his right to be black. No one forbids the Messianic community to believe in Yeshu* as Messiah. As a democrat and a liberal, I say to the missionaries, ‘Go to hell.’”
* This alternative spelling (instead of Yeshua) is a derogatory anagram in Hebrew, meaning “May His name and memory be blotted out.”
There are some who may think that our efforts in resisting proposed legislation seeking to impose religious censorship in Israel is making much ado about nothing. We do not agree.
Christianity is no more racist than Zionism or Judaism is. But there are Christian racists and Jewish racists, an example of the latter being Tommy Lapid. His sickening attempts to use bigoted generalizations against an entire religious community (the Christians) and then to paint the Messianic Community in Israel with the same tainted brush smacks of the very worst expressions of anti-Semitism using the same tools which our enemies have employed to justify the most diabolical attacks against our people. Lapid’s willingness to support anti-democratic restriction son basic human rights of a segment of Israeli society exposes his ignorance of one crucial historical fact: that true democracy rigorously maintained has been the only(and to our sorrow, rare) protection for the Jewish people in the diaspora.
With people like Pinchasi, Gafni and Lapid practicing their own forms of reckless demagoguery in the renewed Jewish homeland, our people require that same protection more than ever.
1 The Messianic movement strongly contends that believing In Yeshua the Messiah and King of the Jews in no way changes a Jew's religion or makes him non-Jewish. On the contrary, a Jew can now realize the purpose of his Jewishness-to be a friend of God, even as his father Abraham was, and to fulfill his destiny as a light to the Gentiles (nations). 2 So reads the second bill introduced by Raphael Pinchasi.