Reflecting on this time reminded me of my first days in Jerusalem. It was October of 1967. I flew into the Tel Aviv airport four months after the Six Day War when Israel, in a matter of six days, defeated the invading Syrians, Jordanians and Egyptians. There was, in addition, an unexpected miracle that happened. The ancient walled city of Jerusalem was recaptured by Israel’s army, and with it, the last remnant of fortification around Solomon’s great temple. The words on the lips of even the most secular Israeli was, “The Days of Mashiach (Messiah) are here!
This wasn’t my first visit to Israel. That had happened eight years earlier in 1959. My family and I arrived from India wearing summer clothes. We weren’t prepared for the cold January wind that whipped through the streets of the old city. I remember it so clearly. The Arab women busily cooking and washing in the courtyards while their children played on stone pathways and mud created by quickly melting snow. Jerusalem, still under Jordanian control, made me feel like I’d been transplanted to another age and another planet.
THE OLD HOUSE IN NO MAN’S LAND
No Man’s Land was the name given to the narrow strip of land that separated Jordanian-controlled Jerusalem from Israeli-controlled Jerusalem. On either side were two enemy camps. At the center of No Man’s Land was an aging house once owned by a man named Mandlebaum. This house became the checkpoint for visitors traveling between the two countries.
We exited the taxicab on the Jordanian side dragging our suitcases the two hundred or so feet to "Mandlebaum's Gate." A Jordanian officer awaited us and provided us with an exit stamp. Then, on the other side of the house, an Israeli border officer gave us an entrance visa to Israel and we dragged our suitcases another few hundred feet to an awaiting Israeli cab.
But now, in 1967, Jerusalem was at last united! And, the people were euphoric. The tangle of streets that formerly ended at a barricade now continued toward the old city. Israelis flooded into the old city purchasing trinkets, rugs and pots that had come from Syria, Iraq or Iran. Arab merchants, though still unsure about the new government, welcomed the increase in sales.
Western Jerusalem the Jewish side was still small enough so that one could walk everywhere. And, walking was safe. I had come from Dallas where a single woman walking alone at night could be in danger. So, I was both shocked and surprised to see that everyone walked day and night. There was no violent crime in 1967. Murder and rape were things that happened elsewhere. Those who lived in villages never locked their doors and we knew nothing about drug and alcohol addiction.
I especially remember Fridays. They were special days. Everyone in the family worked hard to cook or clean or scramble to the outdoor market to get some last minute item from the corner grocer. The city was so alive and bustling with activity until around 2:00 p.m. when the streets began to empty. By late afternoon each house had candles burning to welcome the Sabbath. Darkness, then, would fall quickly and the men would stream toward the synagogues to pray to our God who gave the Sabbath.
Most of the women stayed home to prepare the evening meal which would be served as soon as the men arrived back home. Afterward, observant families would spend time singing psalms and thanking God for His goodness and reminding each other of God’s blessings. They would neither light nor extinguish a fire, nor even turn on an electric light, for 26 hours.
A PARTY MEANT CHATTING AND SINGING
Jerusalem, on Friday evenings, was a city in repose. The streets were bare except for an occasional military jeep. Teenagers would gather at the homes of friends to chat and sing. The Orthodox sang without the aid of a guitar in reverence to the Sabbath. In fact, most of the kids from Orthodox homes didn't even have television. Going to movies on a Friday night wasn't an option because the theaters were all closed. The Sabbath was a time of rest.
UNTIL THE TIME OF THE GENTILES BE FULFILLED
The victory in the Six Day war intoxicated the national soul. Israelis, in 1967, believed the Six Day War would be the last war - never again would the Arabs attack. The collective consciousness of the people believed that Israel had proven - once and for all - the Arabs could not win a war against the mighty Israeli army. Besides, had not God Himself given them back Jerusalem? Was it not the days of Mashiach - these days - that peace would reign supreme?
I knew from Biblical prophecy that the calm would be temporary. Yet, I allowed myself to feel the rapturous joys of the moment. It was pure exhilaration. I spent my days walking around the reunited city of Jerusalem. I wanted to inhale the small-town neighborhoods and experience the tiny boutiques and shops of the Jewish side. I wanted to visit every Arab bazaar in the old city and walk from the Temple Mount to the Mount of Olives just to gaze down from the place where our Lord Yeshua wept in pain as He foresaw Jerusalem's destruction. Now, at this moment in time, I was watching Jerusalem rise from the ashes.
THEY LAID DOWN THEIR GUNS IN THE STREETS AND DANCED
Still, I was not prepared for what happened on Independence Day, 1968. It was the first Independence Day celebration since the city was united. That evening, endless groups of soldiers laid down their weapons and danced around them with their arms locked in joyous abandonment!
The next morning Jerusalemites from allover the west side - joined by Israelis coming up from Tel Aviv and the rest of the country - began spontaneously walking toward the old city. The stream of people became a mass movement. I joined the crowds - it was impossible to lose my way as the entire city converged at the western entrance of the wall around the old city known as Jaffa Gate. As far as I could see, all the citizens of Jerusalem stood and basked in the glory of the moment. Suddenly, everyone began to sing the song that had become the anthem of the Six Day War, "Jerusalem of Gold," a love song to Jerusalem. There was no microphone. There was no song leader or conductor. Yet, like a crescendo, the song rippled in ever-larger waves - it's haunting, passionate melody building moment-by-moment, soaring and taking the sea of people to a place too great for the soul to envelop.
A NATION LIKE ALL OTHER NATIONS
That was 30 years ago. That Israel, like a fleeting memory, is gone. Today, our nation of 6,000,000 citizens has expansive shopping malls, the latest European fashions, and a growing middle class with beautiful homes. All but the destitute have washing machines, refrigerators, televisions, stereos - and not just one phone, but a cellular phone as well. Israel has more cellular phones per capita than any other country in the world. Its property values are among the worlds highest. It also sees 25,000 hits a day by prostitutes. And 46,000 cars are stolen each year. Murder, rape, incest and corruption fill the pages of our newspaper like they do in the rest of the world. And peace has not graced this land. An old cliché in Israel goes like this: "We want to be like all the other nations." Israel has now been granted its wish. But sadly, this future is not at all what was anticipated.
STORM OVER CHRISTIAN STATEMENT CONCERNING EVANGELIZING IN ISRAEL
The headlines generated by Associated Press (March 31) read “No Missionizing in the Holyland.” The Jerusalem Post and other papers reported that “Christian Groups Eschew Proseltyizing.” (April 2, 1998) These erroneous reports caused a stir among both the Messianic Jews and Christians in Israel.
The episode began in early 1997 when Knesset Member Nissim Zvilli of the leftist Labor party co-sponsored a bill with Ultra-Orthodox Knesset Member Moshe Gafni, calling for a one year prison term for possessing, printing, reproducing, disseminating, distributing, importing or publicizing materials in which there is “an inducement to religious conversion.” (Paragraph 174C of the Penal Law 5737-1977)
The bill is, of course, aimed directly at Christian missions and at the Messianic Jewish community, although Messianic Jews emphatically deny that they have changed their religion.
The surprise was that the Ultra-Orthodox had managed to enlist a member of the traditionally anti-religious or at least non-religious political left to co-sponsor the law with them. That made the proposed law potentially much more dangerous and the chances for passage much greater. Obviously Zvilli’s kowtowing to the Orthodox was typical politics in an attempt to entice them away from Prime Minister Netanyahu’s rightist camp.
THE MAC MOUNTS GIANT PROTEST
The Messianic Action Committee (MAC), made up of a wide spectrum of Messianic congregations across Israel, mounted a fierce campaign against this proposal which would effectively extinguish democracy and religious freedom in Israel. Thousands of letters, faxes and emails have been sent to the Israeli government officials from Christians and Messianic Jews around the world. Many of our Maoz readers participated. Furthermore, lawmakers from many nations sent notice of their own displeasure with the proposed law.
It is reasonable to think that Zvilli and Gafni felt they could ride out this international wave of protest and then proceed with passing the law. However, the protests continued to become the longest and strongest staged protest against a bill in the history of the modern state of Israel. Zvilli, feeling the sustained heat, began looking for a face-saving device to back out of his co-sponsorship.
At this point, a number of Christian organizations, knowing that virtually all Israelis have a distorted view of the work of evangelical Christians here, began to work on a statement that would be acceptable to Zvilli, and also give the Christians an opportunity to explain just who they are and who they are not. And so began the labor of many months on a statement that would be beneficial to both Christians and Zvilli. From the Christian stand point, it was felt that this would be an opportunity to denounce widely-accepted misconceptions of Christians and their activities.
JEWISH PERSPECTIVE: MISSIONARIES ANNIHILATE JEWS
One of the principal reasons that such a proposal could even be conceived by a Labor party Knesset member is that virtually all Israelis, rich and poor, professors and uneducated, diplomats, politicians and plumbers believe that Christian organizations try to buy Jewish souls with money and material goods. They are convinced that churched entice minors, and take advantage of the socially underprivileged. They are certain that Christians want Jews to convert to another religion that is, to leave their Jewishness, their people and their traditions which is seen as an attempt to destroy the Jewish nation by annihilating the Jewish race.
Jews around the world believe that Christians are persecutors of Jews and generally anti-Semitic, citing the 1900-year history of the Church and its sad legacy of brutal hostility against the Jews.
Now, as Israel has returned to her land, God has graciously raised up on the fullness of time a number of evangelical Christian organizations whose purpose is to serve Israel through social and charitable projects such as assisting Russian Jews to immigrate to Israel, providing clothing and other needs for immigrants, and acting as powerful public relations emissaries on behalf of the Jewish people to the Christian world, in order to give a positive witness of their Christian faith. Because of this activity, there is a growing, although perhaps reluctant, acknowledgment among Jews that there are many Christians that are not only not anti-Semitic, but are actual lovers of Israel.
It was with this background that the group of evangelical Christian organizations, headed by Clarence Wagner of Bridges for Peace and Petra Heldt of the Ecumenical Fraternity worked on the statement that would provide Knesset Member Zvilli with a face-saving way out of this bill.
After much consultation with many other evangelical and mainline Christian groups in Israel and with Zvilli, Wagner brought the statement to the MAC, asking their input in order not to do anything which would damage the Messianic Jewish community’s position, even though the statement would only represent and speak in the name of the wider Christian communities. The MAC approved this effort and the elements of the developing statement.
Out of those consultations, a statement was written of which the Christians assured Knesset Member Zvilli: “We deeply respect the Jewish people in their identity and integrity and will therefore not engage in activities which have as their intention to alienate them from their tradition and community. Nor will we exploit, for the benefit of our denominational interest, such economic, social or psychological needs as may emerge.” (See page 7 for full text)
ZVILLI CLAIMS MISSIONARY WORK STOPS
The day before the scheduled press conference where this statement would be presented, Knesset Member Zvilli announced that Christians in Israel had promised not to engage in proselytism, and therefore he was withdrawing sponsorship of his anti-missionary bill, and would also endeavor to convince the Labor party to vote against it. This would leave the Ultra-Orthodox isolated, with the bill appearing as a fanatical religious attempt to smother democracy. Zvilli also said he would try to stop future legislation of this type.
Although the Messianic community was greatly relieved to hear that Zvilli was withdrawing his sponsorship, there was no little dismay concerning the headlines racing around the globe which were hailing the end of evangelism in Israel. One Messianic leader notified the Body that a Russian believer called saying Moscow radio had reported that all Messianic believers in Israel agreed to stop all evangelism in the country. He asked if this were a joke.
To counteract the erroneous publicity, Clarence Wagner distributed to the press a previously prepared verbal statement of clarification that was to be read at the joint press conference with Zvilli. It repeated that Christian organizations are not interested in buying Jewish souls, and at the same time affirmed the Messianic Jewish community.
“We wish to make it clear beyond all reasonable doubt: Christian churches, evangelical missionary societies and other evangelical Christian organizations do not engage in any material enticement of any sort. It is time to set to rest all claims to the contrary.”
“The continued, viable, existence of the Jewish people is important to us, because we believe that the God whom we serve has declared this nation to be the apple of his eye. As evidenced by the warmhearted, Jewish identity of Israeli and Diaspora Messianic Jews, their faith is no longer a threat to the existence of the Jewish people. Messianic Jews in Israel and abroad cherish their Jewish identity and give daily practical expression to it…”
Most importantly, this verbal statement declared that Christians would not stop sharing their faith: “As we exercise our right and duty to proclaim our faith to others, we eagerly undertake to maintain the standards of morality, sensitivity and respect of other faiths which is expressed in the statement read today.
“We commend Knesset Member Zvilli for his withdrawal of support of a bill that would restrict freedom of religion in Israel, and for his commitment to work against the enactment of any such laws.”
MAC DISTANCES ITSELF FROM DOCUMENT
However, when the MAC (Messianic Action Committee) saw the clear misunderstanding which the written text promoted, they wrote that “it became necessary for us, as the MAC to distance ourselves from it emphatically. It is obvious that no amount of oral explanations presented at the meeting will counteract the wave of media reports which have already fixed the accepted interpretation of the document as it stands…”
“The MAC believes that the situation can best be redeemed by making a public and emphatic declaration that we will continue to exercise our right and duty to proclaim Yeshua to our people, and will do so without apology. We encourage every other Messianic body and every other Evangelical body to express unequivocal exception to the statement as it stands and as it has been interpreted in the media.” (See page 8 for full text)
In the end, as a result of the publicity, The United Christian Council in Israel did not attend the press conference as a representative body, although some individual members did attend. They issued the following press release that affirmed the statement, but clarified that proclaiming their faith was still the order of the day:
“The United Christian Council in Israel, representing 26 churches and evangelical organizations, wishes to correct certain misunderstanding. It has been incorrectly reported in the media that the evangelical Christian community in Israel has agreed not to proclaim its faith. Whilst we have no wish to encourage, or be involved in any form of insensitive or unethical evangelism, we nevertheless fully intend to continue proclaiming and sharing our faith in Jesus. To do anything less would be a denial of whom and what we are.”
The UCCI’s chairman, Charles Kopp, said in an interview with the Jerusalem Post, “We felt that the (Christian) statement was good, but being the experienced politician that he is, Zvilli couldn’t resist getting some extra mileage out of it.” (J.P. April 2, 1998)
A CLASH OF CONCEPTS
On the other hand, those Christian groups who did support the statement explained their position as follows:
“The bottom line is there is a clash of concepts in what Jews mean by missionary activity and what believers mean. They are different. Even the reporters for the major services like Reuters and AP are Jewish and for them when they read that we have no intention to entice, bribe or use coercive and underhanded means of evangelism; for them, since that is missionary work, we were no longer going to conduct missionary work!”
“However, when this reaches the Christian-believer world, it means something entirely different. Now critics are commenting on the press reports, not on the statements of what was actually said at the meeting. The headline should have been, ‘Zvilli Drops the Anti-Mission Bill,’ which is what happened. Now, we must clarify the false press reporting and pull together to prepare for the next hurdle.”
A NEW BILL FOR THREE YEARS IN JAIL
Clarence Wagner explained that the verbal statement he read at the press conference “which affirms our right and duty to commend our faith had been seen by both Zvilli and Gafni, so they were under no illusion that we will not proclaim our faith, which is a basic democratic and religious right which we were fighting for. That is why we wanted the law rejected in the first place.”
“This is only the taking of one hill in a long battle to win the war for basic freedoms in this land. The statements together clarify exactly who we are and who we aren’t, which is certainly misunderstood by the Israeli and Jewish community,” Wagner said.
Meanwhile another Ultra-Orthodox Knesest Member, Raphael Pinhasi, is preparing a new bill that would impose a three-year prison sentence and a 50,000 shekel fine on “anyone who exhorts another to change his religion.” (Ibid., April 1, 1998)
AGREED TEXT BETWEEN REPRESENTATIVE CHRISTIAN BODIES AND KNESSET MEMBER NISSIM ZVILLI
APRIL 1, 1998
As representatives of Christian churches, schools and charitable institutions from different parts of the world, living and working in the State of Israel, we rejoice in the presence of the Jewish people in this country of their ancestors and delight in their return to it after many centuries of persecution and suffering. We trust that the Almighty will guide them in all aspects of their religious and communal life and will inspire them, in the tradition of the prophets, to shape a just and compassionate society. We pray for the establishment of peaceful relations with their neighbors, as well as with the members of the Christian, Muslim and other communities in this country. We pray for God’s blessing over all Israel’s inhabitants.
We believe that the covenant which God concluded with the people of Israel was never revoked. We deeply respect the Jewish people in their identity and integrity and will therefore not engage in activities, which have as their intention to alienate them from their tradition and community. Nor will we exploit, for the benefit of our denominational interest, such economic, social or psychological needs as may emerge. Recalling the grim events preceding Israel’s rebirth, we are sensitive to their memories, hurts and feelings, even as we pursue our religious callings. We also recognize the potential for healing between our faith communities as we live in the midst of a Jewish majority, sharing its challenges while living together in a land sacred in both our traditions.
We earnestly call upon the government of Israel to maintain its enlightened policy which allows our Christian communities in this country, both native as well as expatriate, to freely follow our vocation, which includes among others, caring for our members; engaging in many social and charitable projects; welcoming and assisting pilgrims and visitors from abroad; and maintaining schools and institutions for teaching and research to the end, that the Christian communities in the State of Israel may flourish in harmony with those of other faiths.
MAC NEWS RELEASE
APRIL 2, 1998
The Messianic Congregational Action Committee commends Knesset Member Nissim Zvilli for his courageous step in withdrawing his support of the Bill for Religious Censorship and has committed himself to opposing it.
This step was taken by MK Zvilli following a massive international campaign organized by the Messianic Action Committee and the acceptance of a statement which in no way indicated that anyone, Messianic or evangelical, will cease to disseminate his faith.
Israel is a democratic State, and must remain such: in a democracy everyone has a right to formulate an opinion, to disseminate it and to change it at will, so long as doing so does not involve immoral action or damage to the security of the nation or to its welfare.
Israel is a Jewish State, and must remain such: a State in which all men and women are respected because they were created in the image of God, in which Jewish identity is not restricted to the boundaries set by Orthodox rabbis. Messianic, Reformed, Conservative and Orthodox Jews all have an equal right to believe and to conduct themselves in accordance with their conscience, and to express their Jewishness accordingly.