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Israel’s State-Sanctioned Persecution Of Messianic Jews Must End

Israel's beauty shines brightest in its diversity. The country possesses one of the most culturally and physically diverse societies on the planet. No matter the kind of Jew, from Yemenite to Ethiopian to Polish, from Orthodox to Reform to secular, … Read More

By / April 28, 2008

Israel's beauty shines brightest in its diversity. The country possesses one of the most culturally and physically diverse societies on the planet. No matter the kind of Jew, from Yemenite to Ethiopian to Polish, from Orthodox to Reform to secular, there is a place for you under the Mediterranean sun. Yet there is at least one group of Jews who is excluded from the Zionist mosaic. They are the Messianic Jews — a religious community that follows a Torah inspired life-style while believing in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. The Messianics view themselves as returning to the roots of early Christianity as a Jewish sect. According to Paul Liberman, author of The Fig Tree Blossoms, a messianic Jew is "a person who was born Jewish or converted to Judaism, who is a 'genuine believer' in Yeshua [Jesus], and who acknowledges his Jewishness." Practicing bi-spiritually, as it were, the Messianics stand outside the theological and historic spheres of normative Judaism and Christianity. Yet according to their own beliefs, they are engaged in an authentic expression of Judaism. In fact, they consider themselves "complete Jews." Around the world the Messianic Jewish community number roughly 350,000. In Israel they stand at 15,000 and have over 120 different congregations. Not surprisingly, from their inception the Messianics have managed to rouse the ire of the ultra-Orthodox and (to a lesser extent) secular communities in Israel. That anger has frequently turned into aggressive physical and verbal confrontations precipitated by religious radicals (Jews and Arabs) who oppose the presence of what in their view are dangerous missionizing Christians (in contrast to the fact that not a single Messianic Jew has ever stood trial for illegal missionary activity — e.g. forced conversion, or conversion of minors). Most recently, in the settlement of Ariel, a bomb planted under a Purim gift-basket left a 15 year-old boy belonging to a prominent family of Messianic Jews in critical condition. In addition to being targets of persecution at the hand of religious radicals, the
Messianics have also faced state-sanctioned discrimination. The Ministry of the Interior, with the backing of the Supreme Court, has rejected the appeals of Messianics for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. The argument being that since Messianics believe in Jesus, they either belong to another faith, or in the case of Jewish-born Messianics, have willingly converted into another faith, and therefore have forfeited their right to make Aliyah as Jews. In addition, the government has also discriminated against Messianic Jews who have migrated to Israel by refusing to renew their passports, register their newborns, firing them from government posts, and in some cases revoking their citizenship. While historically some Messianics have been gentile "philo-Semites" who have used the cover of Judaism as a Trojan horse to enter Israel with the purpose of turning it into a Christian nation, for the most part the Messianic community in Israel is made of upstanding citizens (most of whom were born Jewish) who go into the army (unlike most of their haredi antagonists), pay their taxes, vote, are peaceful, and lead a quite Jewish lifestyle. Their situation forces us to ask the uncomfortable question: Should people who have chosen to practice and interpret their Judaism differently from the majority (which itself was never hegemonic or monolithic), live in a (Jewish) state of fear and persecution? It seems that the unholy alliance between state and the ultra-Orthodox establishment
has created the absurd reality of inverse crypto-Judaism: Where in the medieval era Jews who had converted to Christianity kept their Judaism in secret, today many Messianics feel compelled to hide their beliefs from the rest of Israeli society. The price of disclosure may not be a visit to the Israeli equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition, yet social ostracism, harassment, bullying, and state-sanctioned discrimination is enough to keep many (though not all) living secret lives. From its beginnings the twin purpose of Zionism has been the creation of a safe haven for Jewish people(s) and culture(s). Likewise, the Declaration of the establishment of the state of Israel promises to "open the gates of the homeland wide to every Jew," and guarantees freedom of religion to all. Yet when organs of the state and its citizens discriminate against certain Jews for their beliefs, they are betraying the very core of the ground on which they stand on. Take for example Law of Return as it applies to Jewish-born Messianics. The notion that a Jew who accepts Jesus as the Jewish Messiah loses his/her right to make Aliyah is in complete contradiction with the purpose and logic of the law. It is bad enough to deny citizenship to a Jew who willfully converts to another religion (as the 1970 amendment to the law stipulates). It is something else all together to deny it to a Jew whose self-identity remains Jewish. Surely, antisemites do not care wither or not a Jew believes Jesus was the Messiah, or whether he/she is a Jew who converted to another faith. And from the perspective of the Law of Return, shouldn't the ubiquitous gaze of the antisemite be the deciding factor of whether or not someone is Jewish? Of course Israel can define for itself who counts as a Jew, but it should be consistent. Yes, the Messianics stand in two worlds. But so do many Israeli Jews. If you can be a Jew and an atheist, a Jew and a Buddhist – why can't you also be you a Jew who believes that Jesus was the Jewish messiah? If we are going to accept Jews whose self-identity does not snugly fit into one mold, then we need to make room for the Messianics as well. If we are going to say that Hitler and not Halacha determines who is a Jew, then we need to make room for Jews who also believe in Jesus — as Hitler would have done. In the end, the existence of Messianic Jews is good for Israel. It forces us to stretch the boundaries and re-think the definition of an Israeli Jew. The sad truth is that anyone who has a bone to pick with the Orthodox/state monopoly (the list is long) does not want to make cause with the Messianics. To align with them is to commit political suicide. But make no mistake: today it is the Messianics, and tomorrow it will be you.

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