*Scroll down to see what the CEO of the IEL has to say on this very important matter*
The Hebrew online news site of Yediot Aharonot published an article in their Petakh Tikva division where Haredi leaders had been extremely vocal against those they call missionaries. The journalists interviewed individual Messianic Jews and representatives of the Jehovah’s Witness community and Jews for Jesus in an attempt to give a balanced view of the story.
According to Mynet, Haredi sources claim that the activities of Messianic and Missionary organizations in Petach Tikva have been on the rise in recent weeks. The Acting Mayor, Uriel Boso called the public to “beware of the propaganda that is spreading”. In conversation with the members of the accused organizations a different and complex picture came to light.
Messianic Believers in Israel know, neither the conflict nor objections raised by some Haredim are new. In fact, this has been seen in different cities throughout the country over the years. The Orthodox however say that in the past few weeks it has been increasing on the streets of Petakh Tikva. The news site says that on one side there is the activity of the Messianic Jews that belong to different cults, some of which try to proselytize and convert and hand out missionary material; and on the other side there are those who are alarmed by this activity and are afraid it is drawing hundreds of new adherents – mainly the members of the Haredi community in the city.
The journalists are asking if the impact of organizations like Jews for Jesus or the Jehovah’s Witnesses far-reaching, or is it a harmless scarecrow that the Haredi community likes to use to unify its people against them. Word on the street is that this time there is a real conflict that might even reach a point of violence.
Believers in Yeshua
According to Acting Mayor Uriel Boso from the Religious Shas party, he has been dealing with this “dire phenomenon of the handing out of missionary material which preaches against any tenet of Judaism for the last few months” and since the material is “disguised” in vague language people fall prey to these organizations.”
Boso apparently has conducted an inquiry into the Jehovah’s Witness organization and found that the local branch located in Katz street in the city is rented from the Histadrut . He says the head of the Histadrut is looking at the option of canceling the contract with this missionary body legally. His own personal feeling is that the public be aware and exercise caution. He encourages them to report this missionary material so no more people will be hurt.
Another rabbi from the city is happy to report that people are averse to the missionary work but he has concerns for the teenagers. Parents have apparently approached him with fears that their children will turn to these dark ways and not find their way back. He even used an example of a father who approached him in tears because his 16 year old daughter attended a messianic activity because of a boy she met.
A new immigrant who works against said missionary activities says that he does it following his own apparent vast experience on the other side. “I wasn’t born a Jew, I was connected to the Evangelistic church abroad where I received missionary training on how to preach and draw people from other churches to us. In time I converted to Judaism and today I am busy opening people’s eyes to missionary-related activity in Petakh Tikva and other places.”
When asked how exactly he “opens the eyes” of adherents to the missionaries, his response was, “I quote facts to them about these organizations because they don’t tell them everything. For example the Jehovah’s Witness missionaries say that they are not part of Christianity. I show them authoritative material from France that shows how they fight to be recognized as a 5th branch of Christianity”.
The anonymous informant says that in Petakh Tikva he has encountered a few guys from the Ethiopian community who have participated in the Messianic Jews’ activities as well as new immigrants from the Former Soviet Union who have taken part in Jehovah’s Witness activities. I have met single mothers, wealthy people, young couples and also quite a few elderly people who are unfortunately an easily exploited population. He says that they are looking for hope and these ‘missionaries’ offer false hope.
The journalists spoke to Yoav from Yad L’Achim. This is an organization that works against assimilation using controversial methods. He claims that missionary activity is exploitative and conceals the real goal. “Whoever gets there doesn’t get there because he wants to believe and pray to “Yeshu” (a derogatory acronym in Hebrew for the name of Jesus). People think they are coming to a nice communal group and by the time they realise the truth it is too late.”
Pray without judging
Yediot Petakh Tikva spoke to the Messianic Jewish organization Jews for Jesus. According to the representative there are around 35000 Believers across the country in 200 different congregations – a few of these in Petakh Tikvah. “The name is Yeshua and not Yeshu” explains the representative on the line. “Yeshua will redeem the people of Israel at the end of the world and will take us to live with Him forever. Unfortunately the people of Israel back at that time rejected faith in Him and in the New Testament that was written mostly by Jews. The Gentiles took faith in Yeshua to an extreme and made faith in Yeshua into a religion because people tend to turn everything into an organization. People want to control people.”
The journalists asked, “Do you define yourselves as a religion or a cult?” The representative said, “Neither, we are a Faith! Faith doesn’t change the fact that we are Jews. Only God can say who is Jewish and who is not. We don’t have capes and bells and symbols, it’s purely faith in the heart. As far as faith is concerned, we are like the Evangelistic Christians only we are Jews”. When asked if they have synagogues, he said, “We use the word congregation as the connotation of synagogue can sometimes deter people who want to attend. Unlike synagogues, we do not erect fancy buildings where people come to gain honour. We don’t pray repetitive prayers out of a special prayer book. We read from the Tanakh and New Testament and each person prays according to what is on his heart without judging others and without being forced to pray.”
When the newspaper asked the representative to meet at the congregation which is in Petakh Tikva, they encountered hesitation. “You are welcome to come on Friday or Shabbat and we will arrange for someone to meet with you personally so you don’t feel alone but maybe it is best if you come to Tel Aviv.” When asked why not in Petakh Tikva, the response was, “It is best that we meet with you personally. I want to see that you are not a group of 10 people coming to beat us up”. The journalists note the fear of religious organizations that persecute the active members of the congregation in the city.
A conversation with a Jehovah’s Witness representative yielded slightly different answers. He said that the number of adherents in Israel is smaller. “We have close to 1000 people across the country, maybe 100 in Petakh Tikva” says the representative. When the journalists said it is unclear from their pamphlet if they are a religion or not, the representative said, ”Correct! The pamphlet is too short. You can read about it on our website, we are not a cult. A cult functions under a main religion. We are Jehovah’s Witnesses and we hold meetings with congregation leaders in which we read our writings and the New Testament and find solutions for different issues. We meet twice a week, listen to lectures, it’s not only prayer. Would you like to meet?” In response to the question of meeting at the congregation in Petakh Tikva, the representative said, “I don’t know if it will be possible in Petakh Tikva but we can arrange a time in the next few days.”
The journalists then spoke to Dr Eli Nacht who is the CEO of the Israel Empowerment Lobby (IEL) and has a law office in Petakh Tikva. He knows the Messianic community personally. “In spite of the tendency to classify these under one umbrella, it is important to distinguish between communities of Messianic Jews and the Jehovah’s Witness organization. They hold to different beliefs.”
When asked to explain his connection to them he says, “I have given them legal representation in a few cases and the IEL is responsible for the connection between the Christian world and Israel. As a part of extensive international activities, we relate to many delegations of business men and women, Knesset members and delegations of evangelistic ministers in the country. In addition we give speeches in congress and parliament. Because Messianic Jews have good connections with the Christian world abroad, they have opened up doors to me into these circles.”
From Dr Nacht’s point of view, Messianic Jewish activity does not cause damage in the city. “I don’t see any damage from them. If they engage in illegal activity that’s one thing but if they are causing religious discomfort to a certain sector in the community it is another. I have not encountered complaints against them for any illegal activity. On the contrary, I have heard complaints of the harassment by Haredi representatives and there have been complaints to the police that I am personally aware of. As far as the Messianic Jews are concerned; as long as they are not trying to convert people – something that I am diametrically opposed to – if they continue to engage in humanitarian projects, help people and holocaust survivors and help me personally in my connections with the Christian world, I think it is welcome activity and should continue. Thanks to them, there are congregations that donate millions to the country.”
The journalists then spoke to Itai Meron (60) who has defined himself as a Messianic Jew for the past 40 years or so out of a conscious personal choice. “I came to the faith through a friend in the army,” he recalls. “I believe first every person must have a desire to speak the truth. Secondly I believe God works in the heart of man”.
When asked if he belongs to a certain organization, he responds “Messianic Jews do not have a National Governing Body or something like that. There is no official organization but every congregation acts pretty much independently. Some congregations have similar identities but in general, Messianic Judaism is open in that aspect, everybody holds to the same basic belief. We believe that Yeshua is the Messiah and that He is the continuation of the Tanakh.
“So you accept the New Testament but you define yourself as a Jew as far as religion goes?” the journalists ask. “Yeah, sure. When I got into the faith, there was no such term as Messianic Jew. Only later this name developed. We used to call ourselves “Believers”. I see myself as much more Jewish now than I was before. I keep the Chagim (Biblical Holidays) and I keep certain aspects of Shabbat – it is a day of rest where you don’t work and there are meetings of the congregations of Believers.”
When asked if he was baptized, he says, “Yes, one of the principles is baptism but it is not that we are being baptized into Christianity. Part of the faith is being baptized. It means you are reborn, born from above. It is a symbolic act. A person declares that he accepts Yeshua and follows Him”
The writers asked, “Claims have been made that there has been more aggressive missionary activity like handing out pamphlets and visitations to houses by Messianic organizations. What do you think about that?” Meron replied, “It is a minority that believes this is the way to spread the faith but it is not that the Messianic Jews as a whole disperse pamphlets. It can be a certain group within the Messianic community that does it. There are some who stop people in the streets. I personally don’t do it but if anyone believes this is the way, I don’t have a problem with it as long as he does it within the law and doesn’t hurt anyone.”
The journalists ask, “Can you understand why religious organizations are coming against you? His response, “They are against us no matter what we do. Once a person believes in Yeshua, he is already considered by many as an enemy – a dangerous enemy which must be uprooted. Some religious people do not accept us but not all of them because some of them accept us once they know us. I personally have religious friends that do accept me.”
The Jehovah’s Witness organization had this to say: “Jehovah’s Witnesses are peaceful and law-abiding citizens of Israel that share their ideas in the positive message of their writings. We have no interest to respond to unfounded and misleading slander whose main aim is to incite the public and serve the narrow interest of pressure groups.”
The Jews for Jesus organization gave this statement: “We have been a registered non-profit organization (amuta) since we were founded 15 years ago and we have received official approval from the body that controls non-profit organizations. Like every amuta in the country we receive donations from people who believe in the causes of the amuta. We do not demand money from anyone. We approach any adult (over 18) who would like to hear about our faith. We work throughout the country but since our office is in Tel Aviv our main activity is in the Gush-Dan area. On Yom HaAtsmaut in which we celebrated the independence of our democratic country, we handed out some pamphlets across Gush-Dan and in Petakh Tikva. This was not the first time and will not be the last time.”