Exactly 10 years ago, on December 24th (which was both Christmas Eve and the first night of Hanukkah), around 600 haredim – ultra-orthodox Jewish men, women and children – arrived at Nachalat Yeshua (Yeshua’s Inheritance) in Beersheva. Their purpose was to prevent a gathering scheduled for that time by causing a disturbance. Around half of them forced their way into the meeting room, searching for the baptism pool where two new followers of Yeshua were to be immersed as a declaration of their faith.
Howard Bass, the congregational leader then and now, remembers those moments all too well:
“It was the most aggressive and violent display we had ever experienced to that point. Seven years before this, around 1000 hareidim gathered outside our congregation, also during Hanukkah – apparently seeing themselves as ‘the Maccabees’ called to confront us as ‘Hellenist apostates’. But that demonstration was not violent like the one we experienced 10 years ago. In 2005 they physically assaulted members of our congregation, and they even attacked the police who were called to restore the peace. They cursed and slandered Yeshua and our faith. They also damaged congregational property. It took a full three hours for police to succeed in removing the haredi protesters from the place so that we could go on with our gathering. We did that with great thanksgiving and peace. The immersions took place later at a different location.”
After the incident, and following wide-ranging consultations with Messianic leaders in Beersheva, the Negev region and the rest of the country, the leadership of Nachalat Yeshua decided to sue the organization “Yad L’Achim” (a high-profile anti-missionary group that targets and often harasses Messianic believers) as well as the Chief Rabbi of Beersheva. These appeared to be the two main instigators behind this attack, as well as the previous 1000-strong protest.
The court case lasted three years and ended with the judge ruling in favor of the haredim and against the congregation.
What were your feelings after losing the lawsuit?
“On the one hand, we were surprised that the judge ignored the clear evidence. Even the court minutes were not correct. It seemed clear that the ruling was religiously and politically motivated, and not based on legal issues. On the other hand, the injustice was so great it made it easier for us to understand that an appeal would not help. The large fine imposed on us in addition to the ruling showed us how unjust the decision was. Israel is not ready to hear the truth.
“It’s important not to be naive: Israelis who embrace Judaism are not about to help the Messianic believers win a dispute with religious opponents. In the court ruling, the judge wrote: ‘The Chief Rabbi did what any chief rabbi would do.’ This was so unreasonable, it actually made it easier for us to accept the defeat. We realized that this is a spiritual issue, which does not yield to logic. In spite of losing the case, we still believe that it was the right thing to do. We wanted to legally place restrictions on haredi protest activities, and that’s what happened. You see that ten years have passed quietly. God was behind it even if we lost, and even if we had to pay a heavy fine.”
Would you recommend other congregations to go to court if they are attacked?
“It depends on the circumstances and the congregation. We wouldn’t presume to dictate to any congregation what is right for them. You need faith in order to follow through on legal action. We had the faith for it, but not the financial resources. Although we lost the lawsuit, the Lord was with us – we covered all our expenses within a week after the conclusion of the trial. By the way, there was a lot of prayer and encouragement too. Yet we lost totally, on the legal level.
How did the Body of Messiah in Israel respond to you after the incident and the trial?
“We felt a huge amount of support and unity. Other congregations came to visit us in the weeks following the attack, participating in our gatherings. Some also supported us financially. All of it was very encouraging. During the three years the court case was running, a variety of believers came to see us from around the country. They arranged praise and intercession nights with us, providing us with spiritual support. We know there were many prayers going up on our behalf in Israel and abroad. We all understood that it was a spiritual battle, the Lord’s battle.
“And after all, the New Covenant tells us (Romans 11) that Israel is the enemy of the gospel, but also beloved for the sake of the fathers – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We see this in many Jewish responses to the Good News of Yeshua, and we saw it in the attacks of the haredim, in the judge’s decision…. The haredim think that they are safeguarding the true faith of the Jewish people, which is still fighting the truth that the Messiah is none other than Yeshua. So all the spiritual support was very encouraging for us, assuring us that the Lord was with us.
“We also knew that not all the congregational leaders in Israel and abroad supported our decision to take the matter to court. But we did so with the understanding that we had the Lord’s support, along with the support of many Israeli leaders. After we lost, it was interesting to hear from those who did not agree with the lawsuit but hadn’t told us before. One of those opposing our action came to me several years after we lost, and actually thanked us (and the Ortiz family) that we had gone to court – he believed that it caused Yad L’Achim to retreat for a time.
“Incidentally, the entire affair was barely covered in the Israeli media. In contrast, the 1000-man protest seven years earlier had been heavily publicized, with echoes for several months afterwards that raised the profile of Messianic Jews in the country. With this incident, not only was nothing published in the secular media, but even the Messianic and Christian news outlets in Israel and abroad were not interested, except for noting the dry facts. There was plenty more to publicize, like the unity that results from this kind of incident, which can encourage many believers.”
Why do you think this particular attack didn’t get the media coverage that the previous one did?
“In my opinion, secular journalists saw the earlier incident as a good deed performed against the ‘apostates’, and they wanted to publish good stories like this. The incident of 10 years ago was more like a chaotic pogrom that got out of control, and this kind of news is not good to publicize. Even when they won in court, that wasn’t a newsworthy story either. That’s how we knew that the court ruling was not based on pure justice but on political-religious considerations.
Wasn’t there fear about gathering at the congregation again right after the attack?
“No. For sure the leadership staff encouraged the congregation members to keep coming, but I myself felt encouraged by the members, who weren’t afraid to keep attending and who participated with no doubts whatsoever.”
So how did the incident influence Congregation Nachalat Yeshua long-term?
“The congregation came together and stayed together. We celebrated immersions of new believers, and we praised God for the testing that had come upon us. We continued learning together, and continued praying for those who were cursing and persecuting us. We are still praying that the Lord will prepare us for what will come in the future. The experience also strengthened our understanding that each one of us has to be ready to proclaim the truth of the gospel of the New Covenant and faith in Yeshua, in whatever situation we find ourselves. In Beersheva, large-scale initiatives to share the gospel have always triggered strong opposition – and that’s okay, we understand. We encourage everyone to tell about faith in Yeshua in the opportunities that come their way, in the hope that many of the listeners will be saved. We are here as representatives of the Messiah, our King who is ruler over the Kingdom of Heaven. We need to be who we are called to be and proclaim that Good News.”
Why do you think Yad L’Achim hasn’t attacked you since that time?
“First of all, I think they will attack us again someday. We didn’t go to court thinking that it would prevent attacks forever. However, we do suspect that there was some deal made with the judge, something like receiving a ruling in favor of the haredim in return for their agreement to stop the harassment. Anyway, the Lord did what He did. We exposed them and took a stand against them in the fear of God, and the Lord achieved His goals.”
Do you see these types of incidents strengthening your position as a congregational leader, or challenging it?
“Incidents like these certainly challenge me more. The responsibility on me is great. But when the Lord is with us in difficult circumstances, He Himself strengthens me.”
What would you like to say to other leaders about dealing with haredi opposition?
“From our experience – and maybe it was small compared to what other believers have endured – I think that it’s important for the leaders and shepherds of the congregations to consider carefully how we should respond in situations like these, in order to honor the Lord’s name. We also have to weigh how we are preparing our flock, as individuals and as a congregation, to deal with incidents like these and situations that will come in the future. We need to be ready to suffer for the gospel, as Yeshua said. The question we have to ask ourselves is, ‘How can we get ready for the hour of testing?’ Likewise, we need to ask ourselves if we really understand the will of the Lord. We need to love God more than anything else, love our enemies, and love one another, in order to stand firm. May the Lord help us to bring honor and glory to His name.”