Since 2011, Israel Pochtar, congregational leader in Ashdod, has become accustomed to the hundreds of ultra-orthodox Jews who would systematically harass, bully, shame and threaten the 300 believers who would attend Shabbat services in their hometown.
After a short spell of relief, once again a group of Haredi Jews took matters into their own hands and on Thursday afternoon defaced the congregation’s new buildings with slurs against “missionaries.”
An IDF soldier, who is also a member of the congregation, saw the vandals inside the compound, wreaking destruction on the brand new building only recently completed. He chased them out while filming them. Security cameras outside the building also captured the break-in and police are now in the process of identifying the perpetrators.
Pochtar is no stranger to these attacks. What began with noisy and intimidating demonstrations in 2011 soon morphed into a full-blown campaign over the past several years to demonize Messianic Jews and spread word throughout Ashdod that not only were these individuals unwelcomed but they were harmful, dangerous and toxic to the Jewish nation.
With that declaration began a campaign to rid the city of these “undesirables.” This included stalking believers, confronting them, invading their space and filming and threatening them. Leaflets were printed and distributed as wanted posters placed on car windshields, in personal mailboxes and on street poles. Newspaper articles and television appearances by members of the Haredi community began to surface as they did all they could to discredit and smear these Jewish believers whose only crime was attending their Sabbath services just as other Jews are permitted to do in the land of Israel.
This daily, systematic persecution continued over the course of the next three years. Pochtar’s assistant, who is also an attorney, decided to get involved. Unfortunately, this backfired on her when Haredi Jews told police that she attacked them. Of course, the authorities then opened up a case against her and the situation intensified prompting Pochtar to hire a high-powered attorney from Tel Aviv.
Up until that time, local police weren’t helping persecuted believers and largely ignored their complaints failing to take their claims seriously. It wasn’t until the new attorney began to exert legal pressure that they suddenly realized that continuing to ignore the systematic violation of civil rights could backfire on them, especially in a nation which promises freedom, democracy and civil rights for all its citizens.
After this, police began to show up at the homes of believers when they were threatened, bullied and harassed, providing much needed relief for those being haunted and terrorized by Haredi bullies whose mission was to stamp out anything Messianic in their city. Police also immediately closed the case against Pochtar’s assistant.
The new attorney also succeeded in getting police to enforce a law prohibiting no more than two demonstrators at the congregation. They are forbidden to scream, curse or cause any kind of disturbance on penalty of arrest.
Since then the congregation has enjoyed relative peace over the last two years. Until Thursday.
Rather than gleefully celebrate the imminent capture of those who have caused him, his family, his congregants and others harm and ill-will for years, Pochtar, who immigrated from the Ukraine in 1995, remembered a dream he had in 2004. In the dream he heard the voice of God loudly tell him to get up, leave Tel Aviv with his family and begin a congregation in Ashdod. He recalls how he spent the next year in preparation for this move, and, once there, 70 Jewish believers joined his effort within the first year.
Today, the Hebrew-speaking congregation is a blend of 300 Jewish believers comprised of sabras (indigenous Israelis), Jewish immigrants from many countries especially Russia. Although some became fearful during the years of intimidation and chose not to attend, the vast majority of congregants continued to come and simply prayed each week for those who were persecuting them.
Perhaps, they took their example from Pochtar who, even after this recent break-in, does not wish to see these lawbreakers imprisoned to the full extent of the law. Rather he simply desires for them to clean up the graffiti which they scrawled on expensive marble walls, doors and windows stating, “Missionaries are a national danger.”
“I’m fine if they will just fix the damage that they caused,” he said.
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.”