How has the image of Messianic Jews in Israel changed in the last 37 years?

by Lea Bendel


Not a few Messianic Jews in Israel today have encountered discrimination and injustice from individuals in society, the media, or the government. For this article, Israeli newspaper articles from 1979 until 2016 were analyzed with the focus on the depiction of believers in the media. For this purpose, I read media reviews and newspaper clippings in the Caspari Center in Jerusalem. First of all, the struggle of identity needs to be mentioned. The question of “Who is a Jew?” is a reoccurring theme throughout the years regarding different issues. Congregations usually do not publish an explicit number of their members; therefore only estimated number of believers in Israel is given here. However, the enormous discrepancy indicates that different sources bear different agendas in mind: Some sources claim a higher number in order to underline the threat Messianic Jews are posing toward Orthodox Judaism, for example; others name a lower amount with the purpose to diminish the importance, and even influence in society, of this minority group in the country.

The Question of Messianic Jewish Identity

The identity struggle for Messianic Jewish believers in Israel is manifested not only in the wide spectrum of numbers, names, and backgrounds, but also in their affiliation to different faith groups. At a Messianic conference in Tel Aviv in 2002, Joseph Shulam summed up the identity crisis in one sentence: “We are often too Jewish for the Christians, and too Christian for the Jews!” [1] The Hebrew word for Christians, “Notzrim,” has quite a negative connotation in Israel; that is one reason why many Jewish believers in Yeshua prefer to be called Messianic Jews. So who are Messianic Jews? Messianic Jews are Jews who believe that Jesus is the Messiah. Despite this shared belief with Gentile Christians, Messianic believers are different by embracing their identity as Jews and often celebrating Jewish holidays and sometimes keeping laws from the Tanakh.

“There is no such thing as Messianic Jews.” This statement could be found not only once but twice. First, by a judge in Israel’s High Court, and then repeated by Rabbi Yosef Ganz, former director general of Yad l’Achim, in an interview with BaKehila. [2] In a similar notion, a reader in a letter to the editor of The Jerusalem Post exclaimed that “Messianic Jews have betrayed the faith of their fathers while even the Church Fathers concurred with the sages that one cannot be both a Jew and a Christian.” [3]

Several times, the practices of Messianic believers were examined in newspaper articles in order to determine the difference between them and “standard Jews.” Yochanan Stanfield explained that he considers himself and his family to be Jewish: they keep the feasts, their children frequent public schools, and the family father served in the IDF. The only difference, according to him, is that “we have found the Messiah.” [4]

The Bias of Language in the Articles

As can be seen in the previous examples of false accusations about Messianic believers, the language used in articles plays an important role in the formation of public opinion toward this minority group. Some articles were not reporting on Messianic Jews in a negative way as such, but the headlines at times indicated a bias. The newspaper Yediot Ahronot, for example, reported on a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews entering a private house where Messianic Jews were praying. First, the religious intruders were praying in front of the house loudly, which did not lead the Messianic believers to stop their meeting. That is when the ultra-Orthodox entered, smashed a flower pot, and a “sharp exchange of words between the two groups” happened. Neighbors had to call the police for de-escalation. The title of the article, “Clash with ‘Messianic Jews’ prevented,” [14] indicates the believers to be the active part of the potential clash, not the victims.

Likewise, a title in Hatsofeh praises the anti-missionary organization’s efforts without paying attention to the other side: “Yad L’Achim in Petah Tikva laboring to rescue from the mission.” [15]

In the same year, Yediot Ahronot used a lot of biased phrases in an article about “Jews for Jesus.” The organization “sets a trap” to “hunt souls,” they spin “webs of deceit and lies,” and they “exploit weaknesses” by offering friendships that are not genuine. Nevertheless, “Operation Enticement is crowned with success.” [16] Yad l’Achim boasts success in breaking up “the ranks of the enemy” and hence “saving people from the fangs of the mission.” [17]

Unfortunately, references to the Holocaust are also not rare when speaking of Messianic believers. Shas MK Yitzak Saban said about the congregation in Beersheba: “Hitler murdered our bodies for us and they murder our souls for us.” [18] A Gur Hasidim member shouted at a Messianic woman that Messianic Jews “are responsible for the murder of six million in the Holocaust.” [19] Even worse, Daniel Asor, a former converted Christian who became Orthodox and a fierce anti- missionary, believes that:

Missionary activity cannot be tolerated, just as everyone knows that we wouldn’t allow the “Hitler youth” to hold a campaign for the destruction of the State of Israel here… Many more Jews were killed over the generations in the name of “that man” than in the name of Hitler! [20]

In 2011, Rabbi Yosef Sheinin of Ashdod compared Messianic Jews to Hitler, saying that both wanted a final solution, yet the believers today do not have the instruments of destruction—“so they are using those of apostasy.” [21] The rabbi warns that if Messianic Jews are not “finished off,” the city will be harmed in the most dangerous way. [22]

In 2012, members of the religious community in Netanya declared the activity of Israel College of the Bible to be worse than the Holocaust. [23] Likewise, a Holocaust survivor agreed that Messianic Jews want to destroy Judaism, and so the rabbi did not see a difference between “people who want to convert Jews to a belief in Jesus and what the Nazis did.” [24]

In the wake of a Messianic conference in 2015, the rabbi of the Old City, Rabbi Avigdor Liventzel, and Daniel Asor, a former Christian, allied in the fight against the “Messianic cults” and called their actions a “modern crusade” and a “Final Solution” for people’s souls. The anti- missionaries hope that the public will realize the “hate beneath the love.” [25]

In the same manner, comparisons to terrorist groups are not rare. Rabbi Lipschitz from Yad l’Achim compared the believers of the King of Kings Pavilion in Jerusalem to Hamas, and appealed to end the indifference toward “missionaries.” [26] In a report on the “danger of Jews for Jesus” in The Jerusalem Post in 2010, the evangelical organization was called insidious and anti-Semitic, and furthermore was compared to the Ku Klux Klan or the Muslim Brotherhood. [27]

Lehava is a far-right organization that prevents assimilation between Jews and non-Jews in Israel. Additionally, any Christian presence is condemned and to be averted. The head of Lehava, Bentzi Gopstein, was questioned by the police for his controversial remarks, inter alia for calling believers in Yeshua “vampires.” The organization has been under surveillance by the police since 2014, when Lehava activists were arrested for an arson attack at a bilingual school in Jerusalem. [28]

The Perspective of Journalists and the General Public

There is no unanimous perspective on Messianic Jews in Israel: some journalists write in favor, or at least are unbiased, about believers; some write in a rather inflammatory style. The opinions of neighbors, police officers, and members of the Knesset have varied over the years and always depend on the case.

In one case, the attack on the Beersheba congregation in November 1998, neighbors spoke rather supportively of the members of the Messianic congregation. The believers only “sing and pray” and no one in the area had ever complained about them: “we all have good relationships with them.” A professor of Ben Gurion University witnessed the incident and calls it a riot, not a demonstration. On the other hand, the chief rabbi and members of Yad l’Achim insisted that it was a peaceful manifestation of their disapproval, and they portrayed the believers as the real threat, a danger that needs to be stopped. The spokesman for the police’s Southern District described the scene as “a few dozen people praying, dancing and singing. . . . There were over 500 people there.” [77]

Similarly, in Arad in 2004, busloads of Orthodox Jews arrived outside the homes of 15 Messianic families to protest. The police and local authorities permitted it and did not intervene. Again, the neighbors, who were likewise besieged, contested the validity of the anti-missionaries’ claims that the Messianic believers “hunt souls” and “kill and steal children.” [78] Surprisingly, a Haredi newspaper quoted a Messianic believer who allegedly said, “The orthodox spill our blood and no one does anything.” [79] Two weeks later, though, the same paper accused the coverage by secular Israeli outlets as “driven crazy by self-hatred” for slandering the ultra-Orthodox community, accusing them of disrupting the peaceful Messianic community by their declaration of war. [80] Another source quoted the chief rabbi of Arad: “Get out of our city, you liars, who . . . want to snatch our children and convert them to Christianity. . . . They should hang a chain and cross around their necks so we can recognize them as Christians and not mistake them for Jews.” [81] As the Orthodox opposition continued, more and more people took a stand on the matter. A citizen of Arad vouched for the believers as they are not “missionaries, nor anything of the sort” but a “valuable group.” He even mentioned two Messianic Jewish paramedics who have saved many lives in the city. The frustration lies in the fact that “if people behaved like this toward Jews abroad we would be outraged.” [82]

Editor’s Note: This entry is excerpts from an article published in Mishkan Journal, issue 76, 2016, by Caspari Center for Biblical and Jewish Studies. Click here to purchase a subscription to Mishkan in order to read the rest of the article and several others.

[1] Aviel Schneider, “To Be Or Not To Be: Israeli Believers Search for Jewish Identity and Expression,” Israel Today, (December, 2002): 21.
[2] “The ABC of Yosef Ganz,” BaKehila, (March 17, 2005): 18.
[3] Sha’i Ben-Tekoa , “Don’t Call them ‘Messianic’. . .,” The Jerusalem Post, (May 13, 2005).
[4] Oren Kaminski, “Your Salvation,” Modi’in News Plus, (October 2, 2014): 12.
[14] “Clash with ‘Messianic Jews’ prevented,” Yediot Ahronot (June 18, 1978).
[15] “Yad L’Achim in Petah Tikva Laboring to Rescue From the Mission,” Hatsofeh (November 9, 1979).
[16] “Jews for Jesus Going Out To Hunt Souls,” Yediot Ahronot (February 17, 1980).
[17] “Holy War,” Maariv (February 23, 1990).
[18] “Hitler Murdered Our Bodies For Us and They Murder Our Souls for us,” Kol HaNegev (November 26, 1999).
[19] Asher Kesher, “Jewish Crusade,” Kol HaZman (June 15, 2007): 54.
[20] David Graus, “The Mission Also Threatens,” Yated Ne’eman (January 9, 2009).
[21] Yair Harosh, “‘This is a Blood Libel’,” Yediot Ashdod (February 25, 2011): 34.
[22] Aharon Pakser, “A Mass Protest Rally Against the Mission in Ashdod,” HaMevaser (February 22, 2011): 1.
[23] Guy Fishkin & Elinor Barak, “Yeshu and I: The Friends of Yeshu,” Zman Netanya (May 25, 2012): 30.
[24] Guy Fishkin, “The Friends of Yeshu,” Zman Netanya (September 21, 2012): 34.
[25] Yehuda Yakovi, “Secrets From the Conversion Room,” Yated Ne’eman (May 22, 2015): 22.
[26] “Yad l’Achim Demonstrates, Calls to Close New Missionary Center in the Heart of Jerusalem,” Hamodia (November 5, 2004).
[27] Stewart Weiss, “On a Mission From God,” The Jerusalem Post (June 4, 2010, 4): 12.
[28] Sharon Polver, “Chairman of LEHAVA Questioned After Calling Christian Missionaries ‘Vampires’ In Article,” Haaretz (February 22): 6.
[77] “Protests in Beersheba,” The Jerusalem Post (December 4, 1998).
[78] Sara Leibowitz-Dar, “In the Role of the Jews: Christians,” Haaretz (April 30, 2004): 26.
[79] “The ‘Messianics’ Complain About the Incitement Against Them,” HaMahane HaHaredi (April 22, 2004).
[80] “The ‘Messianics’ Complain About the Incitement Against Them,” HaMahane HaHaredi (April 22, 2004).
[81] “Unrest in Arad,” Israel Today (June 2004): 23.
[82] Moshe Regev, “Haredi / Nationalist City in Tel Arad,” HaTzvi (March 8, 2007).

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Caspari Staff
The Caspari Center for Biblical and Jewish Studies is an evangelical resource and education center for training, discipleship, and academic research and study. Messianic Jews and Gentile Christians work together to strengthen and support the movement of Jewish believers in Jesus in Israel. The Caspari Center is committed to engaging members of the global body of Messiah in reaching the Jewish people with the gospel. In addition, we want to help churches gain a deeper understanding of their faith in Jesus by learning about the land of the Bible, the Jewish setting of Jesus and the early church, and the Jewish character of the Scriptures.