A history of Messianic Jews in Israel, Part 1

A view of the Old City of Jerusalem circa 1900 (Photo: Public Domain)

In this series, I will attempt to account for the history of Messianic Jews in Israel from 1818 and onwards. I am speaking specifically about Hebrew-speaking Jews in Israel who believe in Jesus and maintain a Jewish identity. Not the history of general Messianic Judaism in Europe and America, and not the general history of Christianity and missionary work in Israel.

In this first article, I will start with a general overview, and from the next one we will go into detail. Even though faith in Jesus has existed in Israel since the time of, well, Jesus himself, indigenous Israeli Hebrew-speaking believers were non-existent between the 7th and the 19th century, and a strong local Hebrew-speaking community of faith with generations of believers is something we are only starting to see in the 21st century.

The first protestant missionary arrived in 1818, and they continued to arrive and establish local churches. Some people came to faith, and there is a documented continuous presence of Israeli Jewish believers since the 1840s at least. But the Hebrew-speaking congregations were exceedingly small and suffered from a high percentage of people leaving the country. Rather than develop a local body, the Jewish believers often preferred utilizing the opportunity their newfound faith gave them, opening doors in Europe and America. Attempts to form independent Jewish congregations were actively opposed by the established churches, and a flourishing local Hebrew-speaking community never became an option.

During the time of the British Mandate (1917-1948) Christianity flourished and the first independent Messianic congregations arose in Israel, but they were still few and poor and sometimes actively opposed by mainstream Christians. The situation changed radically in 1948 as the State of Israel came to be. When Great Britain offered asylum to all Jewish believers, many jumped on the offer, leaving only about a dozen Jewish believers behind. They were fewer now, but the ones who stayed were the ones highly motivated to remain in Israel and build a local community. These people and their descendants, as well as the believers who arrived shortly after 1948, became the backbone of the current local Messianic body in Israel.

But how did it all start back in 1818?

Believe it or not, it all started with Napoleon.

Until 1799, most Christians saw the Jews as the “old covenant people,” irrelevant for the New Covenant. But in 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte, then just an officer in the French army, conquered Egypt and laid siege on Acre, declaring that should he conquer Palestine he intended to establish a homeland for the Jews, allowing the Jews of Europe to move there.

This was the first time in history when a secular person talked about a Jewish homeland in the Holy Land as an actual political possibility, and not just as a religious, futuristic idea.

Even though Napoleon’s siege of Acre failed, and he had to settle on going back to France and become emperor instead, the very prospect made something move in the hearts of many Christians. It was not only that but also the new ideas of the French revolution which brought new eschatological hopes. A movement of Protestant and Anglican Christians who, based on the Bible, loved the Jewish people, and believed that the Jews would be restored to their country and come to faith in Jesus.

This view had some adherents in the highest echelons of the British government. This sentiment in the Anglican church and the British government brought about the establishment of many missionary societies and the first protestant missionaries who specifically focused on converting the Jews. Over a hundred years later, it raised up people like Lord Balfour and Orde Charles Wingate, who became key figures in the Zionist movement and the establishment of the State of Israel. One can only wonder what the era of the British Mandate could have looked like if this view had had more adherents in the British government.

In 1818, the first protestant missionary arrived. In 1822, the first Hebrew Christian missionary came to preach the gospel in Hebrew to his countrymen. In 1849, the first protestant church – Christ Church – was built. With time, the missionaries also built hospitals and schools. All this occurred amid a lot of missionary activity, both badly and well executed, some targeting Jews specifically, others being more universal. Local Jews who came to faith were initially rare, but became more common as time went on.

The religious Jews learned to avoid the missionary activity and established more and more hospitals and schools of their own, through help from wealthy European Jews such as Montefiore and Rothschild, to avoid having to use the “missionaries” institutions, since they “prey on Jewish souls.” They enacted sanctions and excommunications not only against the Jews who came to faith, but against any Jew who used the missionaries’ facilities.

Nevertheless, Hebrew-speaking congregations of Jews who believed in Yeshua were established under the Anglican church, and in the 1890s they tried to organize themselves as “Hebrew Christians.” This existed elsewhere in the world, but not in Israel. It looked promising, but a number of things halted the development of Hebrew Messianic congregations in Israel. Besides the fact that they were few, and many left Israel, there was also the double attack from both the Christians and the religious Jews, both sides telling the Messianic Jews that they had to choose. They couldn’t believe in Jesus and stay Jewish.

From within the church, people voiced protests and concern over this “Judaizing.” Some were afraid that a Hebrew-speaking church in Jerusalem would undermine their own church’s legitimacy. Some might have been worried about Jewish influence in the church.

The idea that a Jew can become a Christian and still be Jewish when it comes to customs and lifestyle was unheard of for many. Rabbi Joseph Rabinowitz (1837-1899) from Kishinev was one of the earliest pioneers of this idea. He is often called the “Herzl of Messianic Judaism.” He scandalously insisted in keeping Sabbath and circumcising his sons, and when asked whether a Jesus-believing Jew who doesn’t do so commits a sin, he replied: “He does not commit a sin, but he alienates himself from his own Jewish people.” We need to remember that Rabinovitz’ words in 1884 were not mainstream, but scandalous to many. Also, he was not in Israel. It took a long time until Messianic Judaism, as we know it today, was even possible.

Some will argue that the Protestant missionaries were Europeans coming to Israel to impose their faith upon us. Some will call it religious colonialism. But we shouldn’t forget that our Jewish religious brethren went through a similar process. Ashkenazi Rabbis like Menachem Mendel arrived in the early 1800s, establishing the first Ashkenazi presence in Jerusalem since the 1720s, scandalously refusing to adopt the customs and lifestyles of the local Sephardi Jews. We might look at the big missionary organizations in England and the US and say that the western powers poured money into this endeavor, but so did our Jewish brethren with the help of the Rothschilds and the Montefiores. The fact that the beginnings of our Messianic movement in Israel is found within churches and protestant missionaries who sometimes have a slightly different view than we have today, does not take away from the core – they came here to tell us about the Messiah of Israel, and they brought back the gospel to the people who had given it to them. Whether or not we agree with everything they did is beside the point. I still believe that we, the Messianic Jews of Israel, owe them gratitude.

In the next article, I will tell the story of the earliest protestant missionaries in Israel and their encounters with Jews in the land between 1818 to 1821.