Understanding Persecution in Israel

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Ultra-Orthodox blocking entrance to Beit Hallel Messianic congregation (Photo: courtesy Beit Hallel)

All of us in Israel are used to the constant threat of rocket fire and bus bombings; aggressive people who don’t like the fact we exist is a way of life. But I have to stop myself and remember — just because we’re used to it, doesn’t make religious persecution right. And left to fester, it could easily get worse.

ORE PACKAGES IN THE MAIL?” I asked as I got in the car and pushed over the pile of envelopes. The year was 1992 and being a Jewish believer in Yeshua was still one of the strangest things most Israelis had ever heard of. A special mailbox had been set up to receive mail from Israelis interested in knowing more about our faith, but hesitant to reveal their identity. We could understand their initial anxiety and would connect them with a believer they could talk to who lived in their area. Of course, not all the mail that arrived was from interested parties.

“Yeah, one package was full of pages from that outreach book that was being given out–the sender had used it as toilet paper before mailing it.” I rummaged through the pile and found another package. As I opened it gently to see what was inside, a fine powder puffed out of the top–ashes. They’d burned the book and sent it back.

I was too young to remember if this secret mailbox ever resulted in Israelis coming to the Lord. I do, however, recall the never-ending hostilities towards us as Jewish believers.

I remember the Orthodox Jews who looked like they could spit dragon fire once they realized who we were. I remember the government passing laws that defined the belief in the Jewish rabbi Yeshua as a betrayal of everything Jewish. I remember secular Israelis looking at us as if we believed aliens walked among us. They weren’t necessarily hostile, but we definitely were an odd bunch to them.

I also remember the summers when we flew to the US; that’s where I met Christians. They smiled big and enjoyed feeding us. They loved everybody. They also ignored anything they didn’t understand. I remember walking through halls of ministry buildings and schools and seeing the 10/40 window map that was spread across the walls. Every country within the “window” was brightly colored with stats of population, economic status, religious breakdown etc. Every country except Israel. Israel was gray, as if it weren’t there.

As a teen, I didn’t grasp the theological ramifications of this–that Christians weren’t really sure what to do with Israel. That the people of Israel hadn’t been a part of Christian theology for centuries and her sudden reentry onto the world stage left many theologians scrambling and churchgoers shrugging.

A few theological attempts made it into the limelight: Israel is already saved; Israel gets saved after the rapture; Israel rejected God and is, therefore, no longer being offered salvation. That last one was actually the oldest theory–the one Christians seemingly agreed upon soon after the original Jewish Apostles died out and Gentile believers outnumbered Jewish ones. It was also the theory they used to convince masses of Christians to “help” God extinguish that people group who “killed God.” By ‘extinguish’ they meant kill, or force them to renounce their wicked Jewish heritage and convert to Christianity.

For the most part, modern Christians are not hostile, though many of them still carry the old thought that Jews should all be converting to Christianity. Still, many Evangelicals today have bewildered Israel’s government with their unwavering support of the modern state of Israel. Tours, prayers, political support and billions of dollars are literally thrown at the concept of Israel. This support has done much to the hearts of Jews in the way of healing the wounds of the past. But, Evangelical support of Israel could be so much more effective if they took a few moments to consider how and what they are supporting.

It is true that in Romans 15 the Apostle Paul discussed the support of Israel by Christians as a given–a natural reaction of gratitude for the spiritual blessings Israel had provided the world. However, Paul wasn’t talking about Israel in general. He was talking about the Jewish believers in Israel.

For you see, the believers in Macedonia and Achaia[a] have eagerly taken up an offering for the poor among the believers in Jerusalem. They were glad to do this because they feel they owe a real debt to them. Since the Gentiles received the spiritual blessings of the Good News from the believers in Jerusalem, they feel the least they can do in return is to help them financially. (Romans 15:26-27)

Can you imagine Christians in Pauls day taking up offerings from Christians to provide the Pharisees with fresh garments and a new synagogue? How about funding young Jewish boys to study under the tutelage of the Sadducees? And yet, that is exactly what Christians around the world are doing today. If it has a Star of David on itthey support it.

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Lehava chairman Benzi Gopstein is being arrested by police outside a Christian event in Jerusalem on September 22, 2016. (Photo by Dor Kedmi/Flash90)

Its Subtle

OCCASIONALLY, I’M ASKED ABOUT PERSECUTION IN ISRAEL and my initial reaction is a shoulder shrug. All of us in Israel are used to the constant threat of rocket fire and bus bombings; aggressive people who don’t like the fact we exist is a way of life. But I have to stop myself and remember — just because we’re used to it, doesn’t make religious persecution right. And left to fester, it could easily get worse.

For most of my life, persecution of Jewish believers in Israel has consisted of largely subtle, under-the-table activities. Our government doesn’t lop off heads of people who claim to follow the Jewish Messiah; we’re not that kind of country. But they also don’t do much to protect Israeli believers when other groups come against us simply because of our testimony of faith.

The government hasn’t banned believers from working certain jobs; it doesn’t have to. The cultural fear of Messianic Jews is enough to deter some employers from hiring believers despite laws against discrimination.  The government won’t refuse Messianic Jews the right to rent a hall and worship together; it doesn’t have to. Business owners are too afraid of an Orthodox Jewish boycott (which would include a large number of tourists) to rent their facilities to Jewish believers in Yeshua. As a result, Messianic Jews often have to rent facilities out in the middle of nowhere for conferences and summer camps–or simply not have the event at all.

Ive Never Heard of This

PERHAPS YOU EVEN VISITED AND ENJOYED A DELIGHTFUL AND INSPIRING TRIP. But there is a big difference in the Israeli mind between a Gentile Christian tourist who is coming here to spend money and go home versus an Israeli citizen who will spend their life claiming Jews are destined to follow Yeshua.

Israel is a democracy and nation where freedom of religion is a given right. But as any student of history knows, laws are only as good as the men and women charged with enforcing them.

One of the most well-known cases of religious harassment is the case of Pnina Pie, a kosher bakery owned by Pnina and her family which was targeted by religious activists simply because the family were believers. It should be noted that there is no law disqualifying Christian or Muslim Arabs from providing kosher food–this was a specific attack on Jews who claimed belief in Yeshua. Enraged upon finding out the owners of the bakery were believers, activists stood in front of their bakery with pamphlets warning of the dire consequences of eating a delicious croissant made by the hands of soul-damning missionaries.

When people call me and order a cake, some tell me “please, make sure there isn’t a logo or a sticker on the package.” – Pnina Comforti, owner Pnina Pie Bakery

When their activities thwarted only part of the clientele, one activist ran in and ripped their kosher certificate off the wall. In some Israeli neighborhoods, not having a kosher license is a death sentence for a business, as not only ultra-Orthodox, but many observant Jews will not patronize such a business. Despite the loyalty of customers, many simply could not in good conscience purchase and serve ״non-kosher״ pastries.

Understanding the ramifications this held for believers all over the country, should Orthodox officials allow this behavior of attacking businesses of Jewish believers to go unaddressed, Maoz partners helped us fund a full-on legal assault and push the case up to Israel’s Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Pnina Pie’s right to provide kosher food despite the owner’s belief system. However, had the case been left at that, all the effort would’ve been for naught because the rabbinical authorities in Israel fundamentally do not respect the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction over their religious decisions!

It took several more pushes until the Court issued fines to get the rabbinical authority to acquiesce. Today, Pnina Pie serves happy customers at two kosher locations. Still, Pnina won because Messianic Jews and Christians around the world stood up for her. But Jewish believers in Israel, as a whole aren’t confident that Christians will stand up for them in time of need.

Its Not the Government. Its Whos in Government.

THE ISRAELI GOVERNMENT HAS MANY DEPARTMENTS, and some of them are believed to have been infiltrated by ultra-Orthodox activists. For decades, the powers that be have made it very difficult for Jewish believers to receive citizenship. It wasn’t always clear how the government would know about the personal lives of believing Jews who were looking to immigrate, but rumor had it, people within the government relied on “detectives,” mainly from an organization called Yad L’Achim who would spy on people to establish whether they were followers of Yeshua.

It was bad enough that the government could be acting on information provided by civilian, self-appointed spies. But then concerns were raised that people inside the ultra-Orthodox controlled Ministry of Interior was also sharing information. There’s no way to prove it because we don’t sneak into government buildings, but out of nowhere we–and believers all over the land–began receiving “evangelistic” magazines at our home addresses with articles confronting our erroneous religious ideas and encouraging us to convert to “true” Judaism. The magazines were addressed to us using our full legal names–which we don’t use anywhere ever–except for government paperwork. So, while we had never been asked by the government on any occasion about our beliefs, it appears someone in the government has a file on us and had given this non-governmental organization access to our personal details including our home address.

It should be noted that years ago, when an ultra-Orthodox mob got hold of my mother’s home address, they threw a Molotov cocktail outside her door trapping her inside her third-story apartment as the hallway went up in flames. Fortunately, the fire department arrived and put out the flames.

Years later after my parents were married and living near Tel Aviv, a car bomb was placed under their vehicle. Thankfully, they saw the suspicious looking package and called the bomb squad who pulled it out and blew it up.

Jack (Ya’acov) Teitel Flashes Victory Sign at his Trial, Photo, CBN News

The most well-known case–because of its brutality–in which Messianic Jews were targeted this way was that of Ami Ortiz, the son of a local pastor.  He was the victim of a bomb disguised as a Purim gift package left for his dad by their front porch. Ami was 15 at the time, and it would take more than two years and 14 operations to rebuild his badly burned body. Because of a security camera – and a lot of legal pressure, this case was one of the few times a perpetrator was brought to full justice and will serve the rest of his years in prison. Though this particular attack was found to be the work of a lone-wolf religious Jew, the attack was clearly inspired by the targeted protests against the pastor in the months leading up to it.

A lesser-known but significantly disturbing situation also occurred several years ago when a believing family shared that their school-aged daughter had been called into the principal’s office and questioned by a group of religious men about her family’s religious activities. She was encouraged to keep the conversation quiet and so didn’t think to mention it to anyone until the day her family’s van exploded while parked in front of their home.

Thankfully, there are many people of principle in our government. When injustices occur, a Messianic Jew can take his or her case all the way to the Supreme Court, if need be. The High Court has a pretty good history of enforcing law above personal opinion. Unfortunately, you can’t reach the bench of the Supreme Court without significant funding and pressure from masses of people. The small body of believers in Israel doesn’t qualify as masses. Should they try and take a stand, many of them would risk becoming a target themselves. And so the question is, who will stand up for believers in Israel?

At a time when Israel is under a constant barrage of diplomatic condemnations and sanctions, Israel recognizes that Evangelicals are, perhaps her strongest ally in the world. As with Esther, who was put in a place of influence to defend the people of God from slaughter, who knows if you have been put in this position for such a time as this.

This article originally appeared in Maoz Israel Report, April 2020, and reposted with permission.