He’s a veteran Israeli lawmaker, seasoned politician, leader of a Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] political party, and socially active with hundreds of law proposals – and also one of the biggest adversaries of the Messianic community in Israel.
Meet Moshe Gafni.
When the Messianic cable channel “Shelanu” was closed down, the anti-missionary organization Yad l’Achim praised the decision with the following quote:
“The struggle of Yad l’Achim succeeded – the Ministry of Communications has given the missionary [sic] channel seven days to close. The channel turns to Jews with Christian content, in violation of its license. Yad l’Achim thanks Knesset Member Rabbi Moshe Gafni for getting involved and meeting with (Amsalem) to end the channel.”
Who is this Gafni, and how involved is he in anti-missionary activity?
Before we answer that here’s some important background.
Moshe Gafni, born in Tel-Aviv in 1952, lives in Bnei Brak with his wife and three children. Gafni has been a member of the Knesset almost continuously since 1988, and has served as the head of the Finance Committee of the Knesset almost continuously since 2009. He is one of the most active members. Since the current Knesset was sworn in on March 2020, he has so far submitted no less than 149 different law proposals. Many of them deal with the environment, social assistance, pension issues, toll road regulations, etc. But he is also deeply involved in Haredi education.
He is placed in the second spot on the United Torah Judaism party, an Ashkenazi Haredi political party. The party members are appointed by a council of Torah elders. Women are not allowed. This party consistently receives at least 8 seats in the Knesset, seemingly without even trying. They are absent from all political debates and they barely do any political ads during election seasons. They rely solely on their associated rabbis telling their members how to vote. This makes it almost impossible for Gafni to ever lose his seat in the Knesset.
Gafni has never been interested in serving as a minister in the government, even though he has been offered positions many times. The independent journalist Tomer Avital suggested in a podcast from 2016 that the reason is money. Being the head of the powerful Finance Committee enables him to make adjustments and change where the money goes, of course to the benefit his constituents.
Tomer Avital did some research and realized that a Haredi private school network called “Shuvu” was one such organization who received benefits through Gafni’s intervention. It is a Haredi school network with over 70 schools from kindergartens to high schools. Started in 1991, a main focus has been bringing in Russian immigrants and giving them extra benefits. They receive school bus service door-to-door, free lunches, field trips, etc. The extra budget from the government is justified by claiming they are assisting the immigrants integrate into Israeli society and develop a Jewish identity. In reality, it is obvious that this school was created in order enroll secular Jewish children with the intent of making them religious according to their Haredi lifestyle. Tomer Avital also found that these schools hardly enroll immigrants anymore and are essentially regular Haredi schools. Despite this apparent change, the government continues to allot them extra funding.
Avital discovered this information after digging deeper into a sub-clause in a budget list noted as “other.” Gafni attempted to hide the funding under an obscure section. Who knows what else might hide there that few know about? According to Avital, the Knesset confirmed a budget for Shuvu of 293,000 NIS in 2010, but in reality they ended up receiving 13.7 million NIS. In 2014 they approved 212,000 NIS, but Gafni made sure they receive 13.8 million NIS. A quick google search on Israeli official records reveal that in the latest available financial records of 2018, Shuvu received 10.1 million NIS from the government.
So now to his anti-missionary connections.
Since 1999 Gafni has proposed several laws in the Knesset to ban missionary activity. None though have been approved. His latest attempt occurred in 2015. In the proposed law, he suggested to prohibit any kind of activity to persuade an individual to convert to another religion. The punishment would have been up to one year in prison. He emphasized that he believes in freedom of religion, but that people “should decide for themselves without outside pressure.”
In Knesset protocols from 2001, when Gafni proposed another anti-missionary law, which would have prohibited sending missionary material through the mail, a left-wing politician, Ofir Pines, taunted him, promising to vote in favor of the law if it also included religious persuasion leaflets directed at secular Jews. “They bother me just as much as missionary leaflets bother you,” he said. Gafni didn’t seem to even understand why the two were related. “Make a separate law proposal for that if that bothers you,” he responded. From his perspective, persuading secular Jews to become religious equals introducing them to their true religion, thus not attempting to have them convert from one religion to another.
Five years ago, Gafni used his power as the head of the Financial Committee to deny a specific tax-exempt status to a Messianic organization. While all Israeli non-profits are exempt from paying income tax, only certain organizations can receive tax deductible contributions. It seems Gafni has made it his mission to prevent any Messianic non-profit in Israel that engages in evangelism from obtaining this coveted status despite the fact they meet the necessary criteria.
This happened again just recently, on August 3, 2020, when the Financial Committee of the Knesset met and received a list of 100 non-profits requesting the ability to receive tax deductible contributions. Gafni immediately dismissed two “missionary” organizations (one being the same Messianic organization from 2015, and one Jehovah’s Witnesses) and said that “the non-profits of the missionaries are the subject of a deep public controversy, so I ask that we have a separate discussion about them, in which we will invite them and hear them, as the new regulations require.” The committee then proceeded to confirm all the others, thus singling out the “missionary” organizations, and prolonging the handling of their issue.
These “new regulations” that he mentioned were approved by Gafni on July 22, 2020, and determines that the committee might in controversial cases deny the right of a non-profit to receive tax deductible contributions. Gafni determined that in order to reject a non-profit, the controversial organization will be invited to a special discussion, and if two thirds of the committee, including at least a third of the opposition Knesset members, vote in favor of rejecting their application, the rejection will be valid. Is that what will happen this time? Only time will tell.
Gafni apparently believes he is working to strengthen Jewish identity in Israel in his struggle against “idolaters”. In his official role he’s assured that funding goes to places that support the Jewish identity of the state. When Avital confronted Gafni’s aide about the allegedly corrupt handling of budgeting Shuvu he received the reply that Gafni has not personally benefited at all. What he does is out of love and goodness for the people of Israel.
This response shows Gafni to be even more dangerous – he is not a typical corrupt politician who serves out of greed and love for money. He does it out of pure zeal and conviction that this is how he serves God.
We need to love our enemies – and we need to pray for Gafni. It is about people like him that Paul wrote “For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge.” (Romans 10:2).