The Christian Israelis

Released after 18 years in prison for revealing to his fellow Israelis and the rest of the world that Israel possessed nukes, Mordechai Vanunu announced that

he had been treated harshly because of his conversion to Christianity and he no longer had any secrets to publish.

The latter seems likely – the Israeli restrictions placed on him would only punish him after he revealed something new, and Israel would hardly risk that if he knew anything important. One would like to see some evidence that his harsh treatment was down to his religion (and he’s not just claiming abuse by anti-Christian guards, but something more systematic), but his identification as a Christian does highlight the existence of Christian Israelis beyond the Israeli Arab minority.

According to a Jerusalem Post report from last year (discussed by Caspari) there are

7,000 “Jewish converts to Christianity” in Israel, half of whom are Russian.


250,000 Jews have embraced Jesus over the last 25 years.

This first figure seems rather low. Russians make up a sixth of the Israeli population, and a good number of these are either religious or nominal Orthodox Christians with some Jewish ancestry, who have decided to take advantage of the Law of Return to move away from Russia (often helped by Christian Zionists keen to move Jews to the country where God wants them to be, like it or not); many others are Roman Catholic, in part prompting the recent creation of a Hebrew-language Roman Catholic bishop. Israel, worried about the birth rate of Israeli Arabs, turned a blind eye to the religious backgrounds of many of these Russians, but according to the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, the Russians are

hundreds of thousands of Gentiles flooding the land with pork, prostitution, impurity and filth.

Although there are Israeli Jewish members of other Christian denominations (Vanunu is Anglican), most of the rest are Messianic Jews, who worship Jesus in a Jewish idiom and keep Jewish traditions. Although hated by the likes of Shas and disliked by many other religious Jews, their Christian Zionist beliefs make them at least partly acceptable, and Israeli Messianic Jews enjoy freedom of religion.

As for non-Israeli Jewish converts to other religions, despite the Russian experience these are not eligible for automatic Israeli citizenship; the Falashamura of Ethiopia have only recently been admitted, and other individuals have had problems. There is also anti-missionary legislation: in 1977 a law was passed making it an offence to provide an advantage to someone to facilitate their conversion; a harsher law proposed in 1998 failed to get through.

Meanwhile, Palestinian refugees refused entry back into Israel proper remain more than a little annoyed that converts to Judaism (including 80 indigenous Peruvians rushed through in 2002) are allowed to live in Israel while they remain in exile…

UPDATE (24 April): I’ve just learnt that Thursday’s Maariv newspaper ran with the headline in Hebrew “Mordecai Notzri”, meaning “Mordecai – Christian”, and showed Vanunu with two Anglican clerics. This headline does not appear the English language edition and so it would seem that the Vanunu case is being used to bash Israeli Jews who are Christian. It also suggests that Vanunu’s accusation should not be dimissed out of hand.