Christian Israelis Complain of Persecution

Staying in the allegedly “Holy Land”, an interesting report from ASSIST:

Messianic Jews have called for international protests against violations of religious freedom in Israel. Orthodox Jews have harassed a congregation in the desert town of Arad in Southern Israel for more than 18 months.

Messianic Jews are Jews who have become Christians, but who maintain a Jewish identity and worship in a Jewish style. ASSIST notes that there are about 6,000 in Israel (I previously blogged on Israeli Christians here), and continues:

An orthodox group called Gur Chassidim has been persecuting 30 messianic Jews in Arad. They have been insulted in public as Nazis, whores and dirty Christians. According to eyewitnesses the police have turned a blind eye or even sided with the persecutors. An assembly hall has been burnt down.

A fuller account by one of the Messianics can be read here.

Haaretz covered the problem last year, noting:

In the past few weeks, the Haredim in Arad have been harassing the 15 Messianic Jewish families in the Negev town. Hardly anyone has come to their aid. The police gave the Haredim a permit to hold demonstrations opposite the homes of the Messianic Jews, the mayor is ignoring the harassment, and the members of the municipal council, including those who are secular, support the Haredim, who have representatives in the local governing coalition.

The local Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Ben-Zion Lipsker, is also quoted:

“You disguise yourselves as sabras and smile at us, but you’re just waiting for the first chance to grab us and crucify us. Get out of here, hypocrites. At least if you wore robes and large crucifixes, we would be able to be careful of you. You are the ones whose forefathers burned Jews to death throughout all the years of history. You are an abomination in Israel, and therefore you must be spewed out of here.”

Lipsker told the journalist that because two residents of Arad had converted, the Messianics had broken the law. The Messianics responded with a police complaint against Lipsker, local Shepardi Chief Rabbi Yosef Elbo, and the ultra-orthodox anti-missionary organisation Yad L’achi. Given that this was a year ago, the police do not appear to have exerted themselves.

Gur Chassidim (or “Gur Hassidim”) is dominant within Agudat Israel, a body which represents many Ultra-Orthodox Jews, and has a long history of militancy that goes back to nineteenth-century Poland. Here’s a passage from a website devoted to the Jewish history of Mlawa, a Polish town:

The Gur Hassidim were very zealous and far more militant than the Alexandrower Hassidim…In later years, the Gur Hassidim stormed the building in which the Hebrew gymnasium was housed and made it into a “Talmud Torah.” The Gur Hassidim went en masse to capture the building, ready to sacrifice their lives, if necessary. Their aim was to take over all the public institutions and to rule them with an iron hand.

In Israel, the group enjoys considerable support from the Religious Affairs Ministry, to the annoyance of other Jewish strands.

Yad L’Achim, meanwhile, is well-known for targeting religious groups. Its work has been reported in a number of Jerusalem Post stories by Larry Derfner. One article notes that:

Yad L’achim mainly targets the two largest Christian sects seeking to convert Jews – the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Messianic Jews – but also goes after Scientology, Hare Krishna, Falun Gong, Landmark Forum and other cults operating in Jerusalem and elsewhere.

“Over the years we’ve brought back hundreds of Jews who had gone over to Christianity, and we’ve prevented the assimilation of many thousands of others who had started the process by going to a lecture or two from the missionaries,” says Rabbi Shalom Dov Lifschitz, who co-founded Yad L’Achim in 1950. He emphasizes repeatedly that Yad L’Achim “has nothing whatsoever against Christians in Israel, just against missionaries.”

Their methods, however, are pretty ruthless:

“When we find out a missionary is working at a company, we go to the boss and explain to him that there are plenty of ways to fire the worker without anybody being the wiser. This way there’s no trouble with the courts, the media, and with Meretz.

“Some bosses are smart, they understand, and they deal with the problem quietly. I’d say we’ve done this with nearly 10 different companies,” said Rabbi Shalom Dov Lifschitz, head of Yad L’Achim.

There are also claims of violence:

…The most publicized attack took place last November [2003] when the Holon apartment of Jehovah’s Witnesses Yossi and Sima Levy was broken into by assailants who spray-painted death threats and swastikas all over the walls, slashed their furniture, and destroyed their books.

…The group’s ringleader, who [JW spokesman Mark] Einstein said has been identified by a number of Jehovah’s Witnesses who’ve been attacked, is Alex Artovsky of Netanya.

Artovsky runs Yad L’Achim’s desk.

Maybe the Messianics and JWs should have a word with Don Feder, the right-wing American pundit who recently set up “Jews against anti-Christian Defamation”. Feder’s main target was the ADL, which he felt shouldn’t be criticising conservative evangelicals who are pro-Israel. I’d be interested to see if Feder would be willing to take on powerful groups in Israel itself.