A Grave Instance of Persecution

There was a story in The Times last week which I thought was pretty disgraceful:

Israel is using an ultra-Orthodox group to crack down on Messianic Jews — who believe that Jesus is the Messiah — and prevent them from staying in the country, officials have told The Times.

The Messianic Jews have been accused of Christian missionary activities and complain of harassment and intimidation by the state.

An official at the Interior Ministry said that an anti-assimilation group called Yad L’Achim was working with the ministry to prevent Messianic Jews — known as Jews for Jesus — from being allowed to live in Israel, which they consider their spiritual home.

“There is a known history of Yad L’Achim working directly with the ministry. They play a distinct role in the ministry’s decision about citizenry,” the official said.

Messianic Jews are, by and large, ethnic Jews who have converted to Protestant Christianity. It may be that some Messianic Jews come to Israel to convert Jews to their religion. So what? Israel contains a larger number of enthusiastic practising Jews who believe that we are not living in a Messianic age, and who are adept at persuading Jews to practice Judaism. A number of Jews, and indeed some Messianic communities have listened to their arguments and ultimately decided that Jesus was not the Messiah after all.

The Israeli Law of Return, as interpreted by the Israeli Supreme Court, provides that conversion to another religion provides a basis for denying a halachically Jewish applicant the right to Israeli citizenship. Paradoxically, a person of paternal Jewish descent who becomes a Christian is not so excluded. What is the rationale for such a law? Did Hitler exempt Jews who had converted from the gas chambers? More to the point, how well would a Jew who became a Christian – particularly if he continued to identify as Jewish – be treated in any Middle Eastern country, today?

Frankly, no ethnic Jew – whether they’re Lubavitchers, Litvishers or Liberals or indeed Atheists or Christians – should be denied the right to emigrate to Israel. Moreover, if Yad L’Achim have a problem with Jews converting to Christianity, or marrying non Jews, then frankly they should concentrate their efforts on persuading people to become Jews.

For them to co-opt the Israeli state – at any level and to any extent – to their purposes is a subversion of Israel’s liberal democracy and needs to be condemned in the strongest terms possible.

Haaretz is on the case, and has a particularly strong editorial on the subject, which contains further details of the activities of these people:

The methods of harassment and persecution used by the ultra-Orthodox organization Yad L’Achim against innocent, law-abiding Israeli citizens goes beyond the limits of legitimate activity by a civilian body and borders on unlawful. The organization, which has deployed a dense net of activists across the country and the world, is proud of “rescuing” Jewish men, women and children from the “claws” of other faiths and belief systems using coercive and dubious tactics.

Particularly serious is the fact – revealed by Yuval Azoulay in the October 2 edition of the Hebrew-language Haaretz Magazine – that behind the threats, the spreading of harmful rumors and harassment are not only the thugs of Yad L’Achim, but top Interior Ministry officials.

The officials, including Amos Arbel, head of the Population Administration in Tel Aviv, received information on the private lives of individuals described as “members of a messianic cult.” On the pretext of counteracting “missionaries” who had “acted against the Jewish people,” these officials trampled on people’s basic rights.

It’s hard to believe – a government agency tasked with delivering public services to citizens (mainly granting permits) is persecuting people for their opinions and beliefs while leaning on an extremist, violent organization. The infuriating interrogation of the university student Barbara Ludwig for alleged missionary work and the fact that her personal file (which was supposed to be classified) was transferred to Yad L’Achim is a blatant violation of Israel’s Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty.

The organization’s shady links with the establishment are not new – for years, its activists have provided information to rabbinical courts seeking to stick their hands into sensitive cases at the Social Affairs Ministry. More than once the group has enjoyed the assistance of ultra-Orthodox politicians such as Menachem Porush, who as deputy social affairs minister in 1991 wrote to a court pleading for mercy toward the group’s activists who had kidnapped an orphan from relatives who were “not religious enough.” But the Interior Ministry employees’ collaboration with the group outdoes even that abhorrent precedent.

The government must call its employees to order immediately, to explain to Interior Minister Eli Yishai that he is not responsible for maintaining the purity of the Jewish race according to the formula of ultra-Orthodox zealots, and that any collaboration with Yad L’Achim is, in effect, a grave instance of persecution.

What can Israelis who care about opposing these petty theocrats do, to counter their baneful influence?