First in a Series (Part II)

The question whether modern Israel practices mere religious tolerance, coupled with periodic intolerances, rather than implenting the program of religious freedom announced in the Proclamation of Independence, is a live one. Most Israel authorities interpret religious freedom as liberty to worship God as one pleases, but not as including the right to evangelize. While this interpretation lacks legal status, and is not formally announced for reasons of good public relations, it is candidly expressed at government policy meetings. “We don’t believe in missionaries,” said one government spokesman. “Missionary activity is harmful to the peaceful co-existence of the community; it introduces religious tension. Let us Jews alone! Take your missionaries out! They threaten the stability of the nation and breed resentment!”

For the Christian this sentiment represents an evasive and unworthy definition of religious liberty, one far different from that assured to minority groups in lands such as the United States where the freedom and right to evangelize across religious lines is defended and sought by Jewish as well as other religious leaders. For the Christian the worship of God includes obedience to the commandments, including Christ’s command to “go … into all the world and make disciples.…” To strip the Christian of this freedom spells religious intolerance.

Israel expresses high esteem for religious influence and religious culture but implicity disdains any emphasis on conversion. Liberal Protestantism has little trouble with such compromises. In Jerusalem, for example, 90 per cent of the YMCA membership is Jewish (non-Christian). When it was suggested that missionaries meet for informal discussion of religious liberty, the YMCA refused them a conference room because their meeting might be viewed as political. One of the Y personnel suggested that Israeli visa restrictions be understood in the same way sovereign nations like India interpret their sovereign rights regarding missionary visas. Described as an evangelical missionary venture, the Israel-American Institute of Biblical Studies aroused serious misgivings among Israeli religious leaders. The venture gained co-operation only as a training school for American preachers with some non-Christian Hebrew professors as faculty participants to promote academic discussion aimed at mutual understanding. The Institute distributes free upon request from its American office (1046 Ridge Ave., Evanston, Illinois) the Israeli government publication Christian News, specially oriented to the evangelical Protestant constituency, which manifests a live interest in Israel.

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The Jewish religion, historically, has had little interest in converting others. The same is true of Orthodox Judaism today in Israel, if not in America. In fact, there is little confrontation of the Jewish population with the necessity for personal spiritual decision. This is one reason—fully as much as the secular revolt against sabbatarian and other legalistic restrictions—why Jewish masses in Israel are not as a whole reached evangelistically by the claims of Old Testament religion, despite an interest in Scripture. The Orthodox Jew is a self-sufficient person; he thinks every Jew should meditate on the Book for himself. And he therefore lacks incentive for “breaking through” to his people. Even the children of the Orthodox drift easily into nonorthodoxy, especially after military service. Under these circumstances one might think he would welcome evangelical Protestantism at least for its devout grasp of the Old Testament as living Scripture that has abiding personal and social relevance, in contrast to liberal theology’s critical views of Old Testament literature and theology. But because Hebrew orthodoxy has lost its hold (the Orthodox represent only 15 to 20 per cent of the population) and because evangelical Protestantism appeals to both the Old and New Testaments and calls for personal conversion to Jesus as Messiah, Protestant missionaries apparently loom as a special peril to the Orthodox Jew. The conspicuous contrast between evangelical Christianity and modern Judaism (with its concentration on historical rather than personal theological faith) became obvious in Israel during Evangelist Billy Graham’s 1960 ministry.

Many Israeli spokesmen deny the possibility of sincere conversion, and view a Hebrew’s acceptance of Christianity as “motivated” (by material advantage). Hospitals, education, and welfare with the hidden hope of conversion is contrasted negatively with the Jewish view of charity “without strings attached.” But Christian compassion from the outset has been motivated by concern for “the whole man,” and the special connection between Christianity and sacrificial interest in the outsider, motivated by the Gospel, is a standing fact of history. Nonetheless, Christian missions in Israel need to ask to what extent education and welfare programs are justified solely on the basis of conversion prospects, to the exclusion of a response to human need. On the other side of the ledger, Israelis who marry Gentile women who “convert to Judaism” (apart from which such marriages cannot be solemnized in Israel) tend to emphasize the genuineness of such conversions. The open exclusion of a sincere transition from Judaism to Christianity, moreover, settles “in advance” the judgment which is then passed upon the early disciples of Jesus of Nazareth.

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Orthodox groups usually control the Ministry of Interior, Israel’s immigration regulating agency; the present minister of interior is reportedly so learned in Judaism that he could qualify as a rabbi. Certain officials insist nonetheless that only fanatically religious Jews really oppose missionary effort, that Israel actually implements religious freedom “to the maximal extent that orthodox pressures allow.” Many Jews themselves resent certain pressures such as the requirement of rabbinate marriage, which exacts an affirmation of orthodoxy. One tour guide who ridiculed the claim that the Israeli population is “wholly Orthodox, but with various degrees of observance and nonobservance,” said that “70 per cent of the Israeli Jews are non-Orthodox and most would prefer a civil marriage.” Such desires for church-state separation do not, however, necessarily reflect a full demand for religious freedom. The Jew has come to Palestine to escape persecution, much of it religious. Whether Orthodox or non-Orthodox, he therefore tends to attribute his sufferings to Christian vindictiveness. He wants to build a national bulwark against another such situation and fears any revival of Christianity in Israel. Hence, in some official circles open disdain for evangelism may really conceal a disquieting fear of evangelism. Obviously then, reluctance over visas for Protestant missionaries should not be explained only by Orthodox pressures; liberal Jews and free-thinkers also share this same aversion. They justify antipathy for missionaries by reference to the religious intolerances and persecutions of the past. They have not forgotten the Romanist Inquisition nor other crusades to “get ‘the Christ-Killers’,” and they shrink from a religious commitment which implies endorsement of such persecutions and intolerances. “For the first time in 2000 years we Jews can escape forced religious conversion,” said one government spokesman. “Let us build our Jewish state and Jewish culture. If you need missionaries to minister to non-Jewish communities, that is one thing. But to ask a Jew to ‘convert’ produces an abnormal Jew; he is no longer fully at home with Jewish traditions and culture; his children are taught that what his forefathers and other Jew’s believe is not ‘the whole truth.’ That is destructive of the sense of Jewish community.” Moreover, many leaders expect of all their citizens a full “conversion” to the ideals of the State of Israel; for the Orthodox these ideals include revival of the Jewish religion. This thinking prompts government agencies to diminish as much as possible the granting of visas to Protestant workers.

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On occasion, however, and for strategic reasons, the Foreign Ministry moderates the pressures of the Ministry of Interior against missionaries. If the denomination involved is large, and lodges protests through the American Embassy, Israeli decisions may be weighted by the factor of good will. A small interdenominational group however is quite unlikely to gain such an expedient advantage.


Dr. Chaim Wardi of the Ministry for Religious Affairs presents a different perspective. He sees in Israel, where Jew’s are immune from repetition of past Christian persecutions, good conditions for fresh Jewish-Christian relationships and for reversal of former misunderstanding and mistrust. He thinks a modus vivendi is being evolved, that further progress of gains made during the first 13 years of statehood for the cause of religious freedom is a likely prospect.

Dr. Wardi concedes that “Jews are not in favor of Christian missionaries.” The Jewish people believe that Christian missionaries have produced anti-Semites, some of them virile and dangerous. Dr. Wardi notes that Jews converted to Christianity have sometimes been persuaded to leave Israel for Gentile lands. After the war of liberation, economic hardships encouraged some Israelis temporarily to join Christian church communities in order to lessen the difficulties of the first years. Such “converts” brought little credit upon the missionary cause, even if for a season they provided encouragement to the “statistics seekers.” Missionaries involved in such nose-counting (Roman Catholics considerably more than Protestants) are considered unsympathetic to the State. They threaten the new State’s unity, which demands not diffusion but synthesis of interests and loyalties. Officials resent too the fact that some Catholic and Protestant missionaries offered food parcels in the early period of national poverty as a means of gaining converts from Judaism.

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Few of these missionaries become permanent residents of Israel; most of them remain foreigners who cherish their passports. Many show little concern for the projection of Israeli culture; in fact, some missionaries seem devoid of understanding and appreciation for Jewish culture. In other cases, a missionary’s unfamiliarity with the Hebrew langauge, or even his personality, encourages misgivings. Missionaries who seek permanent visas after entering the country as “visitors” gain little respect from Israeli authorities, even if they feel driven to this evasion by present pressures. Now and then some individual missionary transgresses a minor law and thereby brings discredit upon the whole assembly of workers. More than ever Protestants must consider the matter of missionary qualification. As never before since the apostolic age Christianity needs competent people to pursue competent dialogue with Judaism in Israel, now the seat of a great university of Hebrew learning and the coming world center of Jewish culture.

Personal prejudice, claims Dr. Wardi, does not govern state policy or practice in respect to visas and religious privilege however. At the same time that the Ministry for Religious Affairs and other government agencies were organized in 1948, the Department for Christian Communities was established. This group interprets Christian rights and needs to the government to see that the religious requirements of the Christian communities are satisfied. After centuries of dispersion as minorities, the Hebrews had become a sovereign majority with the moral problem of protecting other minorities. Shrines in Israel such as the birthplace of John the Baptist in Ain Karem, site of the Annunciation in Nazareth and that of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, and the upper room of the Last Supper on Mount Zion were kept open and accessible.

Despite these facts, says Dr. Wardi, “the government hasn’t done the slightest thing to hamper missionary activities. I haven’t any antipathy toward missionaries, and I am ready to say that both the missionaries and Jewish reaction have contributed to existing tensions.”


But the Committee for Inter-Faith Understanding in Israel and the World, of which R. J. Zwi Werblowsky is honorary secretary, views “the existence of Christian missions, viz. the activity of Christian missionaries among the Jewish population” as “a veritable stumbling block in the way of healthy and brotherly Jewish-Christian relations.” At its founding session this committee declared that “the absence of missionary activity of any kind is a condition of any effort to foster good relations between religious groups,” and it called upon the Protestant Council in Israel last year “to make a clear and unequivocal statement concerning the suspension of missionary activities of all kinds” in order to promote “religious tolerance” and “cordial Jewish-Christian relations.” In a letter this year to the United Christian Council in Israel, Werblowsky declared that the missionary bodies “must know whether they want brotherly relations, based on mutual respect, sympathy and genuine understanding, between the Jewish people and Christianity, or whether they want converts. But they must also know that they cannot have both.… I feel it my duty to repeat with the utmost emphasis that any kind of missionary activity—perhaps even the very existence of missions—is bound to cause ill-will.”

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In one case of refused missionary visas, appeal for reconsideration was immediately made to a higher office in the Ministry of Interior. Meanwhile, a plain-clothes-man (who described himself as from the police) came with a verbal order from the Ministry of Interior and demanded the missionaries’ immediate departure. Threatening police action and warning against delay, he ignored the explanation that an appeal to the office of the Ministry of Interior in Jerusalem was being processed. Only when informed that the United States Embassy would be notified of this turn of events did he retract his order and suggest that the applicants wait for word from the Jerusalem office. When the U. S. Embassy made inquiry through the Israeli Foreign Ministry, the Ministry of Interior replied that refusal was based not on religious discrimination but on legalities, the applicant supposedly having disregarded visa expiration dates. But such applications had been made in advance of visa expiration. Since the Embassy had no access to the applicant’s file, it was stalled from further inquiry.

In another case of visa refusal, inquiry was made by the applicants to the Ministry of Interior and to the Department for Christian Communities in the Ministry of Religious Affairs. The Ministry of Interior gave this verbal explanation: 1. Refusal was not prompted by the applicants’ records, but because they represented a new church group seeking a foothold in the country. 2. Refusal therefore was based on the sponsoring board’s lack of long activity (prior to statehood). 3. New groups were not being allowed to establish a work.

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The verbal reasons reportedly given by the Department for Christian Communities in the Ministry of Religious Affairs were: 1. Property not formerly owned by a Christian group had been purchased in the name of a church in hopes of using this as a home base for Christian activities. 2. This would then become the base for establishing a new Christian church, and “we are determined to stop this.” 3. No already existing congregation of this denomination anywhere in the State of Israel needed or requested a pastor from the United States. 4. The objective was to create such a congregation out of Jewish converts, and this will not be tolerated. 5. The people of Israel do not want missionaries and new mission groups. After inquiry a spokesman for the American Embassy reported that the government’s policy toward missions seems to operate on a quota system under which the personnel of one mission after another is periodically reduced by one missionary family. Christian workers in Israel know the formula well: “you want to convert Jews; no present congregation demands you; we oppose expansionism.”

In short, the Israeli government welcomes Christian tourists to Israel, to “fill in the gaps” of pilgrimages to the sacred sites, and it is enlarging hotel accommodations for more and larger tour parties. It welcomes Christian conventions in Israel, the recent World Pentecostal Assembly in Jerusalem having been hailed as the largest such gathering in Palestine since biblical times. It welcomes Christian funds for the exploration of archaeological sites and investments for the development of natural resources. But it has scant welcome for the Christian missionary, that is, to the Jew. This chilly atmosphere recalls the apostolic age only in its outward repression; it does not rise from a conscious alternate messianic conviction, with reference to Jesus Christ, as much as from a post-Christian resentment of Christian persecution. But the situation nonetheless dramatizes the question how the Jews, long a persecuted minority, will respond to minority rights now that they exist as a majority.


Winning the modern Jew to faith in Jesus Christ is everywhere difficult, but in Israel the task is even more arduous because of ethnic and religious pressures and materialistic visions of life. Orthodox Jewry, as indicated, is merely a minority commitment. The Jewish immigrants from Arab lands are mainly Orthodox; those from Europe both Orthodox and non-Orthodox; while American Jews (who have come in scant numbers) are sometimes deplored for “losing Judaism in Unitarianism and Ethical Culture” and of evading the force of Ben Gurion’s insistence that “every true Jew really means it when he prays ‘next year in Jerusalem.’ ”

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Christian Hebrews are admitted to Israel with a permanent visa simply as Jews. None has been disturbed when his or her Christian views have become known. The Christian witness to Israel in the long run may therefore turn more upon the missionary dedication of Hebrew Christians than of Gentile Christians. The Gentile missionary lacks familiarity with Hebrew language and literature, culture and customs. The first Christian Hebrew family from America arrived in Israel only within the past year, although some missionary work has been done by individuals who are not “officially” missionaries.

To the modern Jew, Christianity often seems a religion shaped by Greek, Byzantine, and Latin developments of the West, and very remote from Judaism. Protestant Christianity represents an extensive revolt against these medieval developments, yet there is not at the present time, on the usual Protestant basis, a single Hebrew-Christian church in all Israel. The conviction is growing that the Protestant mission to the Jews will succeed only if it creates a Hebrew form of Christian worship with roots in the Book of Acts and the ancient Judaeo-Christian community, a pattern eliminated by the medieval church more than 15 centuries ago. One of the strongest Christian works is the Messianic Assembly of Israel (Pentecostal). Its founder 13 years ago was W. Z. Kofsmann. A Hebrew who worked for the French government in French West Africa, he was led to the Messiah by a missionary personally sharing his love for the Jews. At first government authorities in Jerusalem refused to recognize Kofsmann’s assembly. But he sought no “favor,” only “rights,” explained Kofsmann, and stressed a spiritual tie to the early Church in the assembly’s Pentecostal emphasis. Today the effort is recognized as autonomous, with 55 active Christian Hebrew members. The assembly publishes a newspaper for Hebrew readers, although Kofsmann at one time was threatened with imprisonment for starting it without permission.

Missionaries who seek merely to transplant branches of “Western” churches to Israel are easily viewed as “outsiders.” Assuredly Jewish culture has mainly tended to express itself in a Western democratic-capitalistic framework, left somewhat insecure in Israel by the large influx of Jewish immigrants from Moslem lands. But in religion, most forms of Judaism—however modified—reflect Hebrew rather than post New Testament Greek-Latin-Germanic-Anglo-Saxon roots. The feeling that the Christian and Hebrew religions are divergent alternatives militates against the Christian witness. Missionary representatives of established denominations labor under still another disadvantage, namely, the multiplicity of competitive Christian denominations which confuses the Hebrews. Since arrangements are not feasible in a land of only 8,000 square miles, oneness is more imperative than on other fields. But in Israel efforts at unity have been resisted. A three-year attempt by a European Hebrew Christian to promote it among the missionaries ended in failure, despite the fact that unification seemed imperative simply as a protective device. Evangelical fragmentation (let alone Christian disunity) actually perpetuates the weakness of the Gospel witness and exposes missionary leadership to easy opposition.

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In one area some 20 Christian Jews meet periodically in private homes for Bible study and worship, and invite other Jews. To avoid ill will, this group shuts the windows when hymns are sung. Their profession of Christianity has made some workers undesirable to their employers, Christian Hebrews being resented for “depriving” non-Christian Jews of work. Although such pressures are private and indirect, rather than official, they help to explain the fact that, in addition to the 250–300 open believers, there are estimated to be again as many “secret” believers in Israel—known as such to relatives and to Christian missionaries but not to their employers and fellow workers. There are other obstacles to the full expression of Hebrew-Christian conviction, such as the lack of Christian schools for Hebrew children, and of young people’s societies. As a consequence, children of Hebrew-Christian parents seldom follow in their steps. In these discouragements some Hebrew-Christian families every year emigrate out of frustration, while government officials view this as evidence that Christian commitment detaches Hebrews from national loyalties.

There is need for bold restudy of the Christian approach to the Jew. Christianity is not an interloper; it accepts the Old Testament, and is ready to discuss the Christian claim on this basis (“If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me,” John 5:46). The Jew is not being invited to receive a new God, but the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of promise and fulfillment. The Jew is not being urged to receive a Gentile Messiah, but the promised Jewish Messiah. The Jew is not being pressured to become a Gentile; when a Jew comes to the Messiah, he does not cease to be a Jew, but a Jewish believer—and there is surely no need, on this basis—for him to separate himself from his people. The Jew is not being asked primarily to become a Baptist, or a Scottish Presbyterian, or whatever else, but simply a Messianic Jew. Devout Jews and devout Christians are both waiting for Messiah to come—the latter for his return in glory. Such emphases reflect an understanding of the times in the outreach to the Israeli Jew. They dispel the misimpression that in order to become a Christian the Jew must cease to be a Jew, and remind him that, in the discovery of his Messiah, the Jew becomes in the profoundest sense a son of Abraham.

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The timidity of the Christian missionary in Israel, be he Gentile or Jew, is one of the strange ironies of the age. The early apostles experienced and endured Jewish hostility beyond that known by the Christian task force today. Nobody languishes in prison, nobody’s life is in danger, nobody has been beaten and stoned for his faith. That may be one reason the modern Israeli does not take the Christian missionary too seriously.

Samuel M. Shoemaker is the author of a number of popular books and the gifted Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh. He is known for his effective leadership of laymen and his deeply spiritual approach to all vital issues.

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