Pressures on Christians in Israel have mounted in recent months, and, as a result, many American evangelicals who have long supported Israel’s right to a homeland and security against Middle East hostility are now questioning the Israeli commitment to religious liberty. Christian workers in Israel not only have been targets of bristling press and political criticism but also have suffered bomb and arson attacks on homes and cars. The 1,000 Christian missionaries are continually declared to be excessive, and a movement launched in the Knesset (parliament) would evict them altogether.

The United States has a $515 million combined economic-aid and military-assistance program for Israel and recently approved an additional $50 million grant. Reports carried by American newspapers nationwide concerning governmental pressures to expel the Christian missionary task force have evoked letters of indignation to the White House and State Department.

Many of the 350 participants in the World Bible Conference held in Israel and Galilee March 8–12 signed a statement directed to both Israeli and American officials asserting that U. S. economic assistance should be reduced rather than expanded where public forms of religious intolerance persist. They urged Israel’s political leaders to give an unambiguous affirmation of religious liberty and to fulfill this policy in its treatment of Christian missionaries in Israel and Christian Jews seeking Israeli citizenship.

Religious controversy over evangelism has in recent months been attributed to the zeal of “Jews for Jesus,” depicted as an aggressive group that disregards Hebrew cultural traditions and invades absorption centers for immigrants and university campuses with noteworthy evangelistic success. Jews for Jesus are not connected with established Protestant groups or with Hebrew-Christian assemblies. Israel’s chief rabbi, Schlomo Goren, reportedly sought to curb their missionary activity by depicting them before the Knesset as outside invaders (mostly from Chicago or New York) who capture lonely spirits and undermine Jewish traditions. Charges are made that Jews for Jesus fraudulently entered Israel as Jews.

However, since they are Jewish (some born abroad, some in Israel), they can hardly be charged with fraud; the only basis for excluding them would be an anti-Christian national stance. Although the Israeli minister of justice Jackov Shapiro says that a Jew does not lose citizenship rights if he becomes a Christian any more than if he becomes an atheist, the chief rabbi wants to amend the Law of Return to exclude Jewish believers in Jesus Christ.

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Behind these religio-political pressures stand radical orthodox rabbinical elements working in cooperation with the Jewish Defense League, whose leaders claim to be the defenders of Judaism while they are hostile to Jewish Christians. At one point they complained that Jews are being converted to Christ at a rate of seven or eight thousand a year. Despite record numbers of Jewish conversions, however, the JDL figures seem to be unreliable.

Israeli pressures have not been confined to Jews for Jesus. The attempted burning of a Christian bookshop on Mount Zion is widely thought to have been encouraged by JDL animosity. Last year an angry crowd attacked a bookstore in Tel Aviv. Messianic Jews long settled in Israel and associated with Christian works independently of foreign missionaries now feel themselves increasingly isolated by other Israelis; the pattern includes social ostracism by neighbors and nonpreferment for jobs for which they are eligible. This discourages otherwise interested Israelis from associating with Christians Jews. The car of Victor Smaja, an Israeli, and the apartment of Schlomo Hissak, an Israeli, were hit by incendiary bombs in reprisal for their cooperation with Christians. The chief rabbi has even requested a new law punishing missionary activity among Jews, and his influence is seen in Israeli refusals to give return visas to missionaries who are evangelically aggressive.

The Knesset has thus far demurred, fearing adverse reaction from the Christian world. The Israeli minister of justice opposes legislation against Christians and claims to reflect the position of Premier Golda Meir. He contends that Israel is religiously tolerant, and notes that evangelism is a basic tenet and commandment of Christianity.

Yet statements on the religious situation continually place the Christian community on the defensive, and exert a subtle kind of psychological pressure, since far less press visibility is given to comments against intolerance than to those against Christian activities.

The present Israeli stance has drawn sympathetic and even approving comments from other than fanatical Orthodox Jews. The Jerusalem Post (March 12, 1973), in an article entitled “Christians Scored For Ignorance of United Jerusalem,” quotes Dr. G. Douglas Young, head of the American Institute of Holy Land Studies, as criticizing Christian spokesmen for being unaware that Israel has achieved “freedom of access for worshipers of all religions for the first time in its entire long and bloody history.”

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A Franciscan friar in Jerusalem, Joseph Cremona, declares that “Protestant missionaries of various sects … are not true missionaries, but rather mercenaries who want to make proselytes at any price.” Father Cremona, for thirty years a parish priest in the Middle East, taking Nazareth as an example, complains that there are “no less than eight Protestant sects” although the Catholic Church “has plenty of churches, schools, hospitals, orphanages and other social welfare agencies.” While Cremona insists he is not suggesting that the Israeli government curb missionary activity, his characterization of “Protestant sects” as “fanatical” indirectly supports their disengagement from active evangelism.

Leaders of many churches in Israel, however, protest the threats and violence recently directed against evangelical groups. The minister of justice, Mr. Shapiro, has defended missionary effort on the grounds that “whoever wants to rule Jerusalem, the seat of three religions, will have to put up with such activity.” Evangelical Christians consider political aspirations an inferior anchorage for religious liberty; they do not believe that assurance of religious freedom in Israel should be tied to perpetual Israeli rule of Jerusalem or any other political condition.

It is doubtless true that some evangelical workers among Jewry lack adequate cultural understanding. Yet ten Hebrew-Christian leaders from many parts of Israel recently protested against Israeli pressures on Jewish believers in Messiah. The statement did not mention Jews for Jesus; the signers neither identified with them nor dissociated themselves from them.

Some Israeli police and state officials are known to be critical of the Jewish Defense League, but the movement nonetheless carries on its anti-evangelical thrust.

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