Christians in Israel say it is an insult and a threat to human rights. Orthodox Jews who support it consider it a wall of defense and part of their future salvation. Moderate Jews are embarrassed by it and they fear a setback in Jewish-Christian relations.

On both sides of the Atlantic people in high places have been talking about the new law that is to take effect in Israel on April 1. It imposes a prison term of up to five years upon anyone offering “material inducement” to people to change their religion. The convert who receives such a payoff can spend up to three years in jail.

An emergency committee of the United Christian Council in Israel said in a telegram addressed to Prime Minister Menahem Begin that the law could be “misused in restricting religious liberty in Israel.” Council leaders said they had not been consulted about the bill, which the Knesset (parliament) passed in late December, and they claimed that their inquiries had been ignored. They even suggested that the bill had been “hastily pushed through” at a time when everybody knew the Christians would be involved in Christmas celebrations.

Church leaders in Israel vigorously deny offering inducements to prospective converts. Yet many rabbis seem to believe the practice is widespread. Rabbi Yehuda Meir Abrahamowitz, the Knesset member who introduced the bill, said: “We are a small nation, and every Jewish soul is dear to us. There are hundreds of missionaries operating here, and it has to stop.”

Abrahamowitz’s bill does not mention the missionaries (most work among Arabs or are attached to churches or other organizations of long standing), but an explanatory note attached to it charges that they were offering ...

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