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JERUSALEM — The most persecuted nation in world history, Israel, could
become the persecutors of the most hated people — Messianic Jews — if a
Knesset bill is passed within the next 48 hours.
Bill 174C — The Prohibition of Persuasion to a Change of Religion — and
its amendments, now known as the Pinchasi legislation, will reach “crunch
time” tomorrow. Since May 20, 1998, it has been in limbo, buried in the committee rooms, but under Israeli law, a bill must be reported out of
committee within six months.
A written explanation from Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee Chairman Hanan Poray (National Religious Party) apparently is the only alternative for any delay.
Messianic Action Committee (MAC) chairman, Paul Liberman, explained Wednesday night that when the bill comes up for a decision is anyone’s guess. “That’s why we have to keep phoning up the Knesset every day to find out what’s happening with it.”
Poray’s assistant told MAC that the first of three votes in the plenary
(Knesset) session outside of committee had been scheduled. Afterwards, a
second vote usually follows in three to five weeks, which is usually adopted. The third vote is generally only to approve technical changes.
When the story first broke in February 1997 in the Philadelphia-based
Messianic Times, the world’s only international Messianic Jewish newspaper
founded by Zev Isaacs, the bill was adamant in stating that Messianic Jews
(Believers in Yeshua — Jesus) could be put behind bars for a year.
Prior to that, Israel had only adopted a so-called anti-bribery law, which
forbids “a person from offering enticement or inducement for material gain
to change another’s religion.”
The brushfire that erupted began with noted television evangelist Morris
Cerullo sending more than a million unsolicited books, entitled, “Ha Shalom” (The Peace) to Israeli households in fall 1996. It ignited a powder
keg of resentment towards the Believers in the Land.
Hundreds of Orthodox Jews demonstrated against the books by burning them in bonfires and blowing the shofar in front of Prime Minister Benjamin
Such opposition escalated and in February 1997 it became a four-alarm blaze
as two members of the Knesset, Moshe Gafni of the four-member Torah Judaism Party and Nissim Zvili of the powerful 34-seat Labour Party introduced the bill that would make the printing and distribution of Messianic materials, not only illegal, but a criminal act.
A headline in a daily Hebrew newspaper’s Jerusalem weekend section blared:
“The Inquisition Is Already Here,” while an Israeli reporter appeared shocked by the complete disregard for freedom of speech in Israel. He also
questioned the reason the late Lubavitcher Rabbi Schneerson of New York City had been declared King and Messiah, but any mention of Yeshua as the
Messiah was forbidden.
On April 1, 1998, MK Zvili withdrew his support for his own “anti-Messianic” bill. However, MK Gafni wasn’t discouraged by such a defection. He was soon joined by MK Rafael Pinchasi of the 10-member Shas
Party, who had proposed a new wording to replace that of Zvili-Gafni that
proscribes any form of “preaching” to persuade one to change his religion.
Of course, “preaching” includes the distribution of literature that has conversion as its goal.
The Pinchasi legislation has been the most radical, for the “crime” would
carry a three-year prison sentence and a $12,500 fine.
Such outrageous and controversial legislation began rumblings even within
North American evangelical Christian churches and a world-wide letter-writing campaign and a $350,000 Israel-only newspaper advertising
campaign, sponsored by MAC, had the desired result.
By summer 1998, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, after first promising Christian church leaders of his assistance, turned about face and bowed to the Orthodox.
“Netanyahu has, within Israel, favored the new (Pinchasi) bill, but internationally sung a different song,” MAC chairman Liberman explained.
In the next 48 hours, those fencesitters will have to stand up and be
counted or sit down and examine their collective backbone.
While Christian organizations have believed the legislation was directed
toward their work in Israel, in actuality, the Israeli-born Jews that believe that Yeshua is the Messiah are the main targets of discrimination.
Forcefully stating Jews have been at the center of unjust treatment and
irrational hatred through the generations, Liberman claims “there is a danger that the persecuted can now become the persecutors.”
He cited that Jews of Sephardic or Mediterranean descent sometimes suffer
from lower wages and, possibly, because of their darker complexions.
“Almost a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union have been absorbed but find themselves feeling that they are thought of by a portion
of the population as the ‘dirty Russians,’ Liberman explained. “Many thousands of Ethiopians find themselves as ‘non-Jews.'”
As believers in the New Testament, the MAC chairman continued by saying,
“we’re at the bottom rung of the ladder — although small in numbers, we are
treated as a threat to national existence.”
An estimated 6,000 Messianic believers — about 800 actually born within
Israel — should be recognized as a phenomenon, rather than a movement, for there are only 53 congregations and about 70 independent home groups.
Despite being only one-tenth of one percent of Israel’s population of more
than 6 million, Messianic Jews are considered a subversive threat.
There are hundreds of horror stories against this most hated people, from
job threats to torching of their synagogues. But the most formidable threat yet may be the Pinchasi Bill.