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Religious Israel?

Israel is widely touted as the “only democracy in the Middle East.” Other Middle Eastern countries have governmental structures ranging from absolute dictatorship to one party systems where, although the population has the right to vote, only one view is permissible. Israel, however, has a multi-party system with electoral representation, a judiciary and an executive body. At a glance, it appears that the system is similar to that of the United States. Consequently, many people assume that religious freedom, a democratic value, is a given in Israel.

Many people assume that religious freedom, a democratic value, is a given in Israel.

What is not immediately obvious is that Israel is not only a democratic state; it is a Jewish democracy. Practically speaking, this means that the Jewish sector (as defined by religious authorities) has preferred status.

There are two further problems that exacerbate the issue and provide a context for religious persecution. One is the lack of separation of what Americans would call “church and state.” The other is the increasing power wielded by the executive arm of the government to undermine and diminish the power of the judiciary through the right-wing majority block’s increasing influence.

This means that the Jewish sector (as defined by religious authorities) has preferred status.

So, the question of religious freedom and its corollary, religious persecution, is a live issue in Israel. The Jewish religious political parties historically hold the portfolios of important government ministries – the ministry of religious services, the ministry of the interior, and the ministry of education. The ministry of the interior is responsible for matters of status (entry, exit, immigration, residency permits, marriage, divorce, burial, population registration) and the ministry of education determines curriculum.

The political climate in Israel today is right-wing. This has led to protests, sometimes violent, against those who hold other views. The influence of the religious community in areas of law and status cannot be exaggerated. There are also non-governmental anti-missionary organizations that exert pressure on known believers and “unofficially” supply the ministry of the interior with information about believers. This information has been used against believers who wish to immigrate to the country.

In Israel, religious persecution as such exists on a very limited scale. Officially Messianic Jews have “freedom of religion” meaning that we are free to speak openly about our faith in Christ, form non-profit organizations with the purpose of teaching the New Testament, and hold congregational meetings. Harassment better describes the situation facing Messianic Jews in Israel. Most congregations are registered non-profit organizations and are entitled to police protection in the event of disturbances or activities directed against them.

There are many cases of employers being pressured not to employ Jewish followers of Jesus.

However, there are many cases of employers being pressured not to employ Jewish followers of Jesus; or if they are already employed, there is sometimes pressure to cancel work contracts. Currently there is a believer who was hired by the prime minister’s office as a deputy media consultant. His faith was made a media issue and the government is being pressured to fire him because of his Messianic faith.

Where believers openly evangelize, there have been counter demonstrations which are used by anti-missionary organizations to foster misinformation and radicalize the local populace against the believing community. Rare cases of physical violence and property damage against believers have occurred. One such case occurred ten years ago in which the son of a Messianic pastor opened a package which contained a bomb. He was seriously injured and required multiple surgeries. The perpetrator was caught and sentenced to lengthy prison time.

In one city, there have been public demonstrations ongoing for years against the presence of believers. Homes are picketed and families are repeatedly subject to verbal abuse. Landlords have been threatened and rental contracts have been cancelled. This type of activity is not widespread but it does occur.

The biggest threat to religious freedom in Israel today is the government’s stance on issues of immigration.

The biggest threat to religious freedom in Israel today is the government’s stance on issues of immigration. Israel’s “law of return” grants the right for every Jew to immigrate to the country and immediately become a full citizen. The government is currently attempting to block the immigration of Jewish followers of Jesus on the basis that they are no longer Jews because of their faith in Jesus. Several court cases have been won by Messianic lawyers but this is a persistent problem.

The historic churches date from the third century A.D. Many of Christianity’s holy places are owned and maintained by these churches and their ownership of much of this land predates the modern state of Israel. In Jerusalem, Israel has made agreements with the churches for use of church-owned lands. But currently there are issues related to taxes and ownership of many of these properties. Israel is putting much pressure on the historic churches with the intent of reducing the Christian presence and appropriating church-owned land. Christian sources see this as religious persecution. Periodically, radical Jewish elements attack and damage Christian holy sites, leaving strong graffiti messages.

Incidents against Messianic Jews and Christians have increased dramatically.

Having lived in Israel for forty-four years, I can confirm that incidents against Messianic Jews and Christians have increased dramatically.


This is the third post in our 6-part series Israel-Palestine: The View From Here. Don't want to miss a post? Join in here (or at the button below) for weekly email updates


Editor's note: The Middle East Study Trip report concluded that the major contribution the CRC can make as agencies, institutions, and individuals is to raise awareness of the plight of Palestinians -- particularly our sisters and brothers in Christ -- among our members and friends. Its recommendations were accepted by the Board of Trustees (now the Council of Delegates) on behalf of Synod, and were subsequently implemented. To learn more about how the Christian Reformed Church thinks about injustice and the persecution of the Church, see the Belhar Confession and the Belgic Confession, respectively. 

[Image: Mariano Avila]

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