THOU SHALT HAVE NO OTHER GODS
The Messianic Jews, 15,000 people, most of them are citizens of Israel, Jews by origin, send their sons to combat units – and live here in fear.
They are used to the Orthodox Jewish organizations harassing them, hanging posters with their pictures and warning the children of Israel about the horrible missionaries. They are used to getting fired on account of their faith. But they find it hard to understand how the Ministry of the Interior, during the term of Minister Avraham Poraz (Shinui?), joins the persecution and tries to revoke their citizenship. Poraz, too, says he finds it hard to understand.
The State of Israel doesn’t rush to revoke the citizenship from its citizens. It doesn’t revoke the citizenship of delinquents, criminals, rapists and even murderers. The State of Israel didn’t think to revoke the citizenship of the man who murdered the Prime Minister, nor the citizenship of Arab and Jewish terrorists, nor the rights of persons who hurt the State of Israel. Revoking someone’s citizenship is one of the most grievous offenses to the rights of a person and a citizen – regardless of his actions.
But that rule, that very basic rule, doesn’t apply when it comes to the Messianic Jewish community in Israel. Christina Ben-Haim (28) was, up until nine years ago, a Norwegian citizen. In September 1995 she came to Israel to “identify herself with the State of Israel and the Jewish nation”, according to her words. She volunteered for a year in Kibbutz Beit-Alpha. And after taking a break for a year back in Norway, returned to Israel as a student of Hebrew studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She has been living here ever since.
During her studies she met Seth Haim Ben-Haim (30), an Israeli citizen, and in July ’99 they married. Since the beginning of the Intifada she writes a pro-Israeli column in a Norwegian newspaper, describing the life in the shadow of terror away from the cold Scandinavian countries. She defines herself as a Zionist. But as far as the State of Israel is concerned, despite her being married to an Israeli citizen – Christina Ben-Haim has no rights and no citizenship. In the last three years she was unable to get a citizenship or a residence permit, and her stay here is considered illegal.
Three months ago, she was unable to attend her brother’s wedding in Norway, claiming that if she leaves the country she won’t be able to come back to Israel and to her family. Christina’s only crime is belonging to the Messianic Jewish community. After three years of repeated appeals to the Ministry of the Interior, they petitioned to the High Court of Justice, claiming that, “The real and only reason why Christina was deprived of her right to receive citizenship is the ‘discontent’ of the Minister of the Interior, Avraham Poraz, and the administrator of the visa section at the Ministry of the Interior, with the religious belief of the two petitioners.”
“It all started three years ago, when I came to renew my residence permit,” said Christina Ben-Haim, married and a mother of children who are citizens of Israel. “I was told by the Ministry of the Interior that there was a problem, every time they asked for more documents and more details. I presented them with all the documents they requested and they held a hearing. After which they told me they will contact me and notify me of their decision. Every two months I went back to the Ministry of the Interior to ask if there were any news, and every time they told me: ‘If we didn’t call you, it appears there are no news.’”
“Last summer I went to visit my family in Norway and applied for a visa at the Ministry of the Interior. They told me: ‘tell them at the airport it is being processed, and you will have no trouble. They will let you in’. When I got to the airport I was almost deported, and they questioned me for two hours. They claimed their computer shows nothing about me. They agreed to let me enter the country for the last time, and they stamped my passport that this was my last entry. They said it didn’t matter if I had a husband or children, it doesn’t matter what I have in Israel, this is my last entry to Israel.”
After her ordeal at the airport, Christina returned to the Ministry of the Interior, but was amazed to find that the problem didn’t lie with her. “I was told by the Ministry of the Interior that, following my request for citizenship, they checked the file of my husband, who is an Israeli citizen, and now they want to revoke his citizenship”, she told us. “They decided that suddenly, after living in Israel for so many years as an Israeli, it appears he is not an Israeli.”
Christina Ben-Haim noticed that her personal file at the Ministry of the Interior contained several documents of ‘Yad Le-achim’, an Orthodox Jewish organization that holds a fight against non-Jewish communities in Israel. What are documents from a private Orthodox association doing in Ben-Haim’s personal file? The Ministry of the Interior believes that she hasn’t the right to know. “I asked to read those documents, but the Ministry of the Interior refused to let me see them.”
Only following her petition to the High Court of Justice, the State agreed to regularize Ben-Haim’s status in Israel. Attorney Galit Lavi, from the Ministry of the Interior’s legal department, claims that her rights were revoked on account of her being an active missionary. It is important to note, that even if Ben-Haim did indeed participate in missionary activity, it isn’t an illegal act, and certainly not a cause to revoke someone’s rights.
Avraham Poraz, of all people, after hearing the story, presented a completely opposing position. Eli Varon, an advisor to the Minister, wrote to the legal department: “This claim, according to which Christina is an active missionary, wasn’t backed by sufficient evidence, apart from a letter from the ‘Yad Le-achim’ organization, which is scarcely reliable. The Minister of the Interior believes that even if we are talking about missionary work, it is not a cause for denying her status in Israel. The Minister believes that we mustn’t view an act which is related to religious beliefs, as an act contrary to the fundamental principles of the State of Israel.”
Christina and Seth Haim Ben-Haim’s case isn’t an isolated one. Members of the Messianic Jewish community tell of systematic harassment by the State’s authorities, harassment that borders on persecution. Their situation is especially complex, for they see themselves as Jews, even Zionist Jews, whereas the Religious Jewish Establishment sees them as “converts, and the Christian Establishment sees them as exceptions. Fifteen years ago, there were only 2500 people in the Messianic Jewish community. Today they are scattered throughout the land in dozens of little congregations, and their number reaches 15,000. None of the members of the community was ever charged with or convicted of illegal missionary activity. But the persecutors aren’t interested with the facts.
Avraham (alias) immigrated to Israel from the USA 13 years ago, together with his wife and children. In the USA he was a bank manager. He came to Israel out of Zionist motives, according to him. Immediately after immigrating, he received citizenship and his family soon acclimated. His children served in the army, went to university, and today they work in the free market. In August 2003, 12 years after immigrating to Israel by virtue of the Law of Return, Avraham was surprised to receive a fax to his home, on an official Ministry of the Interior’s letterhead, handwritten and without a clerk’s signature, instructing him to report immediately and urgently to the Ministry of the Interior in Jerusalem.
“You are invited to the Ministry of the Interior on Shlomzion Ha-malka St., at 10 o’clock in the morning, room 205”, said the odd letter. “The Ministry of the Interior doesn’t send citizens faxes, they don’t even know my private fax number, but that morning I received an official letter by fax, instructing me to report to the Ministry of the Interior the next day, and all this without knowing what happened or what it was all about”, Avraham told us. “The letter was handwritten without the name of the clerk. I didn’t know what they wanted with me.”
Avraham’s attorney addressed the Ministry of the Interior to establish the nature of the unusual letter, and received the reply: “I hereby inform you, that you are invited to our office in order to investigate and establish your status and qualification in Israel.” The family attorney addressed the Ministry of the Interior again and wrote to them: “As to my clients’ status and qualification in Israel, I would like to clarify that they immigrated 12 years ago, received their citizenship lawfully, and all their children served in the army and fulfilled their duties to the State in the most proper manner. Therefore, my clients’ status and qualification isn’t a debatable subject. If you have any questions that require clarification, I will appreciate if you can specify your questions in writing, and my clients will be happy to answer all of your relevant questions in a swift and matter-of-fact manner.” After this response, the family never heard from the clerks at the Ministry of the Interior.
Ze’ev Bern, a resident of Petach-Tikva, was a valued computer technician at local educational institutes in his hometown. For 4 years he worked at schools and in Eshkol-Pais in Petach-Tikva. He received letters of recommendation and appreciation from his workplaces. His whole life was turned upside-down after the Orthodox organization, ‘Yad Le-achim’ from Bnei-Brak, began to spread posters and letters accusing him of belonging to the Messianic Jewish community. In 2002, the organization sent a letter to Sarah Shemen, the administrator of the department of high-school education in the Petach-Tikva municipality, which read: “Ze’ev Bern is a member of the extremist missionary sect, “The Reform Baptists”. Employing a missionary in any position in the educational system, where he can easily use his position to influence children and youth, must be treated as a very serious matter. We request that you treat it as a very serious matter and terminate the employment of the missionary, Ze’ev Bern, at once.” And they did. A short time after receiving the letter, Ze’ev Bern was invited to what he calls – the field court of his superiors. According to him, the fact that the administrator of the Educational administration of the Petach-Tikva municipality, Rammi Hofenburg, is a religious man and a member of the Mafdal party, only speeded up his dismissal.
“For four years I worked at educational institutes in Petach-Tikva and everybody was pleased with me. I never brought my personal life or my faith to the schools”, says Bern. “It started with strange phone calls I received to my home. Once I dialed star 42, and got the answering machine of ‘Yad Le-achim, Shalom’. Then the maintenance supervisor at Eshkol-Pais told me that there was all kind of stories about me being dangerous. The climax came when they started hanging pictures of me all over town under the headline: ‘Jews beware!!!’ I contacted the police on account of the harassment phone calls and of my pictures that were spread all over town. Children were looking at the pictures and thought that they were about a dangerous criminal. This was the most difficult time of my life.”
Shortly after the harassment campaign began, Ze’ev was called, as stated, to a talk with Sarah Shemen, his supervisor in the Petach-Tikva municipality. “She asked me if I was a member of the Messianic Jewish community, and told me they received a letter telling them that I was a dangerous man and it was bad to let me work with children. I told her I never spoke of my faith in the schools”, Bern told us.
Ze’ev’s immediate supervisors came to his aid, they knew his work well. Margalit Kedem, the principle of Ironi Gold High-school in Petach-Tikva, wrote to whom it may concern: “Mr. Bern is a excellent worker, with exceptional professional skills, and his contribution to promoting the subject of computers in the school is unusual. His relationships with the staff are excellent and he is well liked by everybody. I know of no case in which he involved his personal life with his work.” It didn’t help. Shortly after that, Bern was invited to see the muscle man in the Petach-Tikva municipality; the Mafdal man, Rammi Hofenburg. “Hofenburg repeated the same story, and finally he told me that working with children wasn’t my place. He informed me: ‘You should look for another job’. Shortly after, I received a letter of dismissal.”
Ze’ev Bern filed a claim against the Petach-Tikva municipality in the Regional Labor Court in Tel Aviv. The claim that was filed through Attorney Hila Porat, describes the torment that Bern had to endure. In the claim it is stated that: “The plaintiff was asked to resign because of his religious views. Rammi Hofenburg claimed repeatedly that because of his opinions, the plaintiff could not remain at his position, and that he endangered the children.” It is also stated that, “The Petach-Tikva municipality never presented Bern with any complaint regarding a specific case, in which the plaintiff committed any act somehow related to the accusations with which he was libeled by the ‘Yad Le-achim’ organization. The municipality yielded to the threats and pressure of the ‘Yad Le-achim’ organization by dismissing Ze’ev Bern.
The Petach-Tikva municipality, through Attorney Liat Keinan, admitted in its defense that Bern was dismissed because he was a member of the Messianic Jewish community, but claimed that it was done in order to protect the children from him. “One cannot ignore the fact that all of the plaintiff’s work was done inside the schools, during study hours and as part of the study layout. Bern worked close to the children and had a direct first hand contact with them. The Petach-Tikva municipality had no way of supervising him at that.” It was stated in the defense. The Petach-Tikva municipality admitted they did not even have a shred of evidence or proof of any missionary or illegal activity, and to that they responded: “The municipality has no way of knowing whether Bern acted openly by preaching his beliefs during his work hours… However, the municipality was faced with great concern that Bern, who in the framework of his position worked close to the children, influenced and/or may influence the pupils, directly or indirectly.”
Bern isn’t the only victim of a preliminary smear campaign by the ‘Yad Le-achim’ organization. The organization sends threatening and frightening letters to employers of Israelis whom they suspect are involved in missionary activities. In a letter to Itay Industries, a man from the ‘fight against the mission’ department of the ‘Yad Le-achim’ organization writes: “It was brought to our attention that your plant is employing the missionary A., who is a member of the Messianic Jewish sect in Rishon-Lezion. Maintaining his employment in your plant may be dangerous to the Jewish future of employees in your plant, and by doing so you are allowing the possibility that employees in your plant may, God forbid, convert.”
In another letter, the Orthodox organization demanded from the administration of the Asaf Harofe hospital the dismissal of the outstanding employee, Vitaly Raznitsky (34). “Vitaly, a dangerous missionary, may use his position as an orderly of the operating room, in order to convert Jews”, they warned in their letter. Dr. Igal Halperin, deputy administrator of the medical center, sent Alex Artovsky, of the ‘Yad Le-Achim’ organization, a response: “Asaf Harofe Medical Center employs 3000 workers or so. As far as their faith is concerned, our employees include Muslims, Christians as well as Jews. Most of the Jewish employees are totally secular, meaning, unmistakably clearly dishonoring the Sabbath. And as to your claim: Mr. Raznitsky is an excellent, professional, diligent employee. We don’t know of any patient who complained about missionary messages delivered to him by Mr. Raznitsky. None of the hospital staff members complained or commented that Mr. Raznitsky is involved in any missionary activity within the hospital.”
Dr. Halperin concluded his letter with a sarcastic tone: “The idea of instructing the termination of his employment with the stroke of a pen, is depicted at best as naiveté, and in the other case as an attempt to increase the missionary activity of Mr. Raznitsky – For if his employment is terminated, he will have plenty of time on his hands, in order to carry out such activities. With the coming of spring, allow me to wish you happy Holydays.”
“I didn’t hear from them since”, says Vitaly Raznitsky. “When I was called to a meeting with the chief nurse, and then with the deputy administrator of the hospital, I thought they were going to dismiss me, but I am lucky that he is a secular man, if the case was handled by a religious man, I have no doubt he would have done everything within his power to dismiss me.”
Alex Artovsky, why did you approach the Asaf Harofe hospital administrator demanding the dismissal of an excellent dedicated employee?
“We have information about doctors and employees of the hospital who talk to the patient about the New Testament. These people cynically take advantage of the patients and try to convert them. A patient comes to the doctor seeking salvation and at the end he gets Jesus. What is that all about? They are taking advantage of patients that have no ability to respond.”
We are talking about a community that’s not so large, what do you have against them?
“Judaism denounced them. They believe in Jesus. That is a brutal breaking of the law. Something shocking is happening here: they open discotheques for youth and they baptize them, converting them to Christianity, and after all we do, the police doesn’t even investigate our stories.”
Why did you distribute fliers in the streets of Petach-Tikva against the computer technician, Ze’ev Bern?
“We didn’t distribute those things, this is not our work. We have full right to tell all the Jews to watch out from those missionaries, it’s a fully legitimate activity. They exercise preaching. Who was the country built for? For the Jews.”
These are Zionists, why do they bother you?
“But they aren’t Jews. Where does it say in the Law of Return that a Zionist can immigrate to Israel? Ok, so they are Zionists, there are Zionists in Zimbabwe, can they get citizenship? These people are endangering the existence of the State of Israel.”
Aren’t you exaggerating a bit?
“No, not only are they a spiritual danger, but a physical danger as well. I even heard about one of them who helps Palestinian children in Gaza. They are a danger to the character of the State. They will turn Jews into Christians. It’s a demographic danger to the Jewish people. Rabbi Drukman already said about them that they want to destroy the nation of Israel, to destroy spiritually. What Hitler didn’t complete, they want to do, to destroy the Jewish nation. What kind of thing is this, a Jew who believes in Jesus? It’s like a vegetarian who eats meat.”
We met some officers in the army, educated people who contribute to society in Israel.
“I don’t have a problem with anyone serving in the army and I don’t care what his religion is. But can this be a kosher certificate? There were criminals who served in the army, so, do they have a kosher certificate to be Jews? By the way, they preach Christianity in the army too. Our only command is to make those things public. They have a group for drug addicts, and they are bringing the youth closer to Jesus. We are a country of fools for allowing those missionaries to terminate our Jewish state.”
None of them was ever convicted of missionary activity or of breaking the law.
This is a great injustice, because the police dismiss their cases. The State doesn’t care about this kind of crimes. We have proof that they are breaking the law, but the police dismiss their cases. It’s terrible what goes on here.”
Alex’s slanderous words could have been seen as absurdity, if it wasn’t for the grave seriousness some employers such as the Petach-Tikva municipality, and some institutes such as the Ministry of the Interior treat the ‘Yad Le-achim’ claims. “It’s absurd that a citizen who’s so positive to his country is persecuted because an organization like ‘Yad Le-achim’ or other religious organizations see him as something odious”, says one of the leaders of the Messianic Jewish community. “You should see our files in the Ministry of the Interior, there are letters from ‘Yad Le-achim’ as if they worked for the Ministry the Interior.”
The Malisse couple (alias) from Netanya came to Israel in ’96 from the USSR with their two children and received Israeli citizenship. The wife is Jewish and her husband, a Christian. In ’98 the couple joined the Messianic Jewish community. Two years ago they went to an art exhibition in Germany. Immediately after the mother’s return to Israel she was invited with her two children to a “clarification talk” in the Ministry of the Interior. The clerks, she said, told her that they received information from the ‘Yad Le-achim’ organization, according to which she was involved in missionary activity. The clerks made her sign a document and took away her and her two daughters’ ID cards and passports. From that moment, she was told, it was decided that her citizenship would be revoked. As of today, she remains without any status in Israel.
The Minister of the Interior, Avraham Poraz, says that the Messianic Jewish community isn’t entitled to receive citizenship by virtue of the Law of Return. “The law of Return gives the right of return to a Jew only”, said Poraz. “A Jew who converted isn’t a Jew anymore with regard to the Law of Return. There was a ruling on the well-known case of Brother Daniel Ropheizen in the 50s. Ropheizen was a Jewish holocaust survivor who converted to Christianity, immigrated to Israel, and said: ‘I am a Christian, but I am a Jew by nationality, and the Law of Return applies to the nationality.’ The court ruled that there was no separation between religion and nationality, and as a result, Daniel Ropheizen wasn’t entitled to receive citizenship according to the Law of Return. Eventually, he was allowed to remain in Israel but not by virtue of the Law of Return.”
Poraz says that he decided to make it easier for citizens, whom the authorities decided to deport after many years, claiming they received their citizenship unlawfully. “I regulated a procedure, that now became valid, that revoking a citizenship can be done only in the first three years after immigrating to Israel. If three years have passed, we don’t reopen the files anymore. If they received their citizenship by fraud, it is revoked, but they received, on a humanitarian basis, the status of a permanent resident in Israel, if three years have passed from the day they immigrated. What, a child that was in Israel for ten years, should we send him back to Russia? It’s totally inconceivable.”
As Minister of Religions, do you recognize the Messianic Jews?
“No, no. Anyone who believes in Jesus is not a Jew. What can I do? Judaism doesn’t believe in Jesus. It’s even considered idolatry. He who believes in Jesus, in my eyes is a Christian, period. But if I was to decide tomorrow morning that I believed in Jesus and that I was a Messianic Jew, no one would have revoked my citizenship. A person in Israel is allowed to convert. A person is allowed to become Christian. By the way, they are excellent people; I have no complaints towards them. It is clear that ‘Yad Le-achim’ persecute them, because they are somewhat missionaries, and by the way, it is their right to be missionaries as long as it isn’t for a personal benefit. It’s their right to tell you all kind of stories from the New Testament, and if you are convinced, it is your right.”
How come their files at the Ministry of the Interior include official letters from the Orthodox organization ‘Yad Le-achim’?
“You must understand. The last secular minister that was here for a full term was in ’59. All the other secular ministers were here for a year. Ramon – a year, Barak – a year, me – a year and a quarter… soon I won’t be here either. This is an office that was at the hands of the religious parties for decades. It affects the office, the way of thinking, and the employees. So they also accepted informing about the Messianic Jews.
And what about the employee who was dismissed by the Petach-Tikva municipality on basis of his faith?
“I find it to be improper. On the other hand, I don’t have control over local authorities. It’s the same as if an Orthodox Jew was dismissed because of the fear he might influence children to become orthodox. In my opinion, making people orthodox and missionary activity are one and the same.”
Why is it that a Norwegian citizen who married an Israeli citizen remains in Israel for three years without status? Why can’t she go to her own brother’s wedding abroad, because of the fear she may not be able to return?
Minister Poraz views the High Court of Justice case we presented him with, and then says: “Well, this is wrong. If I knew which of our clerks did this, I would poke his eyes out. In this case there was no reason to torment them. She did receive a status, but they started asking her too many questions and that was redundant. I guess those clerks already learned the trade from the ‘Shas’ party. There are employees here who have been used to 40 years or so of religious regime in the Ministry of the Interior. And that means that some of them, upon hearing the term ‘Messianic Jew’, get goose bumps all over. I am familiar with this phenomena.”
Ha-nevi’im Street in Jerusalem on a Friday night. A few Orthodox Jews cross the street in the direction of the hospital and turn their heads towards the building next to the hospital. Through the windows of the building you can hear rhythmic music. Stone stairs lead to an auditorium with a wooden roof and colorful stained-glass windows.
Inside, a few dozen people, old and young, in colorful fashionable clothes, girls in slacks, some already took off their shoes, dancing in ecstasy with the children and singing. The lyrics are projected on the wall, and a barefoot young woman in a white skirt sings excitedly into the microphone. The rhythmic “Yes, Lord, yes, yes, Lord” switches to the mellow “Hallelujah”, and the members of the Messianic Jewish community raise up their arms as if begging, swaying, almost crying with excitement. The guitarist and pianist go back to the rhythm and an older guy, bold and conservative looking, hops, suddenly, on one foot while another woman goes down on her knees, arms raised, and another man sways and sings with a baby in his arms.
There is nothing in the auditorium that indicates it is a church or a synagogue. Just a plain auditorium, with two fans on the ceiling, their blades can barely penetrate the hot air. It resembles somewhat of Reform synagogues in USA; only in this case, when the celebration is over and everybody sits down, people take out the Bible together with the New Testament. One of the leaders of the congregation, Attorney Calev Meyers, takes a microphone, places a basket at the center of the stage and asks the members of the congregation to give their tithing.
“Is anyone here for the first time?” he asks. Two hesitantly stand up: an older woman and an embarrassed young woman, wearing a bandana on her head. The crowd claps their hands: “Thank you for being with us this evening!” and then they advertise the monthly schedule: congregational picnics, a traditional children meeting, days of fasting and a daily morning prayer (for those who are especially devoted). When the formal part is over, begins the social part: the congregants greet each other, asking for their neighbours’ well being.
One of the veterans of the congregation in Israel tells his friends how he came to believe in Jesus 32 years ago. And then, at the peak of suspense, the guitarist strums a chord on an acoustic guitar, like in a rock concert, and starts singing in English. It sounds like Brian Adams, if you don’t listen to the words. Meyers, in his weekly sermon, combines prayer with current events. “The State of Israel had a difficult week,” he begins. “A military post in Gaza was attacked, one soldier was killed. 12 Kassam missiles were fired on Sderot. But praise the Lord we have a living God that we can ask him for help in times of need. And praise the Lord that a suicide bomber was caught before carrying out his attack. But we mustn’t fall asleep. The Lord has placed us as keepers on the walls of Jerusalem, to pray day and night for his protection over the people of our nation. And we will continue to pray against the spirit of terror, and that God will thwart the terrorist attacks against the people of our nation, and we will continue to pray for the victims, may the Lord heal them, and for mourning families, may the Lord comfort them.”
And there is a prayer for the leaders of the nation: “We have great responsibility to pray for leaders of our country, I ask you, when was the last time you prayed for the military Chief of Staff, the Prime minister, that God will give them the wisdom to pull our country out of difficult situation such as these? How about the Ministry of the Interior? You know many of us have problems with that ministry, but I ask you, when was the last time you prayed for the Minister of the Interior, that God will give him grace and wisdom?”