Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The State of Religious Freedom in Israel | A So-Called “Price Tag” Attack on Messianic Believers in Beer Sheva

By Donna Diorio
May 27, 2014

A couple of days ago I saw a headline about a "Price Tag" attack on a Beer Sheva church ahead of the Pope’s visit, and I immediately followed the link because I figured the “church” was in fact, the Messianic congregation led by my friend Howard Bass.  I did not find anything to indicate that was the case from the article, so I went on.  A couple of days later I learned that indeed it was the Beer Sheva Messianic congregation whose exterior walls were graffiti sprayed with "Jesus is a son of a bitch (harlot)".

For those of you who don’t know, “Price Tag” attacks are acts of vandalism by extreme religious settlers who say that these attacks are the ‘price tag’ for Israel dismantling illegal Jewish outposts in territories north of Jerusalem.  This "Price Tag" attack on the Yeshua's Inheritance congregation in Beer Sheva is unusual, as press reports note, because they do not occur in the south. The attacks occur in north where illegal outposts are, not in the Negev region.

What the reports do not tell readers is that the Beer Sheva attack was probably NOT an authentic “Price Tag” attack by the northern religious settlers, but rather the ongoing persecution of the Beer Sheva congregation by their nearby neighbors – made up of a religious yeshiva and local religious leaders who have made it their seeming life goal to intimidate, harass and threaten the believers of the Nachalat Yeshua congregation whenever it suits them.

Apparently Israeli authorities or the Israeli press would rather fold this ongoing religious intolerance of the Messianic Beer Sheva believers into the unrelated “Price Tag” attacks in the north, and too many Israel-supporting Christians are probably fine with not getting into the details or facts.  Doing so apparently supports both of their agendas of putting their heads in the sand when it comes to Israel stepping up to its obligations as a democratic state.

UK Jews for Jesus volunteer Barry Barnett Arrested for this

As Howard Bass notes on his short website notice of the attack, “Six months ago, during a Jews for Jesus evangelism campaign in Beer Sheva, Jewish teenage yeshiva students, with their rabbi, were filmed defacing the same property, but the police refused to take any action against them.”

In November 2013, when those incidents took place, Howard wrote in a prayer letter, “Despite having captured them on cameras, the police have not taken any decisive action till now.”

That, unfortunately, is the pattern of most Israeli officials when they receive reports of religious intolerance acts against Messianic believers and congregations.  So many Messianic congregations do not even tell their followers in the international church what is happening, and certainly it is a waste of time to tell the Israel-supporting international church, which is mostly concerned about its ties with Israeli politicians, dignitaries and traditional religious figures while completely ignoring the existence of the up to 20,000 member Israeli Body of Messiah.

On December 24, 2005, the Beer Sheva congregation worship service was overrun by a mob of religious Beer Sheva citizens who had been agitated by the head rabbi in Beer Sheva along with the anti-missionary activists of Yad L’Achim.  Outside on the street was a throng of some 300 men, women and children.  Inside, another 300 disrupted the service.  There was intimidation of congregants, punches landing, cars kicked, destruction of equipment and property, while the spiritual leader of the congregation, Howard Bass, was thrown bodily into the baptismal pool. 

As Howard wrote on the day of the incident, “Even children participated in the destructive and profane acts, and the parents admitted to teaching them to behave that way towards us!”

The 2005 incident wasn’t even the first time the Beer Sheva head rabbi led a mob action against the Messianic congregation.  In 1998 a mob of about 1,000 had been stirred against the Beer Sheva congregation.  The congregation is located just down the street from an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva, which takes constant opportunity to curse and threaten the Messianic members.

One Maariv reporter, Boaz Gaon, experienced the degree of threat firsthand when the yeshiva leader threatened to gouge out the eye of Howard Bass with a key in the presence of the reporter after the 2005 mob incident.  When Gaon identified himself as a reporter, the yeshiva leader justified the vile threats of physical harm, Gaon reported, by saying, "that's the only way to talk to them. . . you have to trample their honor, humiliate them."  [The God of Vengeance, translated]

Regardless, when the matter went to court, the judge found against the Messianics saying that there was no specific proof that Rabbi Deri or Yad L’Achim had purposefully lied to their flocks - inflating the planned baptism of two people that was to take place that day into allegedly involving many more underage children.  The judge simply ruled out the evidence.

When the verdict came back upholding the mob instigators and holding the Beer Sheva congregation responsible, just to add insult to injury, Christian and Messianic publications Israel Today, Charisma and Compass Direct found fault with Bass for bringing the suit.  It was also reported that the lawsuit against Rabbi Deri and Yad L’Achim missionaries had only been brought by Howard Bass for the money!

Generally, It is amazing to me how the Israel-does-no-wrong crowd is willing to lie to themselves when Israel does something very wrong toward our spiritual brothers and sisters.  Having recently been the target of a rather heinous false accusation of defaming a victim of a terror attack in Israel, I completely understand how Howard Bass feels about these false accusations being repeated by fellow Messianic and Christian news media.  It is unconscionable that they also would not revise their published accounts when presented with the facts of the case. 

For example, in Wayne King’s Compass Direct report on the verdict in the lawsuit the Beer Sheva congregation brought against Rabbi Deri and Yad L’Achim, fell victim to bad editing and try as we might, the false impression of Howard Bass’ motives in the case went out far and wide – absolutely wrong!  

"Bass demanded either a public apology for their alleged role in the attack, or $389,052 from the rabbi and Yad L'Achim. The case, Bass said, was to 'honor the name of Jesus Christ in Israel.' He said he sought monetary damages 'as a tool to elicit an apology' from Deri and Yad L'Achim."

Bass wrote to Wayne King in response, “I appreciate your intentions, but the juxtaposition of the comments and the closed quotes definitely do not give a good impression.  And I know that I never said the that the damages were in order to elicit an apology; they were simply to show how serious the offenses were under the law.”

After the verdict, Bass also felt the sting of criticism by other Israeli Messianics via Israel Today.  Comments by another Messianic attorney on the verdict, without firsthand knowledge of the proceedings but only reading the 18-page decision by the presiding judge, also cast the Beer Sheva congregation in an unfairly bad light.   

Saying that Judge Ruzin “simply decided that not enough evidence was provided by the plaintiffs to prove that Yad L’Achim or Rabbi Deri were responsible for inciting the violence” did not give Bass’ case the credibility it deserved.  Judge Ruzin, in fact, disallowed admissions that were made on the radio by a bragging Rabbi Deri, for instance.  

If a judge refuses to allow solid evidence in, then is he still right to say there was not enough evidence?  I don’t think so, and this is precisely why open trials and open reporting of the evidence presented or denied in a trial should be reported during the course of the trial and not just in the aftermath when so many have already made up their minds based on assumptions.

It truly is a case of insult to injury.  The injury is that the police did not do their jobs, the Israeli courts did not uphold the right of the Messianic congregation to meet without religious persecution, and then even fellow believer news media accused the victim rather than the perpetrators.

The truth is, and I followed the 2005 Beer Sheva attack up close and personal, that every step taken by Howard Bass and the congregation was done in consultation with Israeli Messianic leaders, and by seeking God.  For anyone, much less believer news media, to accuse Bass of being in it for the money is profoundly ignorant and arrogant – ignorant of the facts and ignorant of the character of Howard Bass, and arrogant to report such a thing after the Israeli courts failed to uphold the religious rights of the Messianic Jews in Beer Sheva.  

It is also quite ironic that some secular readers of the news 'get it', as you will see in the recently discovered response of the U.S. State Department to the case, while many believer news outlets - for whatever reason - do not.

Some in Israel and many in the international church just do not like owning up to the fact that Israel – a nation besieged by those who hate God and hate His plans for Israel  – does not do right by the Messianic Jews and the wider evangelical community who believe in Jesus within the nation.  Even though the Israeli people have never been more open to hearing about Yeshua, law enforcement and the courts are not defending the believers as they ought. 

Unfortunately, for many believers, the attitude is that the persecution is really not that bad, so it should be fine for the Messianic believers to just bear it in silence.  Going further, I have even conversed with one Messianic leader in the U.S. who earlier was in total denial about the Israeli believers being persecuted – at least, that was his position prior to the 2008 religious terrorist bombing of the Ortiz family in Ariel.  Maybe that Messianic Jewish pastor has changed his tune since then, after 15-year old Ami Ortiz almost died after opening a bomb rigged Purim basket at their kitchen table.  The bombing was later confessed to by an Orthodox Jewish anti-missionary, Jack Teitel.

Right after the attack, renowned Israel supporter John Hagee was in Israel, in fact in the city of Ariel itself to dedicate a new sports center that his group helped sponsor.  Israelprayer received reports in the region of believers who informed the American minister about the bombing of this Messianic family who have long been involved in Jewish and Arab outreach.  Everyone expected that he would reach out to comfort the distraught parents praying for the life of their child, but there was not even a phone call made in the days, weeks or months to follow to our knowledge. 

How is it that Israel-supporting Christians will fund religious schools and numerous other ‘good deed’ projects of Israelis, yet will not openly or even covertly acknowledge the Jewish believers in Israel?  I don’t get that in the least.

Recently a friend who also is extremely concerned about the persecution against Israeli believers, Jim Melnick of the Lausanne Consultation on Jewish Evangelism, obtained some very interesting FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) material from the U.S. State Department related to the anti-missionary activities of Yad L’Achim against Howard Bass and the Beer Sheva congregation.  The material also touched on the bombing of Amiel Ortiz in Ariel.

A State Department memo obtained under FOIA actually looked closely at the reports filed by Wayne King for Compass Direct, with the recommendation that they be factored into the State Department’s annual International Religious Freedom Report.  From this one fact alone, we see that what is written in Christian and Messianic media about these issues not only count, but they count very much.

It not only matters that Howard Bass has borne the negative impression of his character and motives after the court case, it also matters because the U.S. State Department, which keeps track of these issues through its annual IRFReport is watching and noting what is happening and what is being written about it.

Another one of the interesting FOIA releases that my associate, Jim Melnick received recently (several years after his request for the materials) is a letter that was sent from the now deceased head of the anti-missionary group Yad L’Achim, Dov Lipschitz.  His letter is addressed to Michael Posner, then Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. State Department in charge of producing the annual report on International Religious Freedom.
[See scanned copies of these two letters at the end of this article.]

The letter from Rabbi Lipschitz demonstrates not just his views at the time, but is representative of the reality that Yad L’Achim is sensitive to the religious freedom ‘health report’ that Israel receives from the U.S. regarding its ill-treatment of Israeli Messianic Jews.  Lipschitz admitted in his letter that Yad L’Achim’s donations had suffered as a result of the State Department reporting.

It is also interesting to note that right off the bat Lipschitz played the ‘Holocaust card’ in his letter to the then Assistant Secretary of State, Michael Posner, who is also an Ashkenazi Jew. Lipschitz wrote, “In the wake of the Holocaust, which claimed six million Jewish lives, Yad L’Achim seeks to protect unsuspecting Jews from attempts by missionary groups to convert them out of their religion.” 

To his credit, Posner did not take the bait, passing the response duty to Peter J. Kovach, Director of the Office of International Religious Freedom Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor who replied to Lipschitz that the Religious Freedom report is mandated by a statute that defines violations of religious freedom in terms of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR):  

"The UDHR states that religious freedom includes freedom to change one's religion or belief, and the ICCPR that '[n]o one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of his choice.' Based on these instruments, international religious freedom includes freedom to change one's religion, and to make converts, or proselytize."

 Director Kovach challenged the Yad L'Achim chairman, "If you are aware of factual inaccuracies [of the 2009 Report on International Religious Freedom concerning Israel] in light of the definition stated above, we would welcome your bringing them to our attention."

Here are the takeaways from this exchange.

1. Yad L'Achim is sensitive to the truth being told about their activities against Israeli Messianic Jews. Rabbi Lipschitz complained to the State Department that in the 2009 IRFReport:
  • “…you have encouraged those who break the law, who literally steal Jews from their people. The missionaries are taking advantage of your report – including its implicit support for their efforts – to advance their cause."

    “Moveover, your report caused harm both to a friendly U.S. government and to Yad L’Achim (some of our donors have withheld contributions as a result of the negative publicity).

     “Clearly, the U.S. government has no interest in aiding and abetting those who lure Jews from their faith, especially after the Holocaust destroyed a third of our people.  In the name of fairness, I ask that you publish this letter in your publications.” 
Peter J. Kovach, who is also Jewish, although a self-described agnostic, assured Lipschitz in reply that in reference to the Holocaust, the Department of State is also greatly concerned about anti-Semitism, including Holocaust deniers, and that they have a passionate Jewish Special Envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism 

Here is something that Messianic Jews and international Christians
need to take note of: in order to call out the wrongs of Israel
does not mean we have to be any less supportive of Israel's place
in the world. We can do both with integrity.

The second takeaway is that accurate reporting of persecution incidents causes behind the scenes pressure being put on the Israeli government to do a better job of protecting the religious freedom of its Messianic Jewish citizens. 

As was noted in the 2010, 2011 and 2012 U.S. State Department International Religious Freedom Reports, the U.S. Embassy in Israel

consistently raised concerns about religious freedom with the MFA [Ministry of Foreign Affairs], the MOJ [Ministry of Justice], the police, the Chief Rabbinate, and other government agencies. Issues included expanding the list of officially recognized religious groups; investigating religiously motivated acts of violence against minority religious groups, including Messianic Jews and Jehovah's Witnesses; investigating vandalism of mosques and churches; upholding women’s rights against religious or social coercion in public spaces and on buses; and ensuring that the practice of preventing entry into the country based on the MOI’s [Ministry of Interior] lists of suspected ‘missionaries’ was indeed ended.”

These pressures brought to bear by the U.S. Embassy in Israel and in the State Department International Religious Freedom Report are dependent upon reporting of incidents within the country.  If incident reports are not filed, then the assumption is as the 2012 report concludes:

  • “The MOI did not arrest, detain, require bail for entry or a written pledge to abstain from missionary activity, or refuse entry to anyone due to their religious beliefs. There was no indication that the MOI collected data on alleged missionaries from antimissionary groups and used it to deny entry to the country to foreign individuals. There was no official statement that the policy had changed, but no incidents were reported since the July 2011 action of a Jerusalem district court judge who reprimanded the MOI for the illegal procedure.”
The Jerusalem judge referred to who chided the Interior Ministry in his ruling for accepting hearsay evidence against the individuals denied entry on the basis of suspicion of missionary activity, is now serving on the Supreme Court of Israel.    

There is a definite positive impact that is made by faithfully reporting the facts incidents of persecution against the believers in Israel.  Despite the assumption made by the U.S. State Department Report, there was no behavior modification of anti-missionaries or the Interior Ministry after Justice Noam Solberg reprimanded such conduct in his 2011 ruling for Pastor Tim Hanson represented by the Jerusalem Institute of Justice.

In fact, during the November 2013 Jews for Jesus annual campaign in Israel mentioned earlier by Howard Bass, a British Jews for Jesus volunteer participating in the campaign was arrested for merely holding up a banner about Jesus along with other JFJ participants.  Barry Barnett was arrested after much anti-missionary opposition during the campaign. Barnett was deported after spending four days in an Israeli prison, an experience that left Barnett shaken.  

Barnett was told by authorities that by telling others about his faith in Jesus he was doing “illegal missionary work” because he was under a tourist visa.  Often when someone has been deported on these grounds, they are banned from returning to Israel for as many as fifteen years.

Clearly Barnett was chosen to make an example of – regardless of the fact that it is not against the law in Israel to share faith and the fact that his arrest represented a breaking of the international ethics code which the U.S. State Department bases its annual report on.

Whether Jews For Jesus will appeal this decision, and how its impact will play on future evangelistic campaigns in Israel remain unclear.
[In a video update on May 29 2014, Jews For Jesus head David Brickner said JFJ will continue to pursue Barry Barnett's case in the Israeli court system even to the Supreme Court level if necessary.  Watch here.]

What is clear is the reluctance of some Israeli Messianics to report incidents of harassment and persecution on the one hand (which may be noble in some circumstances), but the net result of keeping silent is that the rest of the international church and others who might be supportive are kept in the dark about the true situation.   While some of the Church is willfully ignorant of these things, other parts of the Church will be willing to come alongside to help brothers and sisters if they only knew.  Hopefully, this article will be read by many of the latter.

Jim Melnick has stated:
  “Now that I know how this process works, I have fully informed the relevant office in the U.S. State Department of the facts of the Barry Barnett case.  While it is too late for the facts of that case to be included in the 2013 IRFR Report, the information will be available for the 2014 report.   

“If there are other incidents that people want to inform me of, I would be happy to collect and organize the material to send on to the relevant authorities.  I will continue to file these reports whenever these incidents occur in Israel until the situation improves.  

“If this process deteriorates still further, the next step would be to consider filing complaints with international authorities regarding the maltreatment of some foreign tourists in Israel in their exercise of religious freedom.  With Barry Barnett’s arrest, detention for several days in prison and then expulsion from Israel, the Israeli authorities have crossed a line.  

“I strongly support Israel, but I support the Gospel more.  And if we won’t stand up for our own religious freedom, who will?”

Contact Jim Melnick at fsjmin@infionline.net 

Interesting Facts from Recent 
International Religious Freedom Reports
2010: “There were reports of abuses, including detainees, in the country. Some tourists were temporarily detained for religious reasons at Ben-Gurion Airport, prevented from entering Israel, and sent back to their countries of origin because of the MOI's "suspicions of missionary activity," as explained to them by the border control officials at the airport. According to a government report cited in an April 4, 2010, Yediot Ahronot newspaper article, 30 percent of the more than 110,000 tourists detained in 2009 at the airport for rigorous security interrogations were on an MOI watch list, while the others were on security watch lists. There are no clearly publicized regulations as to how the MOI places a person on the watch list or on what grounds, but the questioning of such individuals often relates to their religious beliefs.”

2010: “According to JIJ [Jerusalem Institute of Justice] attorneys and representatives of affected religious communities, Yad L'Achim pressured landlords, employers, and MOI officials to assist its campaigns against groups it deemed ‘dangerous cults’."

2010: “Embassy officials maintained a dialogue with NGOs focusing on human and civil rights, including religious freedom, and promoted interfaith initiatives. Embassy representatives also attended and spoke at meetings of such organizations and encouraged religious leaders to advance regional peace and calm local tensions. The embassy conducted programs that exposed Israelis to U.S. models of religious diversity and civil society.

2011:  “Proselytizing is legal in the country and missionaries of all religious groups are allowed to proselytize all citizens. A 1977 law prohibits any person from offering material benefits as an inducement to conversion. It is also illegal to perform a conversion ceremony for persons under 18 years of age unless one parent is an adherent of the religious group seeking to convert the minor. Despite the legality of proselytism, the government has taken a number of steps that discouraged proselytizing and encouraged the popular perception that it is illegal.”

2011:  “The MOI [Ministry of Interior] has cited proselytism as a reason to deny student, work, and religious visa extensions, as well as to deny permanent residency petitions.”

2011:  “The MOI continued to collect data on alleged missionaries from antimissionary groups like Yad L’Achim and used it to deny entry to the country to foreign individuals. According to a July 3 Ma’ariv article, a Jerusalem district court judge overturned a 2010 MOI decision to deny a foreign pastor a clergy visa and deport him from the country due to an NGO’s allegations of missionary activity. In his ruling the judge chided the MOI for adopting an illegal procedure and relying on hearsay from religious informants and instructed the MOI to limit its enforcement actions to those strictly in accordance with the law.”

2012:  “The Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty protects religious freedom through reference to the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel. The declaration describes the country as a Jewish state with full social and political equality, regardless of religious affiliation, and provides for freedom of religion. However, governmental and legal discrimination against non-Jews and non-Orthodox streams of Judaism continued.”

2012:  The U.S. government engaged in detailed discussions on religious freedom issues with the government and religious and civil society organizations. Embassy officials raised such issues as expanding the list of officially recognized religious groups, investigating religiously motivated acts of violence against minority religious groups, and the importance of a public response to vandalism of religious places.”

2012:  According to the CBS [Central Bureau of Statistics] report,
 9 percent of the Jewish population identifies as Haredi (“ultra-Orthodox”),
10 percent identifies as Orthodox,
15 percent describe themselves as “traditional, religious,”
23 percent call themselves “traditional, not so religious,” and
43 percent describe themselves as “nonreligious/secular” Jews, most of whom observe some Jewish traditions.
“Although not differentiated in official statistics, a 2012 Guttman Institute poll shows that approximately 500,000 traditional and secular Jews associate themselves with the beliefs of the Conservative or Reform streams of Judaism. There is also a community of approximately 20,000 Messianic Jews.

2012:  The Law of Return provides the right for any Jew, or any child or grandchild of a Jew, to immigrate to Israel from a foreign country with his or her spouse and children. Prospective immigrants routinely face questioning about their religious beliefs to determine their qualifications for citizenship. While Jews who are atheists or who state their adherence to other religions are conferred immigration benefits, Messianic Jews are routinely excluded, despite the Supreme Court repeatedly upholding the right of Israeli Jews who believe Jesus is the Messiah to retain citizenship.”

2012:  Proselytizing is legal for all religious groups. A 1977 law prohibits offering a material benefit as an inducement to conversion. It is also illegal to convert a person under 18 years of age unless one parent is an adherent of the religious group seeking to convert the minor. Despite the legality of proselytism, the government generally discourages proselytizing and encourages the popular perception that it is illegal. The MOI occasionally cites proselytism as a reason to deny student, work, and religious visa extensions, as well as to deny permanent residency petitions.”

2012:  MOI officials continued to revoke citizenship or deny services (such as child registration, social benefits, identity cards, and passports) to some citizens based on their religious beliefs, according to the JIJ. This included cases of individuals who immigrated under the Law of Return as Jews but were discovered to hold Messianic or Christian beliefs. According to the JIJ, on July 4 the MOI granted residency to a Holocaust survivor whom it previously had refused in May 2011 due to her profession of Messianic Jewish beliefs.”

2012:  The MOI did not arrest, detain, require bail for entry or a written pledge to abstain from missionary activity, or refuse entry to anyone due to their religious beliefs. There was no indication that the MOI collected data on alleged missionaries from antimissionary groups and used it to deny entry to the country to foreign individuals. There was no official statement that the policy had changed, but no incidents were reported since the July 2011 action of a Jerusalem district court judge who reprimanded the MOI for the illegal procedure.”

2012:  On August 2, the Knesset amended legislation from 2010 to apply tax exemptions to all places of religious instruction equally.”
“All recognized religious communities are exempt from taxation for places of worship, according to the annually drafted Arrangements Law. In August, following a petition from the Jerusalem Institute of Justice (JIJ), the Knesset amended the municipal and property tax law to grant a 100 percent exemption to all religious institutions that do not use their space for commercial purposes, just as it had done solely for synagogues in 2010.”

2012:  The U.S. embassy consistently raised concerns about religious freedom with the MFA, the MOJ, the police, the Chief Rabbinate, and other government agencies. Issues included expanding the list of officially recognized religious groups; investigating religiously motivated acts of violence against minority religious groups, including Messianic Jews and Jehovah's Witnesses; investigating vandalism of mosques and churches; upholding women’s rights against religious or social coercion in public spaces and on buses; and ensuring that the practice of preventing entry into the country based on the MOI’s lists of suspected ‘missionaries’ was indeed ended.”

2012:  Societal attitudes toward missionary activities and conversion were generally negative. Most Jews opposed missionary activity directed at Jews, and some were hostile to Jewish converts to Christianity. Messianic Jews and Jehovah’s Witnesses were harassed regularly by Yad L’Achim and Lev L’Achim, Jewish religious organizations opposed to missionary activity.”

Access to these reports is freely available online at www.state.gov