- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 26, 2000

TEL AVIV, Israel As evening falls in this city of concrete, neon and palm trees, Avi Mizrachi carefully shuts the blue grille guarding Dugit, his religious bookstore and cafe. Devotional stores usually don't need such protection, but this is no ordinary shop.
Located a block off Dizengoff Street, Tel Aviv's main shopping artery, Dugit Messianic Outreach Center has been spray-painted with swastikas, pelted with coffee and has had glue poured into its locks. The reason: Shelves lined with books like "Witnessing to Jews," and "You Bring the Bagels, I'll Bring the Gospel."
Mr. Mizrachi, who leads a 90-member Messianic Jewish congregation on the side, rents the store from a Southern Baptist group.
A son of Bulgarian Jews who immigrated to Israel in 1948, he converted to Christianity while visiting a sister in Florida and ended up back in Tel Aviv, doing Christian outreach to Israeli Jews.
In a country where Christian groups rarely try to convert the Jewish populace, a minority is trying to persuade fellow Jews to believe in Jesus. Called "Messianic Jews," they push the envelope on the question: Who is a Jew?

Who is a Jew?

If some Jews accept Buddhist or Hindu tenets while claiming to remain Jewish, why, they ask, can't they believe in Jesus and remain Jewish?
"This is a place where people can come with a book and ask questions and have a cup of coffee," said Mr. Mizrachi, 39. Conversations last from two minutes to two hours.
Mr. Mizrachi is labeled a missionary by his foes.
"I'm Israeli. I served in the army, I'm in the reserves and I pay taxes," he scoffs.
"The Israeli mindset thinks a missionary is someone sent by the pope with millions of dollars to bribe children with candy and get people to believe in three gods and leave the country."
But the reaction has not been so good-humored.
"The religious [Orthodox Jews] in the last year have decided we're a dangerous place," he said.
Hence, the nightly vigils outside his door by anti-missionary groups such as Yad L'achim ("Arm of the Brethren") and thus, the grille.
"I've gone to the police," Mr. Mizrachi said, "and they do nothing about it. Once I had a landlord who was religious. He ordered me out of the house. And then he punched me. One of my friends, Yaacov, has been beaten on the streets for handing out tracts.
"I believe they are afraid of us. They're afraid they are wrong and we are right. In every city, there are Messianic congregations there's six or seven in Tel Aviv alone."

Living off foreign donors

Mr. Mizrachi's congregation cannot afford to pay him, so he lives off the donations of several individuals and churches in the United States.
"I want Christians in America to pray for us," he said, "because I believe prayer can change things. They call me a Nazi. How can one Jew call another that?"
By now, a man and two women are keeping vigil outside his door. The man is on a cell phone.
"Many times," Mr. Mizrachi said, "secular Israelis will walk by and ask what the religious people are doing there. They'll come in and say: 'We're a democratic country and I disagree with those people.'
"One Israeli came in and said he'd buy a New Testament, just because a religious [Jew] outside told him not to. That's the Israeli mentality."
Outside in the dark, the trio identify themselves by first names: Tamar, Gila and Ofer, from Yad L'achim.
"They are not Jews," Tamar said of those in the bookstore. "We try to explain to Jews about their own religion. It's quite difficult."
"It's hard," chimes in Gila, "to see my brothers caught by those missionaries."
Tamar continues: "They have a lot of money. They get a lot of donations from the United States. They give [visitors] tea, then take them out of their religion. The person who knows their religion, they'll never leave."

No longer underground

On a balmy Saturday morning, the streets bordering Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox Mea Sharim neighborhood are empty save for a small crowd at 56 Ha Nevi'im ("Street of the Prophets"). The white stone church, Messianic Assembly, founded in the 1950s, is the oldest Messianic Jewish congregation in Israel.
Hymns are set to piano and violin in the all-Hebrew service. English-speaking visitors are offered headsets. Presiding is senior elder Victor Smadja, a Tunisian Jew who became a Christian at a youth camp and immigrated to Israel in 1955.
"It pains so much of us when many have mocked our faith because of the strange fanatics who called themselves Christians," he said. "In the last days, scoffers will come and say, 'Where is the Second Coming they promised?' "
But after the service, a few of the members get into an argument about "Facts & Myths," a recent book profiling Israel's 81 Messianic congregations and home groups.
Church leaders would not grant interviews to its Danish authors, nor would they go on the record for this reporter, saying they did not care to provide more information for Yad L'achim.
Only one congregant, a retired journalist named Menahem Benhayim, disagreed. "We're no longer underground," he said.

Anti-missionary bills drafted

Since 1997, Israel's Messianic Jews have been targeted by three anti-missionary bills in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, none of which has become law.
The first recommended a one-year prison sentence for publication, distribution or possession of evangelistic literature.
After it failed, a second piece of legislation introduced by a Shas Party member in the spring of 1998 proposed a three-year prison sentence for proselytizing. It also died.
A third bill, featuring a five-year penalty for bringing someone to an evangelistic meeting, was put forward a few months ago.
It is considered too extreme to pass the Knesset, but the danger is that it could be moderated, said Paul Liberman, chairman of the Messianic Action Committee, which agitates for minority religious rights for Messianic Jews.
"As our profile goes up, the harassment seems to be increasing," said Mr. Liberman, a Rockville, Md., resident before moving to Israel nearly six years ago. "But the Israeli public is getting used to having us around."
According to a Gallup poll his group commissioned in late 1998, 70 percent of the respondents said Messianic Jews should have equal rights under Israeli law. Twenty-five percent said no.
"[Prime Minister Ehud] Barak has not involved himself in this at all," Mr. Liberman said. "One of his campaign promises was that he'd be a prime minister for all the people. There's only 5,000 to 6,000 Messianic believers in the country. There's millions of [non-Messianic Jews] but they consider us very threatening. It helps their fund raising to exaggerate the threat."

Reconverting the converted

Aron Zlotkin, Jerusalem spokesman for Yad L'achim, says the Messianic Jews are a threat, particularly with Russian Jewish immigrants who come to Israel seeking a home.
"The missionaries work everywhere," Mr. Zlotkin said. "They convert people in Russia, then send them here."
Messianic Jews rank with Jehovah's Witnesses as being "pretty unpleasant" to deal with, he said. Mormons, who are noted for converting people in other parts of the world, are "keeping a low profile" in Israel.
"We manage to save quite a few confused souls and return them back to ordinary Judaism," Mr. Zlotkin said. "Every Jew converted to another religion poses a threat, because every Jew is dear."
He said Messianic Jews get their funding from the United States. Asked where Yad L'achim gets its financial support, he refused comment.
Mr. Liberman says his Messianic Action Committee, for which he is an unpaid volunteer, has raised $800,000 from "all over" $300,000 from Europe, $100,000 from Israel and $400,000 from the United States.
"We insist we're Jewish people," he said. "We say Judaism was brought off track 2,000 years ago by the rabbis. We're trying to correct that."

Three face deportation

At present, his committee is agitating on behalf of three Ethiopian Jewish women who face deportation next month for joining a Messianic group after arriving in Israel in 1991.
The basis for their expulsion is a Dec. 25, 1989, Israeli Supreme Court decision stating that Messianic Jews are not to be considered Jewish under the 1950 Law of Return, which grants Israeli citizenship to anyone who can prove descent from at least one Jewish grandparent.
Thus, Messianic Jews fear, it could be asserted that all Messianic Jews who sought Israeli citizenship on the basis of the Law of Return during the past 10 years made a false declaration when they stated that they are Jewish.
Charles Kopp, chairman of the United Christian Council, a 28-member body based in Jerusalem, says no one dares mention "reverse-conversion" efforts.
"They're quite open here about converting Christians," he said. "There are more Christians here converting to Judaism than Jews to Messianic beliefs," he added, citing a press report that several Jewish groups had announced plans to convert 20,000 Christians.
"An open society has to allow people to choose their religion, as well as their politics," he said. "you either have a democracy or you don't."

Are Jews anti-Christian?

It was a rainy night in west Jerusalem, and the small meeting room was packed with about 100 people coming to hear an ecumenical discussion, provocatively titled "Are Jews anti-Christian?"
Ron Kronish, director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, opened the dialogue by talking about the "millions of Christians wanting to visit Israel."
Then he asked: "How are we going to handle that?"
Reaction from the largely Jewish audience was swift.
"I don't care about a Christian being a Christian, or the Trinity, or transubstantiation," said one man with a British accent, "but I don't like them forcing their faith on me. I regularly get tracts on my doorstep in Hebrew. I just want to be left alone."
Another man, with a gray beard wearing a blue yarmulke, said, "Are Jews anti-Christian? Of course they are. They have one theology, and we have another."
A woman said, "How can we trust Christians when missionary activity is on the rise? There are reasons not to trust."
And so every effort to spread the Messianic gospel is squelched, complained Beth Lowenberg, a transplanted New Yorker now attending Mr. Mizrachi's congregation. She tells of a missionary effort she and her singles group did last summer on a Tel Aviv beach.
"It was an outreach to the homeless," she said, "a Sabbath outreach. We lit candles on the beach and prayed. We had prepared food and a simple program. Then a young man passed us by, looking upset."
The man returned with several friends, all wearing yarmulkes or baseball caps. "They went around to all the people picnicking and warned them about us," she said. "I couldn't understand Hebrew too well, but they were saying nasty things about us. They called us names and spit. It verged on physical violence, but we knew reacting would escalate it.
"We started singing to the Lord. The guys calmed down … and they went and sat on a hill and were quiet."

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