Israeli bill to prevent proselytizing ruffles feathers, gets killed, but bad feelings persist
On Sunday, a story broke on ALL ISRAEL NEWS about a bill introduced in Israel’s Knesset which was complicated, controversial, and confusing. From there, the story was picked up by others and created a stir all around the world, among Christians, between Jews and Christians who work closely together, and with religious and civic leaders of some of Israel’s democratic allies.
By late Wednesday afternoon, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu tweeted in Hebrew and English, “We will not advance any law against the Christian community.” This seemed to put the issue to rest, but the damage was already done.
The proposed bill was allegedly intended to prevent Christians from preaching the Gospel in Israel, even making it illegal and likely meant to restrict Christians from sharing their faith with the goal of conversion. But the bill was about efforts to persuade a member of one faith to convert to another, thus protecting Jews, Christians, Muslims, Bahai, and others from coercive efforts of another faith. It specifically singled out Christians but was not restricted to Christians. It was inferred that the target of these actions would be Israeli Jews, but it also applied to Muslims trying to convert Christians, or any proselytizing of any person from one faith to another.
It was a vague bill, perhaps deliberately, or because it was just not well thought through. It’s not the first time the Knesset Member Moshe Gafni had proposed this bill or a version thereof. It may have been more of a knee-jerk, visceral and even pro-forma legislation, even though it had been proposed before and not passed. So why was it news now?
As an Orthodox Jew, I’m opposed to specific actions directed specifically at Jews in Israel, the Jewish state, to convert Jews to Christianity or anything else.
After millennia of being subject to the whims and threats of living as a dispersed people among the nations – at best, tolerated and often persecuted and the subject of pressure from the religions of the societies in which we lived. So now that we are home, we should be able to live here freely, without fear of religious coercion.
Yet, I am also reminded of the sage words of a Jewish friend who died last year. He was less bothered by Christians or others “sharing their faith” to convert us because in the marketplace of faith and ideas, Judaism has more than solid footing to stand on. Jews, he would say, are party to God’s original and unbreakable covenant. As such, we have our unique personal relationship with and obligations to God that Gentiles do not have, and to which Gentiles are not obliged.
I believe efforts directed at the conversion of Jews are theologically and historically problematic. They are also the polar opposite of the kinds of relationships that we, Jews and Christians, should and need to have. I discuss my views openly with Christian friends, sometimes uncomfortably, but always honestly and from a perspective of sensitivity. I have the privilege of having deep intimate conversations with Christians of many backgrounds. I get to know them and their hearts.
I choose to spend my waking hours serving the calling of building bridges between Jews and Christians and Christians with Israel. It’s not always easy. There’s pushback from both sides and I often feel like I am engaged in a contact sport. As much as we have significant theological disagreements, which we can and should discuss openly and respectfully, there are many more things about which we can agree, and must build upon.
It's easy to build bridges when there’s no conflict, or when Israel’s enemies are also enemies of Christianity, and we have a common agenda. It’s more difficult when challenges come from among Jews or Christians which are perceived as targeting one another. This is when we need to redouble our efforts and create understanding, even if we still disagree.
I don’t expect Christians to fully understand the motivation behind the introduction of the legislation put forward by Gafni, or to understand millennia of church history persecuting Jews, including forced conversions and even murder, in the name of Jesus. Persecution is ancient history for some; other Christians still choose to atone for it today.
But Jews know. It’s part of the baggage we have brought along with us for thousands of years. From slavery in Egypt to the destruction of the Temples, our exiles, being persecuted by the church for centuries, in the Islamic world more recently – and in modern times with the Holocaust – these are all a part of our history we cannot shed or forget. And this is part of the reasoning behind the proposed bill – coming from a place of overall sensitivity to proselytizing and even anger and distrust that it breeds among Jews.
I write this, not to cast aspersions on Christians today but to explain part of the Israeli Jewish perspective, and why such legislation is being proposed to begin with. But I also write to explain why the bill was problematic. Because, while there were many problems with the proposed legislation and the spirit behind it, there are many reasons for it – issues that Christians who wish to have a sincere relationship with Israel need to understand.
Ironically, I read about the proposed legislation on the morning of the last day of my Run for Zion program, the first Christian-oriented program in the context of the Jerusalem marathon. Our goal is to build bridges based on mutual respect, from our respective traditions, “blessing Israel with every step.” Together.
The opposite of building bridges is building barriers. I see this proposed legislation more about the latter, because I don’t think Gafni or others who support the bill care about building bridges, or the ramifications of the legislation even if it was with good intentions from their perspective.
The legislation was problematic in that it was perceived and presented among Christians as a potential complete ban on Christians speaking about Christianity, “sharing the gospel,” and maybe even practicing their faith. I read the legislation. I don’t know if that was the intent, and didn’t see the language that specifically says that, however, because it was vague, it allowed for wide latitude on interpretation.
The legislation actually proposed a stricter view of how one might “share the gospel” with the intent to proselytize. The law currently states that one may not try to convert someone to another faith using any material compensation, and not among minors. However, I don’t believe anyone has ever been arrested, much less brought to trial, for this offense. Even so, because the proposed law was vague, it opened up questions about what might be considered a criminal offense.
For example: ‘Would an interfaith group of Jews and Christians need to sign a waiver to discuss religion with one another?’; ‘What about Jews and Muslims?’; Would these types of gatherings and conversations be considered illegal altogether?; Would a tour guide risk prosecution if guiding a Jewish group at Christian sites throughout Israel? Would courses in comparative religions be banned?
More personally, could I be prosecuted for hosting the Inspiration from Zion podcast, where I ask Christian guests to talk about their faith in the context of their love for Israel, creating a forum where we might discuss New Testament verses that highlight this, or even mention Jesus by name?
Would Christian media or ministries in Israel that are, by definition, pro-Israel, who seek to bless Israel, fall in the crosshairs of such a proposed law. To find themselves subject to prosecution simply by communicating to other Christians about their faith, literally sharing the Gospel and the imperative to stand with Israel
These are extreme examples and may sound absurd. Then again, maybe not, because the legislation was vague. And, if passed, we would not know how it might have been enforced.
I shudder to think of this happening but, because it was vague and not well thought through, such a law might have left interpretation up to the Israel Police to enforce (unimaginable to me), or a judge looking for a legal basis to prosecute.
I don’t believe the intent of this legislation was to bar anyone from living, worshipping or speaking about their faith broadly, outside the scope of deliberately trying to convert someone.
I lost count of how many concerned emails and text messages I got from Christian friends all around the world. As the Jewish state, Israel ensures the right for all to believe and worship. I don’t see that changing and don’t believe that the proposed law suggested anything apocalyptic, such as the end of freedom to worship (specifically among Christians). As much as I believe that, there are deeper issues that need to be addressed.
A survey in Israel some years ago indicated that the vast majority of Israelis have never met a Christian. My son-in-law was one of them until he came into our family and had the opportunity to meet many of my Christian friends.
Many Israelis and Jews who don’t engage with Christians simply look at Christian support for Jews being motivated by our being their theological pawns in a wider game to save souls or to bring Jesus back. As a whole, many or most Jews don’t know much about Christians and Christianity, the same way many or most Christians don’t know much about Jews. Despite not knowing Christians, many Israelis have unfavorable views about Christians.
This is rooted in the consequence of Christian anti-Semitism and replacement theology that goes back nearly 2,000 years, and all forms of persecution, pogroms, forced conversions and more, all sanctioned by the church, in the name of Jesus. As one Christian friend said, “we have dragged Jesus’ name through the mud and it’s our job to show the Jewish people that we have no ill intent.”
Jews sometimes look at Christians as having a short list of ulterior motives in supporting Israel and the Jewish people. A friend recently told me his belief that Christian support of Israel was simply to get all the Jewish people to live here, and then there would be an end times war, which was necessary for Jesus to return. Are there Christians who believe that? Sure! Is this what drives most Christian support for Israel? Absolutely not!
Nor does the motive to convert Jews to Christianity drive most Christians, at least not those I know. But many Jews think it does, because of recent cases of Christians trying to do so, some overtly and some deceitfully. This colors how Israeli Jews of all backgrounds perceive Christians and Christianity. I am a modern Orthodox Jew and many in my community believe this, too. As do secular Israelis. There have been notable instances of anti-Christian ideas being expressed in the secular Israeli community. It’s something I’ve spent significant time and effort calling out.
Regarding the proposed law, as an Israeli Jew, I didn’t think it was a good one. While I’m against efforts to persuade Jews to convert – I want Jews to embrace and live the blessings and promises of being part of God’s covenant people – such legislation does more to create ill will. Even so, as divisive as this has all been, I’ve enjoyed various conversations with Jewish and Christians friends as we dissected the bill’s meaning, implications and applications, actually in a Talmudic way, with detailed analysis of each word and the spirit and circumstances behind it.
I believe Israel has a unique role to not only allow and protect freedom of faith and worship in Israel, but an obligation to protect Christians and Christianity. This relates to indigenous Christians, mostly Christian Arabs who face struggles and unthinkable persecution from their Muslim neighbors. I’d like to see laws enforced to protect Israel’s Christian minority from actual threats.
Regarding the proposed law, before Netanyahu could hit the brakes, the genie was out of the bottle. The damage had been done. Assuming the bill is, in fact, dead, the mere reporting of proposed legislation that never even made it to the Knesset for preliminary discussion, gives ammunition for anti-Israel haters to use against us. That’s bad.
For some Christians, the report of the legislation caused alarm because of the overdramatized reports. For every message I received, there were surely hundreds or more for whom the reports about the bill caused distress. They simply saw misleading news reports and felt bad about it.
The afternoon the story broke, a respected Christian journalist called and wanted my input before I had read the proposed law or even the article in which it was reported. I basically responded with what I have written above and noted this bit of irony: Many Christians celebrated Netanyahu’s return to power last year, even specifically celebrating the inclusion of right-wing Jewish/nationalist political parties. To be honest, I hesitated to join them because I don’t believe that these parties understand, care about or even support Christians in Israel.
With this legislation, two members of one of the two ultra-Orthodox parties created a big problem with this bill. Had Netanyahu not pulled the plug, it’s likely the second ultra-Orthodox party would have joined as well. And it was possible that members of the two Jewish religious nationalist parties would, as well. If so, it may have resulted in half the government coalition actively supporting it, thus challenging Netanyahu and his Likud party to require support from the entire coalition so the government wouldn’t fall.
Netanyahu would have done better to take the wind out of the bill’s sail first thing on Monday morning.
Christians had reason for concern because the loosely written bill was not well thought through and, if passed, would have led to a limitation of legitimate rights of Christians (or others).
Jews have good reason to be concerned about efforts by Christians to try to convert them. While some Christians believe it is important to “live out the faith” rather than trying to persuade Jews to convert, there is no shortage of Christian ministries actively engaged in proselytizing.
For now, it seems the issue has been put to rest, however, there are still underlying sensibilities and issues behind it to be addressed. There is more work to be done in building bridges between Jews and Christians, which is something I embrace.
The Genesis 123 Foundation will host a webinar on Monday, March 27 with a panel of Jewish and Christian leaders to do just that.
ALL ISRAEL NEWS readers are invited to register and join the conversation.
Jonathan Feldstein was born and educated in the U.S. and immigrated to Israel in 2004. He is married and the father of six. Throughout his life and career, he has become a respected bridge between Jews and Christians and serves as president of the Genesis 123 Foundation. He writes regularly on major Christian websites about Israel and shares experiences of living as an Orthodox Jew in Israel. He is host of the popular Inspiration from Zion podcast. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.