Who are Knesset Members Moshe Gafni and Yaakov Asher and why do they want to outlaw the Gospel in Israel?
The new law would outlaw all efforts by followers of Jesus, in any way, to share, discuss or try to persuade people of other faiths to consider changing their current religious beliefs
JERUSALEM, ISRAEL – “Is it possible for the Israeli government to pass legislation this year making it illegal to share the Gospel message in the very land where Jesus was born, raised, preached, died, buried and rose from the dead?”
This was the question raised by ALL ISRAEL NEWS Editor-in-Chief Joel C. Rosenberg in an article published on Sunday.
The unfortunate answer is, “yes.”
That is, if two ultra-Orthodox Jewish Knesset members – Moshe Gafni and Yaakov Asher – manage to get their latest bill proposal passed in the Knesset.
The proposed legislation specifically targets Christians which, by their definition, is anyone who calls themselves a follower of Jesus, or “Yeshua” in Hebrew.
The new law would outlaw all efforts by followers of Jesus, in any way, to share, discuss or try to persuade people of other faiths to consider changing their current religious beliefs.
In addition, “someone who solicits a person – directly, digitally, by mail or online – in order to convert his religion” would be deemed guilty of an illegal act worthy of a punishment.
The perpetrator could expect a punishment of “one year imprisonment,” or two years of jail time if the offense involves an individual under the age of 18.
[To read the actual text of the bill in English, please click here.]
[To read the text of the bill in its original Hebrew, please click here.]
So, who specifically are the two authors of this concerning legislation – Gafni and Asher – and what is their political role in the Israeli government until now?
Both Gafni and Asher are members of Israel’s highly-religious political party, United Torah Judaism (UTJ), which has a small but influential voice and vote in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s current coalition.
The bill is not actually new.
Gafni first introduced a version back in 1999.
The current proposal is really a rehash of a bill that the two lawmakers have introduced and attempted to pass a number of times over the years.
In 2013, they proposed a similar bill, which was voted down in 2014.
All parties except the ultra-Orthodox ones voted against it.
They brought it up again in 2015 – and again in 2021 – but those law proposals never even made it to a first hearing before the Knesset was dissolved.
However, this is the first time that the proposed law is being presented while Gafni and Asher are serving, not just as members of Knesset, but in the actual governing coalition.
WHO IS KNESSET MEMBER MOSHE GAFNI?
Gafni has been serving in the Israeli Knesset for 35 years.
Born in Tel Aviv in 1952, he now lives in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of Bnei Brak with his wife and three children.
As a veteran Israeli lawmaker, seasoned politician, and a leader of the Knesset’s influential financial committee almost consecutively since 2009, his voice carries weight in the halls of government.
Just since the swearing-in of the new government in November 2022, the lawmaker has so far submitted no less than 209 different law proposals.
Also noteworthy is that Gafni has been one of the biggest adversaries of the Messianic Jewish community in Israel, having proposed to ban missionary activity in Israel dating back to 1999.
However, none of his anti-missionary legislation has been approved in the past.
Gafni said he believes in freedom of religion, but that people “should decide for themselves without outside pressure.”
In Knesset protocols from 2001, when Gafni proposed another anti-missionary law to prohibit the mailing of Gospel material to Israeli citizens and residents, a left-wing politician, Ofir Pines, taunted him, promising to vote in favor of the law if it also included a ban on the mailing of all Orthodox religious leaflets and literature directed at persuading secular Jews to become religious.
Reportedly, Gafni didn’t seem to even understand why the two were related, likely because, from his perspective, persuading secular Jews to become religious is the equivalent of introducing them to their true religion, and not an attempt at conversion to another religion.
Clearly, Gafni also does not understand that trying to educate Jews of the fact that Yeshua is the Jewish Messiah – and that according to Moses we must follow Him or face the judgment of God.
“The Lord said to me….’I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites, and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him. I myself will call to account anyone who does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name.’” (Deuteronomy 18:17-19)
In 2015, Gafni used his power as the head of the Finance Committee to deny tax-exempt status to a Messianic organization.
While all Israeli non-profits are exempt from paying income tax, only certain organizations can receive tax deductible contributions.
It seems Gafni has made it his mission to prevent any Messianic non-profit in Israel that engages in evangelism from obtaining this coveted status, despite the fact they meet the necessary criteria.
This happened again in 2020, when the Knesset’s Financial Committee received a list of 100 non-profits requesting the ability to receive tax deductible contributions.
Gafni immediately dismissed two “missionary” organizations – which included the same Messianic organization from 2015 – and one group run by Jehovah’s Witnesses, which are not a true Christian denomination – claiming that “the non-profits of the missionaries are the subject of a deep public controversy."
“So, I ask that we have a separate discussion about them, in which we will invite them and hear them, as the new regulations require,” Gafni said.
The committee then proceeded to confirm all but the “missionary” organizations, thus prolonging the issue.
The “new regulations” that Gafni mentioned were approved on July 22, 2020 by Gafni himself and determined that the committee might – in “controversial cases” – deny the right of a non-profit to receive tax deductible contributions.
Gafni also determined that, in order to reject a non-profit status, the “controversial organization” will be invited to a special discussion, and if two-thirds of the committee, including at least one-third of the opposition Knesset members, vote in favor of rejecting the application, the rejection will be valid.
And that is exactly what happened.
During that meeting back in 2020, Gafni purposefully blurred the line between the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization and the Messianic one.
He also persuaded then head of opposition, Yair Lapid, to agree that, while he believes in the freedom of speech, the government should not indirectly fund Messianic organizations.
While the Messianic organization was rejected from the tax-deductible status, they appealed to Israel’s High Court and won, with the presiding judge who wrote the opinion stating that the Knesset committee has no authority to reject or confirm non-profits based on whether they agree with the religious or social goals of the organization itself.
WHO IS KNESSET MEMBER YAAKOV ASHER?
Gafni’s partner in the recent proposed legislation was born in Ramat Gan in 1965, and currently lives in Bnei Brak – where he served as mayor from 2008 to 2013 – with his wife and seven children.
Asher first became a Knesset member with the UTJ party in 2013.
He has submitted a whopping 193 different law proposals since November 2022, many of them together with Gafni.
In the past, Asher served as the chair of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.
Today, he chairs the Internal Affairs and Environment Committee, which oversees the Interior Ministry and the “organized religion of Jews and non-Jews,” as well as anything relating to visas and citizenship.
WHAT IS THE UNITED TORAH JUDAISM PARTY?
The United Torah Judaism (UTJ) party is an Ashkenazi Haredi political party whose members are appointed by a council of Torah elders.
Women are not allowed to be members.
This party consistently typically wins between six and eight seats in the Knesset, seemingly without even trying.
Currently, they have seven seats.
UTJ candidates rarely go out to campaign during election season, and are usually absent from political debates.
They rely solely on their associated rabbis to tell their communities how to vote.
This makes it almost impossible for Gafni or Asher to ever lose their seats in the Knesset.
UTJ’S seven seats are also vital to keeping Netanyahu in office because without those seats, the government will collapse, and Israel will once again to go elections. UTJ’s votes are also critical to Netanyahu to passing the highly-controversial “judicial reform bills” now working its way through the Knesset.
There is a major concern among many Israelis today that if the judicial reforms are passed as they are currently written the High Court will lose its power to overrule the Knesset in cases that involve the violation of basic human rights, including freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of conscience and so forth.
In his powerful role as head of the Finance Committee, Gafni wants to make sure that government funds go to the places that he believes will benefit the Jewish people, not in any way to followers of Yeshua.
Therefore, in his own eyes, any confrontation about alleged corrupt budget handling is quickly denied with statements that he “has not personally benefited at all,” and “what he does is out of love and goodness for the people of Israel.”
Critics argue that Gafni is not above reproach when it comes to his handling of the government’s finances.
In a 2016 podcast, independent journalist Tomer Avital suggested that Gafni’s senior role on the finance committee enables him to make adjustments to the government's budget which will unfairly benefit his constituents.
Avital’s research led him to discover the questionable funding of a private Haredi school network called “Shuvu,” with over 70 schools ranging from kindergartens to high schools.
Shuvu, one of the organizations who received benefits due to Gafni’s intervention, was founded in 1991, mainly to bring Russian immigrants to Israel and give them extra benefits, such as door-to-door school bus service, free lunches, free field trips, etc.
Shuvu justified the need for extra funding by claiming to assist immigrants to help them integrate into Israeli society and develop a Jewish identity.
In reality, critics say the network’s goal was to convert secular Jewish children to the ultra-Orthodox religion, according to their Haredi lifestyle.
Avital also discovered that these schools no longer enroll new immigrants, for the most part, and are essentially regular Haredi religious schools.
Despite this, the government continues to provide Shuvu extra funding.
Moreover, critics say that it appeared that Gafni attempted to hide this funding under an obscure section of the budget and provide as much as $3.7 million in funding as opposed to the $80,000 that was approved.
HOW SHOULD WE PRAY?
Please pray that the Lord moves sovereignly to protect followers of Yeshua in the Land with the continued freedom to talk about their faith with other Israelis.
Please also pray for Gafni and Asher and their UTJ colleagues.
They do not appear to be a typical “corrupt politicians” who serve out of greed and love for money.
Rather, they seem to operate out of pure zeal and conviction that this is how to best serve the God of Israel.
It is about people like them of whom that the Apostle Paul – himself once a rabbi and Pharisee – wrote, “For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge.” (Romans 10:2).
Tuvia is a Jewish history nerd who lives in Jerusalem and believes in Jesus. He writes articles and stories about Jewish and Christian history. His website is www.tuviapollack.com