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Opinion Blog / Guest Columnist

Why government must never interfere with religion

Knesset Member Moshe Gafni speaks during a discussion and a vote in the Knesset assembly hall in Jerusalem, Feb. 22, 2023. (Photo: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A proposed bill had been introduced by members of the Netanyahu governmental coalition which would have criminalized anyone for speaking to Israelis about the Christian faith. 

The bill, sponsored by ultra-orthodox lawmakers, Moshe Gafni and Ya’akov Asher, both from the United Torah Judaism party, would have attached jail time, as a punitive measure, for anyone who spoke about their biblical faith if it was deemed to be of a Christian nature. That would have included conversation, mailings or online posting.

The reasoning behind the move was said to prevent “conversion” of a Jew to another faith. But let’s take the word conversion out of it and call it what it would have been – religious censorship.

Essentially, it is the forbidding of the right of free speech, especially if asked by someone who sincerely wants to know why a person believes a certain way. It is the act of shutting down the conversation before it has a chance to even start, and why? Because someone thought that people are too stupid, too naïve or too vulnerable to listen to what is being said and figure out for themselves if it’s true or not. Consequently, those people must be protected by pre-empting and hijacking speech in order to not fall prey to a persuasive argument.

Oddly enough, the bill only pertained to religious speech of a certain type. Ironically, it fails to recognize that political speech, sales pitches or any other kind of persuasive speech could just as easily sway a person’s thinking, causing them to change their mind and come around to the speaker’s viewpoint. No, in this case, the message behind the bill was that nothing, absolutely nothing is more dangerous than sharing one’s biblical faith, not even necessarily to convince someone else that what they believe is correct, but, perhaps, only to answer a question that was posed to them.

In truth, the bill, had it been comprehensive and honest, would also have made it punishable to even ask the question, “Why do you believe as you do?” Because such a question would have been the catalyst for breaking the law if one would have dared to answer it. The absurd result would have been going to prison for answering a question.

As troubling as that sounds, the whole argument of there being a “weaker population,” which is more vulnerable, necessitating protection, by way of a bill, that criminalizes religious speech, is nothing more than a pathetic claim which smacks of trying to control what people say and what people hear.

It is, yet, another attempt at controlling people! Here’s the bottom line. Everyone has the right to ask someone what they believe, listen to their answer and then figure out, for themselves, if it makes sense. If, to them, it does, they also have the right to choose to believe it. That’s called freedom – a concept which was lost on Gafni and Asher who, through this bill, decided that thinking for yourself was just too dangerous to allow.

While another aspect of the bill addressed the distribution of incentives, such as giving money or other goods, in exchange for adopting a faith, this, too, would have been problematic, and here’s why. There are many religious organizations and congregations, within the State of Israel, which run soup kitchens and offer humanitarian help that includes food, clothing and goods. They have chosen to do so, simply to bless others but not to create an incentive to convert. How do we know that? Because part of their biblical faith encourages them to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and help the poor.

However, here’s where such a law was extremely untenable. If lawmakers came to believe that the sole motivation for such humanitarian assistance was only driven by the desire to convert Jews to another religion, then those efforts surely would have been shut down. Such an act would then have infringed upon the sincerely-held beliefs of those very people who felt that they were merely living out the biblical commandments of assisting those in need and being a source of help and mercy to fellow humans. It could have been interpreted as legislating the practical demonstration of one’s faith. In other words, a lawmaker would have had the power to limit how far anyone is able to observe the commandments of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.

What about the internal dilemma of conscience, placed on an individual of faith who believes that they answer only to God and not to politicians? And did anyone stop to consider how such a law would be received by the millions of Christians who love Israel, many of them making annual pilgrimages to the land of the Bible, not to mention top Christian leaders who also bring thousands on tour each year?

It would have been nothing more than a full-on interference into someone’s personal religious convictions and putting the brakes on their ability to obey a higher authority. How could such a thing have been acceptable in what is supposed to be a democratic and free society?

These are issues which, clearly, were not thought out as it pertained to the much wider public, with whom we share the universe, because Israel does not exist in a vacuum. It’s sad to think that some lawmakers use the term “vulnerable” Israeli population, which fails to give their people any credit for having enough common sense and intellect to figure out what is real and what isn’t as well as what they choose or don’t choose for themselves.

In the end, enough of an uproar was made in order to scrap a very offensive bill which would have had disastrous consequences upon the State of Israel. As of yesterday, March 22, 2023. 4:43 p.m. Israel time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted a message, both in Hebrew and English stating, “We will not advance any law against the Christian community.”

The message apparently made its way to the author of the bill, Moshe Gafni who stated that he understood the bill was going nowhere. 

A bullet may have been dodged this time around, but why would any right-thinking Israeli lawmaker feel that offending a mega-sized faith, which loves and supports his country, would be a wise or welcomed move? It honestly boggles the mind for someone to essentially say, “Sure, come visit us, drop your money here, but don’t you dare open your mouth, while here, to speak to any Israeli Jew about your personal faith, lest you, too, find yourself behind bars.

Everyone should think twice before inciting fear and shame or causing certain people to lose their free speech and free enactment of their God-given rights to live out their faith per what is commanded.  Government must not ever censor and shut down a subject to which people, who live in a free society, have the right to be exposed – certainly not the issue of faith.

Israel, and the Netanyahu government, for the moment, have decided that this was not a prudent move. Perhaps they also recognized that there was more to lose than gain, especially for a country which has boasted its very tolerant attitude towards diversity. How many times has Netanyahu publicly stated that Israel is a place where freedom of religion is observed? Multiple times throughout many years! 

If the prime minister was wise, he would sit down with his far-less intolerant coalition and remind them that many look upon Israel as the cradle of several faiths. Hence, it is up to us to guard the religious freedom of others, consistent with our destiny of being a light to the nations!

ALL ISRAEL NEWS is committed to fair and balanced coverage and analysis, and honored to publish a wide-range of opinions. That said, views expressed by guest columnists may not necessarily reflect the views of our staff.

A former Jerusalem elementary and middle-school principal and the granddaughter of European Jews who arrived in the US before the Holocaust. Making Aliyah in 1993, she is retired and now lives in the center of the country with her husband.

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