OR YEHUDA, Israel — Charred pages of the New Testament are mixed among trash and weeds at the edge of a vacant lot next to the Matslawi Synagogue in this religious, working-class suburb of Tel Aviv.
As many as 200 Hebrew versions of the New Testament were burned in a bonfire here last month, according to police, allegedly by a group of ultra-Orthodox Jewish students.
It was the latest in a string of incidents targeting Messianic Jews in Israel, a trend that has alarmed Christian Zionist organizations.
The incident in Or Yehuda was denounced by Jewish organizations and in Israeli newspaper editorials. But it underscores rising tensions between Israeli Jews and a growing Messianic Jewish minority — Jews who believe in Jesus Christ.
“We’re here to support Israel. And we’re standing with Israel, but this complicates our job to build support for Israel among Christians when these Messianic Jews are getting harassed, intimidated and even beat up and people are not being held accountable for it,” said David Parsons, a North Carolina native who serves as media director for the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, a flagship Christian Zionist organization.
Christian Zionism is a Protestant movement that supports the right of the Jewish people to settle in the biblical land of Israel on scriptural grounds and lends political and financial support to the Jewish state. The movement has millions of adherents in the United States and holds an annual convention in Jerusalem, usually attended by Israel’s top political leaders.
Some Israelis, however, consider Christian Zionism and Messianic Judaism to be undermining the Jewish faith.
“In a Jewish state where we came to remain Jewish, we’re losing Jews,” said Rabbi Shalom Dov Lipshitz, chairman of Yad L’Achim — A Hand to Brethren.
His group is a nonprofit organization that monitors Christian and Messianic missionary activity and lobbies the government to strengthen anti-missionary legislation. According to Israeli law, proselytizing is illegal only if minors are targeted, or if money or other gifts are offered.
The group has compiled a list of 124 people and groups that it says are trying to coax Jews away from their religion. One is an evangelical Christian soup kitchen in Tel Aviv.
“We’ve already lost 6 million Jews,” Lipshitz said, referring to the Holocaust. “So each one is valuable and we don’t want to lose them.”
Yad L’Achim calls Messianic groups cults and Lipshitz says once a Jew accepts Jesus, he or she is no longer Jewish. Messianic Jews call their belief a strain of Judaism.
Whatever the definition, the practice has roiled emotions in this nation where religious identity is paramount.
“There’s a growing intolerance,” said Calev Myers, a lawyer who represents Messianic Jews.
In March, the 15-year-old son of the leader of a Messianic congregation in the West Bank settlement of Ariel was injured when a package left at the front door of the family home exploded as he opened it.
The boy, Ami Ortiz, is still in a hospital, awaiting multiple surgeries, according to his father, David Ortiz, who holds American and Israeli citizenship.
Over the past two years, a chess club owned by Messianic Jews in the southern city of Arad was burned, and a Messianic baptism in Beersheva was interrupted by a group of Orthodox Jews who carried the pastor into the baptismal pool. In Jerusalem, the Baptist House, home to Messianic and evangelical congregations, was firebombed. It was empty at the time.
No one has been arrested in any of the cases.
Messianic Jews give widely varying estimates of their numbers in Israel — somewhere between 3,000 and 15,000 — but they say their community is growing and they are becoming bolder in sharing their beliefs.
Jews for Jesus, an international Messianic group with headquarters in San Francisco, launched a campaign in the Tel Aviv area last month called Behold Your God Israel in which 24 members — half foreign- and half Israeli-born Jews — fanned out on street corners to hand out promotional brochures.
Over four weeks, they distributed nearly 132,000 brochures and took names and contact information from 2,200 Israelis. Roughly 1,000 of those asked for New Testament bibles.
However, the members were not universally well received.
Brochures were stolen and members were threatened, kicked, shoved and spit on, said Dan Sered, director of Jews for Jesus Israel.
“Jesus told us to pray for our enemies,” Sered said.
The campaign is the most far-reaching Messianic missionary effort in Israel, he said, and will continue later in the year. It includes newspaper and billboard advertising; it also included bus advertising until the Israeli national bus cooperative, Egged, responding to complaints, removed the ads.
“It’s the right time for us. We’ve seen our Israel branch grow,” Sered said. “What we have to say is obviously controversial … (but) we have found there are many interested in reading the New Testament.”
He characterized antagonism toward Messianic Jews as a “family feud.”
“The issue: Is Jesus the Messiah — yes or no — has been going on for almost 2,000 years,” he said.
In Or Yehuda, residents described missionaries wearing T-shirts that read “Yeshua” — Jesus in Hebrew — walking door-to-door with New Testaments last month. (It’s unclear whether Christian evangelicals or Messianic Jews distributed the bibles; Jews for Jesus says it wasn’t involved.)
Soon after, several hundred students from an ultra-Orthodox Jewish school gathered to burn the New Testaments, dancing around the burning books, according to Israeli press reports.
It is unlawful in Israel to desecrate a religious icon or holy book. It is also illegal to publicly denigrate a religion.
David Asher, 44, who lives across the street from the synagogue where the burning took place, said 100 to 200 boys took part. “My son burned many books, as well,” he said. “The Jews don’t go into Christian houses and give them literature … It’s offensive.”
The Anti-Defamation League condemned the burning. “It is essential that we respect the sacred texts of other faiths,” Rabbi Eric Greenburg, director of interfaith policy, said in a statement. “The Jewish people can never forget the tragic burning of sacred Jewish volumes at many points in history.”
Asher said for the people of Or Yehuda, who are mostly Mizrahim, or Jews from Middle Eastern countries, concerns over parallels with the 1933 Nazi book-burning campaign did not resonate.
“In Or Yehuda, there are hardly any Ashkenazim who went through the Holocaust,” he said, referring to European Jews. “So, it didn’t remind us of that.”