A Look at Life in Israel
An Interview with Meno Kalisher
Many of our readers have asked us what life is like in Israel, especially for Jewish believers in Jesus. So we asked Meno Kalisher to answer a few questions for us. Meno was born in Jerusalem and has lived there his entire life. A sought-after Bible teacher around the world and author of several books, Meno is the senior pastor of the Jerusalem Assembly House of Redemption. He is also the son of the late Zvi Kalisher, whose column has appeared at the back of this magazine for more than 60 years.
Q. How are things different today than when you were growing up and when your parents were young believers?
A. I was born in 1962, so my childhood was many years ago. We had fewer than 200 believing families in Israel at that time, and the attitude toward us was very bad. Jews who believed in Jesus were viewed as betraying their nation. Most of our neighbors were religious people who hated anything that had to do with Jesus.
Many Israelis who believed in Jesus lost their jobs. I remember situations where kids in the neighborhood mocked and shunned me. A bomb destroyed our church elder’s car. Our church was vandalized and flooded when someone opened the fire hose one night. Another church downtown was burned to the ground.
As the number of believers grew, a better understanding about who we are developed, and the attitude toward us changed for the better. We, too, were born in Israel. We studied in the same schools, served in the army, paid taxes, and spoke Hebrew with no foreign accent.
The rise of Zionist evangelical Christians and developments in school education have helped to shed a better light on Jewish believers in Jesus. Today Israelis realize not all Christians hate Jews! Though most religious Jewish people still dislike Jesus and view Jewish believers as idol worshipers, their behavior toward us is more respectful.
Q. How much freedom do you have to make Christ known?
A. We have much freedom. We can use all forms of media to make Christ known. Private newspapers and businesses can reject our offers for business, but that is life.
As a local church, we make Christ known through our Christian testimonies; speaking with neighbors and friends; giving out gospel tracts; and spreading the gospel through our websites, video clips on YouTube, billboards, etc. We do not hide our faith in Jesus. We invest much in educating our people in the church to speak boldly about Jesus and to be able to defend their faith biblically.
There is a law in Israel limiting missionary activity. It has two major warnings:
1. It is forbidden for adults to evangelize minors (people under 18).
2. It is forbidden to promise any goods or benefits in order to persuade someone to change his religion.
In other words, it is forbidden to bribe people. Needless to say, we don’t do things like that. We also respect the first warning. We teach the Bible to our children, and they share it with their peers and teachers at school. By God’s grace, the church is growing without violating this law.
Q. Are most Israelis religious, secular, or nominally religious?
A. Most Israelis are secular (60 percent). The other 40 percent are religious, varying from nominal to Orthodox. But many secular Jews feel attacked and in need of defending their national religion, Rabbinic Judaism, when you speak about Jesus and prove to them He is the promised Messiah.
Q. How many Jewish believers in Jesus live in Israel today?
A. The last number we heard was about 30,000. This is a rough estimate and includes those who believe in Jesus but do not attend church out of fear. The number of Jewish- Israeli believers in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is about 500 soldiers. The total number of evangelical churches is 300, including small churches that meet in homes.
Q. What are some of the greatest pressures facing Israeli believers today?
A. Spiritually, there is always an attack on the Lordship of Christ Jesus. Not all Israeli evangelical churches accept the Trinity and believe that Jesus is God and that He was not created. This may sound weird, but it’s true!
Another issue is our identity in Jesus. Despite all we do and say for our nation Israel, people still reject us and say we are not part of our nation. It’s a price we must pay. We should prefer to identify with Jesus in all aspects of life. Being mocked, ridiculed, and rejected is still a big part of our lives.
Being part of Israeli society at large, not necessarily because of our faith, brings economic pressures. Being a believer in the food business is almost impossible because Israelis must obtain their kosher license from the rabbinate, and the rabbis will cause all types of difficulties to avoid giving a kosher certificate to a food business owned by a Jew who believes in Jesus.
Also, believers who want to rent a facility for church use run into major objections. This is a major issue in cities that are more religious.
Q. Who is obligated to serve in the military? How long do soldiers serve, and when do they go to college?
A. Israelis are obligated to join the army at 18, after they complete high school. Men serve three years, and women serve two.
Druze [a sect of Arab Muslims] serve in the Israeli army and are loyal. Israeli Muslim and Christian Arabs are not obligated to join the army. They are not even obligated to do any social service in place of military service. I wish Israeli Muslim and Christian Arabs would insist on doing social service for their nation, even in their own villages and schools. But only a handful do. Shouting and murmuring about being second-class citizens while refusing to lift even a finger to help and serve your own people seems unbalanced.
A person can be excused from military service if he is medically unfit.
Going to college and university usually comes after military service. But an 18-year-old can postpone serving if he or she is studying a profession accepted by the army (medicine, electronics, electricity, computers, etc.). But that person will have to serve extra years in the army.
I postponed my service for two years and entered the army with a degree in electronics and served the army in my profession for four years. The first three years I was paid a regular soldier’s monthly salary, and at the beginning of my fourth year, I received a regular worker’s salary.
Q. Tell us about the program you’re involved in to prepare believers for going into the military.
A. During military service, most believing soldiers are under strong spiritual attack. Many grow cold to the things of God. To help equip them to survive, programs named Netsor (Hebrew, “safe”) and Hitsim (Hebrew, “arrows”) were created. The Netivah ministry organization formed the outreach and runs it. We just help in teaching and supporting as we can.
The programs provide believing 18-year-olds with fellowship and crash courses on the Bible and how to defend their faith. Netsor lasts 10 days, and Hitsim lasts about two months.
Such premilitary courses serve as spiritual boosters. The training helps the soldiers perform their military service with a better testimony and lessens the number of believing soldiers who drift from the faith.
Each course involves about 10 to 20 people. There are two Hitsim programs per year and one Netsor program. The same Netivah group runs about four to five weekend conferences for soldiers throughout the year, six to seven youth conferences per year, and many more activities—all to share the gospel and teach the young believers to know and trust Jesus as their Lord and Savior.
The teachers in these courses include the leaders of Netivah and local pastors like me. I teach one of the courses, and our church hosts them for a weekend, as needed.
Q. Is it expensive to live in Israel compared to the United States? What are some of the differences in types of housing, housing costs, and medical care?
A. There is a big difference between Israel and the United States economically, especially when it comes to housing. An average apartment (three bedrooms and a living room) in an apartment building costs $250,000 minimum.
In the center of Israel, the price is sky high; an average apartment costs $450,000. Most Israelis live in apartments instead of houses. Houses cost 50 percent more than apartments.
Since the average monthly net income in Israel is about $2,500, purchasing an apartment is almost impossible. A young couple must have one third of the cost up front to obtain a mortgage. Many young couples depend on their families to come up with the first third. Then they are bound to the mortgage for the next 25 to 30 years.
Part of our taxes are directed toward medical care. Our medical-care fee is a certain percentage of our income, depending on the income. We have four medical groups from which each person can freely choose.
The basic health package is pretty good and sufficient. If someone is able, he can add more items to his package for an extra cost.
Frankly, our medical-care system is extremely good compared to many other countries. The medical teams are highly professional. One must remember that since Israel’s defense budget is very big, the nation is limited in social services.
Q. Surveys have shown that Israelis are among the happiest people in the world. Why do you think that is, considering the dangers they face every day?
A. First, God’s grace. Second, Israel is the only place where we can loudly complain about everything without being thrown out. Third, most Israelis speak their feelings and opinions without running away from confrontation. Keeping less inside is healthier and gives more space for joy. Fourth, in any other country, people usually don’t love us. We know that in a crisis outside Israel, we might be the ones to be blamed and persecuted. So even if it is not easy to live in Israel in many aspects, it is the only and best place for the Jewish people. Even God knows it!
Q. What do Israelis do for recreation?
A. Culturally, Israel is very close to the United States when it comes to recreation. Our main sports are soccer and basketball. We are very family oriented, and since Israel is not that big (it’s about the size of New Jersey), families often gather on a weekly basis, especially on Friday evenings; and if they live far apart, they may get together once a month.
Q. What is the relationship between Arab and Jewish believers?
A. By God’s grace, the relationship is slowly improving. The Arab churches in the north of Israel are more connected to the Jewish churches. The north is much more assimilated.
As you go south toward Jerusalem, the relationship is improving; it was pretty cold. Recently, we have been meeting to discuss, pray, and fellowship to build a better foundation of fellowship for the next generation.
The major cause for the distance between believing Arabs and Jews is Replacement Theology, which most Arab churches adopt. [Replacement Theology maintains God has replaced Israel with the church and that Israel no longer has a biblical right to the land.] We pray and hope that, as time goes by, a better understanding of God’s role for Israel will yield accurate teaching and result in a better relationship.
Many Jewish believers think as long as Replacement Theology dictates the Arab-Christian understanding about Israel, Arab Christians will share the same views and feelings about Israel and Jews as Muslim Arabs. We pray and hope for a better relationship.
Q. How does Israel treat Israeli Arabs?
A. You must understand that an Israeli Arab (Muslim, Druze, or Christian) is an equal citizen like any Israeli Jewish person. The reason for the distrust and distance or excessive security checks is only because of all the terror activities carried out by Muslim Arabs. It is very sad that innocent Arabs do suffer because of that.
Many Israeli Arabs rightfully demand all rights, yet they do not view Israel as their nation, and most of them (not all) will not do any civil service or military service.
Out of 120 parliament members, about 20 are Arab Muslims and Christians. Some publicly support the terrorists and call them freedom fighters. They will not say a word against the killing of innocent Israeli Jews. Outside Israel, in foreign parliaments, they denounce Israel. The only thing they forget to say is that no Arab country in the world would tolerate such activity!
Arabs, Christians, and Muslims—those who desire to assimilate into Israeli Jewish society— hold high positions in Israel. They work as judges, police officers, and in many other well-respected positions.
What media channels like CNN and BBC choose to broadcast are usually half-truths and anything bad about Israel. We are not perfect; but compared to all the Arab nations, Israel is the best and most desired country for Arabs!
Q. What are the IDF’s moral standards?
A. It may sound boastful, but the IDF’s moral standards are extremely high. Every command has to be verified by the army’s legal department. Soldiers are told to refuse a command if it is unlawful. So from an administrative point of view, our standards are very good.
But since we are all sinful people, subject to moods and feelings, mistakes and wrongdoings can happen, though they are minimal.
Sadly, most of the news about the IDF and Israel in the world media is very biased. Israeli soldiers are not aiming to kill children or babies. Our enemies are shooting at us from schools and hospitals. When we shoot back, they call us child-killers. Our enemies hate us more than they love their own children, as the late Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir said.
During the wars in Gaza, before taking down a building that was used by terrorists, the Israeli army called everyone in the area and told them personally to leave. (Technology makes this possible.) How many armies do that? Pilots aborted their missions the minute they saw innocent people in the target area. Sick people could cross the border and get treatment in Israeli hospitals. Trucks loaded with food and goods constantly went to Gaza to provide essential food. I am sure CNN and BBC do not show this side to you.
What you see is the moment a bullet hits a young person or child. It is heartbreaking, but a war zone is not a laboratory. Mistakes happen. And some of these people are not as innocent as you may think. It’s easy to edit a film, and Hamas in Gaza is really professional in video-editing.
You should ask yourself, Why do Palestinian leaders send kids to war? Why do they give them weapons to kill Israeli soldiers? Why do they allow them to throw stones at soldiers? Why does Hamas use almost all of its money to produce rockets and buy weapons instead of feeding its people?
After all, Israel left the Gaza Strip, as the Palestinians wanted. The cruel party is the Hamas leadership, not Israel.
At the northern border, things are similar. During the ongoing civil war in Syria, the Syrian president massacred about 400,000 Syrian citizens. More than 3 million Syrians left their homes and are now in exile. During these five years, Israel opened a field hospital in the north and served more than 5,000 wounded Syrians. We hope that some of the 5,000 will think twice before shouting again, “Death to Israel.”
Overall, the IDF is an army with high moral standards. Soldiers who violate the rules are punished. Bad standards are rejected and criticized. We are not perfect, but we are way better than those who accuse us.