Jewish Believers Test the Law of Return

On February 21, 1993, three Jewish families in Israel were ordered out of what they had hoped would be their adopted country. Gary and Shirley Beresford came to Israel from their native Zimbabwe in 1987 and applied for citizenship. Americans Richard and Vanyanna Kendall and their children, along with Sidney and Linda Speakman, arrived the next year. The Beresfords, Kendalls, and Seakmans are all Jewish believers in Jesus as Messiah, and that faith commitment has led to the rejection of their applications for citizenship the Israeli Interior Ministry. Last September the High Court of Justice rejected their appeals and extended their tourist visas only until February 1993.

The issue at hand is how the Law of Return, one of the first pieces of legislation passed by the hedgling Jewish state in 1950, is to be applied. That law simply states that Jewish people qualify for immediate citizenship when they make aliyah (immigration). But the question “Who’s a Jew?” has been a source of debate since the founding of the country. Jewish law (halakah) states that a Jew is anyone born of a Jewish mother or anyone who has converted to Judaism. But what if that Jewish person believes in Jesus? A 1970 amendment to the Law of Return says that “a Jew who has willingly professed another faith” does not qualify for Israeli citizenship.

The three families are not the first Jewish believers to test this understanding of the Law of Return. In 962, Brother Daniel Rufeisen, a French resistance hero who became a Catholic monk, lost a famous high court battle for citizenship. Subsequently, however, he was granted permanent residency and still lives as a Carmelite monk in Haifa. In 1979, Esther Dorflinger was likewise denied citizenship but was given permanent residency. But permanent residency is not an option for the Beresfords, Kendalls, or Speakmans at the present time. Today the Interior Ministry is headed by Aryeh Deri, head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, which is strongly opposed to granting citizenship to any new Jewish believers. Pressure has also been brought from other Orthodox groups in Israel, such as Yad L’Achim, a vocal anti-missionary group that monitors messianic activity.

The Beresfords deny, however, that they are missionaries, and they have never been accused as such. Shirley became a believer in 1985, and Gary followed soon thereafter. They applied for immigrant visas through the South African Zionist Federation, but one of Shirley’s sons informed the Federation that his mother and her husband believed in Jesus. Denied the visas, they went to Israel as tourists and have been trying for six years to be recognized as Israelis.

The Beresfords consider themselves to be Jews and are far more observant of Jewish law and tradition than the majority of their secular Israeli neighbors. They celebrate Jewish holidays and keep the Sabbath and dietary laws. But such observance and patriotism make no difference to the high court. Justice Menachem Elon declared, “In the last two thousand years of history … the Jewish people has decided that Messianic Jews do not belong to the Jewish nation and have no right to force themselves on it.”

Current estimates of the number of publicly declared Jewish believers in Israel are as high as 3,000 and growing. Although most are native-born Israelis, an increasing number of new Russian olim (immigrants) have believed in Jesus, and other Western immigrant believers have slipped past the Interior Ministry authorities. These Messianic believers are actively involved in Israeli society, even performing their obligatory military service. Their status is not threatened by the most recent decision; denial of citizenship applies only to new immigrants.

The case has raised a difficult dilemma for Israeli believers, who worship in more than 35 assemblies throughout the country. Some leaders have strongly supported the families and have even demonstrated at the Prime Minister’s residence. Others have preferred to keep a low profile, concluding that undue reaction to the issue may create more pressure for themselves.

The attitude of the average Israeli toward this issue is far more tolerant than that of the Interior Ministry and the Supreme Court. A 1989 poll indicated that approximately 80 percent of Israelis favor citizenship for Messianic believers, provided that they identify with the Jewish people and perform their national service responsibilities.

The families did secure an advocate in the Israeli government. Knesset member Benny Temkin is one of the sponsors of a bill to amend the Law of Return. Under that proposal, anyone whose first-degree relative has Israeli citizenship or has served in the army is automatically eligible for permanent residency.

As a result of this intervention, coupled with demonstrations by some Israeli believers on their behalf, the families were granted an extension of their tourist visas. In mid June, two of the three families were still in Israel, hoping that the Knesset debate will at least result in granting them permanent residency.

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