The Anti-Missionary Bill: Giving Israel A Bad Name

The State of Israel…will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens without distinction of race, creed or sex; will guarantee full freedom of conscience, worship, education and culture; will safeguard the sanctity and inviolability of the shrines and Holy Places of all religions…

— Declaration of Israel’s Independence, May 14, 1948

A firestorm of protest has arisen in Israel and abroad over a proposed bill introduced in the Knesset (Israel’s Parliament) that would severely restrict freedom of religious expression by Israeli citizens. The bill, which contradicts basic freedoms guaranteed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, is aimed squarely at the growing evangelical Christian community in Israel. Popularly referred to as “The Anti-Missionary Bill,” it is specific in its intent. Introduced as an amendment to the penal code, the text reads:

Prohibition of Inducement to Religious Conversion

  1. Whoever possesses contrary to the law or prints or reproduces or disseminates or distributes or imports tracts or publicizes things in which there is an inducement to religious conversion is punishable by—one year imprisonment.

  2. Any tract or publication in which there is inducement to religious conversion will be confiscated.

What This Bill Means

Ha’Aretz, an Israeli, Hebrew-language newspaper, correctly reported that the bill would make it illegal to print and distribute materials intended to persuade individuals to change their religion. An explanatory note attached to the bill clarifies one aspect of the rationale for the proposed law: “Lately, different missionary sects have begun trying to entice conversion by means of materials sent through the mail and other publications that have been contrary to the desires of the recipients.”

Use of the word “missionary” in this note extends to individual Israeli believers who seek to carry on the clear mandate of the New Testament to make the Messiah known to Jews and Gentiles alike. Not only would the bill prohibit importing, printing, and distributing tracts and publications, but, if written into law, it would go so far as to “confiscate” literature judged to be offensive to the Orthodox community.

The threat of such deprivation of freedom of expression, which is a cherished cornerstone in legitimate democratic societies, casts ominous shadows over Israel’s future. Sad to say, these self-appointed—“No choice but ours”—guardians of the souls of Israel’s citizens bring to mind the scent of the fumes from the giant book burnings in Germany prior to World War II. It was the darkest of times—a time when freedom was being mutilated, and Europeans and Jews alike were to suffer the consequences.

Confiscation conjures up scenes of dark-coated religious zealots invading the homes of citizens in search of offending materials. Among the most serious concerns to reasonable people—religious or otherwise—is how far such a law would allow these people to go. For example, would it become illegal for a person to possess a New Testament? The question is not as farfetched as it may seem. The New Testament clearly sends a message that calls for receiving Jesus as the only Messiah and Savior. That message is directed to both Jewish people and Gentiles.

Encouragement of this kind to accept Jesus as the Messiah—not simply change religion—would, without question, transgress the letter of the “Prohibition of Inducement to Religious Conversion Law” as it is now written.

Facts

This bill is not yet law in Israel. To become law, the proposed legislation must survive three readings on the floor of the Knesset. It has been referred to a committee for changes before it is resubmitted to the full Knesset at an unspecified time.

This bill is not sponsored by the government. It was introduced by individual members of the Knesset: Moshe Gafni of the United Torah Judaism Party and Nissim Zvili of the Labor Party. Therefore, neither the Likud Party, now in power, nor the opposition Labor Party has sponsored or officially supported the proposed legislation. Spokesmen have stated that the Netanyahu government is opposed to the bill and believes that it has virtually no chance of surviving in the Knesset.

Reflections of a Larger Struggle

This bill, and others akin to it, is endorsed by the Orthodox parties, who are engaged in an across-the-board contest to regulate nearly every aspect of Israeli life. They are in sometimes violent conflict with secular Israelis who wish to live nonreligious lives. At the same time that they press for such laws as the one under discussion, they are waging a bitter battle against fellow Jews who have opted for other forms of Judaism.

At this writing, a “conversion bill” is moving through the Knesset that would declare null and void the conversion to Judaism of Jewish people in Israel if their conversion was not accomplished by Orthodox authorities. If approved, this bill, by standards of Israeli law, would delegitimatize the Judaism of half of world Jewry. The impact would seriously affect Russian Jews who have entered Israel as nonreligious immigrants. Their only chance for an acceptable move into Judaism would be to become converts of the Orthodox.

There is, indeed, a religious war being waged in Israel. Not only are the Orthodox attempting a frontal assault on Jewish people who choose to believe in Jesus, but they are also at odds with Israelis who are secular or belong to other branches of Judaism.

Looking to Long-Term Prospects

Consensus among qualified observers is that the bill will not, at this time, survive the necessary three readings in the Knesset. There is intense pressure from within the country and from the international community to repudiate the bill. This will not, however, dissuade those pressing for its passage. Many believe that the bill was introduced to test the political waters and determine just how far it would go.

Some say that, failing to gain approval in Israel’s legislative body, the matter will be shifted into the courts in an attempt to have the bill’s provisions tacked on to an already existing law prohibiting the offering of inducements to prospective converts as an encouragement to change their religion.

Perhaps the most likely avenue to success is holding the bill in reserve until the next serious government crisis. In such a scenario, with the fall of the government at issue, the Orthodox parties may again bring the bill forward. Their proposition would be simple: In exchange for staying in the coalition and saving the government, the ruling party would join them in pressing forward with passage of their discriminatory bill.

Ultimate Consequences

Should this bill become law, freedom of Israeli believers—who are full citizens of the state—to communicate their faith would be virtually shut down. The result would be a major confrontation between the State of Israel and a loyal segment of its citizenry, Jewish believers in Jesus. We can hardly envision a darker prospect than Israelis being imprisoned for one year for possessing a pamphlet declaring Jesus to be the Messiah. Israeli politicians who may be tempted to cave in to pressure from religious hard-liners will do well not to underestimate the determination of their constituents who believe in Jesus. They have already declared their willingness to fill the jails rather than deny their faith.

Another consequence of such a law would be the accelerated persecution of Christians by radical, Orthodox elements. Since the birth of the state, they have made a “ministry” of making life hard for Jewish followers of Jesus. If the time comes when they feel they have the full weight of the law behind them, it will mean the worst of times for Israel—something a nation beset with the immense problem of national survival can hardly afford to bring on itself.

Just as serious for the nation as the turmoil bound to ensue if the bill is enacted, is the damage even now being done to the international reputation of the State of Israel. In Israel, a comparatively small but influential, religiously orthodox segment of the population views the issue as narrowly as they do the rights of others to their religious beliefs. For them, it is a provincial concern over “proselytizing.” For people looking on from outside Israel, the issue is as basic as freedom itself. Israel is seen by its friends as the lone bastion of democracy in the Middle East. The existence of this bill, however, places that perception in jeopardy. It is giving Israel a bad name.

In Holland, the issue of the threat to freedom inherent in this bill was raised in the Parliament.
In Norway, the Israeli ambassador reportedly wrote to warn the government of the possible collapse of Norwegian support for Israel.
The matter has been discussed in the Danish Parliament.
The Finnish ambassador expressed concern over the bill.
German church officials have publicly expressed anguish over the proposed law.
In Britain, the Foreign Minister instructed his ambassador in Israel to follow the matter closely.
In America, prominent elected and appointed officials have expressed grave concern over the possible enactment of this bill or any like it.

For Israel’s entrenched enemies, even the slim possibility of a bill such as this becoming law is a public relations bonanza. The ability to cast Israel in the same mold as repressive totalitarian regimes, such as the former Soviet Union, gives them cause to celebrate.

Among Israel’s best friends stand the evangelical Christians of America and the Western world. They are, frankly, confused and deeply anguished over the possibility of Israel issuing a license to kill religious freedom in a land revered as no other in the world. These people regularly and fervently pray for the peace of Jerusalem, stand up to the anti-Semites, and constantly remind their leaders of their sacred commitment to the Jewish state’s survival.

They are also Christians who are unapologetically dedicated to making Christ known among the nations—it is the fundamental mandate of their faith. They are not people who seek to buy converts, subvert souls, or force conversions. They are essentially people of integrity who, while believing that every person on earth—Jewish and Gentile—should have an opportunity to hear the gospel, hold that no one should be forced to believe. They are Israel’s true friends; they are also among those targeted by zealots who see nothing beyond their own prejudices.

I am not given to advising the leaders of the State of Israel on how to conduct affairs in the land charged to their keeping. But there is a time for exceptions, and I judge this to be one. Allow me to join the millions of friends of Israel worldwide in counseling a quick and decisive end to any thought that Israel, of all nations, would stand aside and allow such a threat to freedom to proceed.

While I am fully aware of the delicate balancing act done by every administration in Israel since the inception of the state to hold a ruling coalition together, I am constrained to believe that no administration is worth saving if the price of political survival is the millstone of marauding religious intolerance enshrined by law.

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