Very few people in Arad are standing by the Messianic Jews. "Expel them from here immediately," demands Udi Asher, a kiosk owner in the town's large commercial center. The center is empty on this blazing hot afternoon, and Asher seems to be waiting for an opportunity to get mad. "Some woman came here, bought nuts and gave me a New Testament. I wanted to throw her out of the store. I restrained myself, but I didn't understand what she was after. She knows I'm Jewish, so why did she try to convert me? If they're allowed to do that, then so are the Haredim. It's a war of survival. We have to preserve a Jewish character in the town. I still have a limitation in my brain: I don't want to live next to a Christian or next to a Muslim."
Arad has a population of 26,000, with an unemployment rate of 9.6 percent (as compared with the national average of 10.9 percent). Some 40 percent of the residents are new immigrants, mainly from the former Soviet Union. There is a large Haredi population - 300 families of the Gur hasidic sect, 50 or so Chabad families, and another 50 families that support the ultra-Orthodox Shas Sephardi party. In the past few years Arad has changed from a town that traditionally supported Labor to a bastion of the right. In the 1996 elections, Labor won 30 percent of the vote, Likud 22.9 percent, and in 1999, Ehud Barak, Labor's candidate for prime minister, received 64 percent of the vote, nearly 30 percent more than the Likud candidate, Benjamin Netanyahu (35.9 percent). The turnabout occurred in 2001: Ariel Sharon won 58.7 percent of the vote, Barak only 41.2 percent. In 2003, the Likud took about 62 percent of the vote, as against only 21.3 percent for Labor.
Labor also sustained a defeat in the municipal elections last November, when Dr. Motti Bril, an independent candidate who is considered to have a right-wing orientation, defeated Labor's Bezalel Tabib, who was mayor for 15 years. The Messianic Jews settled in Arad during Tabib's tenure. "I never felt their presence," the former mayor says. "I heard about them when someone came to me three years ago and said that they were here and were holding meetings in someone's house. It wasn't a complaint. He said they were very nice. It's true that they talk about the Christian cause, but they are also happy and they sing and talk about love. Every person has the right to do what he wants in his home. It didn't bother me."
The new mayor takes a different approach to the subject. "They are not being persecuted. In what way are they persecuted?" Bril asks. "They come to the place and operate on the fringe of the law that bans missionary activity. We treat them politely and with due courtesy, but they are far from being complete tzadikim [saintly people]. There is a group of Haredim that says they already broke the law when they distributed food to Holocaust survivors ahead of Pesach and placed a copy of the New Testament and some money in the package."
They deny that.
"In the meantime I am not taking action and not doing anything against them. I don't have enough evidence to act against them, so I am not taking any active steps. On the day they cross the line the municipality of Arad will use all its might to expel them. If I had something that is absolute proof, they wouldn't be in Arad. Because I don't, I am tolerant. In the meantime, they are on the borderline but they are far from being persecuted saints. We're on the threshold of a struggle. A group arrives that tries to do something else, and they are allowed to proceed up to a certain limit, but only up to a certain limit. This is a very tolerant city, but missionary activity is against the law. As long as we're in the gray area, we're not bothering with them."
So, to maintain the municipal coalition you prefer to ignore the harassment of the Messianic Jews?
"People are allowed to hold a demonstration next to private homes. It's not pleasant, not conventional, not ordinary, but it's allowed. And it has nothing to do with the municipal coalition. There are people who think that what they are doing is bad and they are demonstrating next to their homes. What's wrong with that?"
Yitzhak Benishti, a Labor Party representative on the municipal council, also objects to the presence of the Messianic Jews. "I'm against all this messianic organizing, I'm not in favor and I don't support them. These are Jews who are engaged in missionary activity."
That's a rumor being spread by the Haredim, but there's no proof of it, is there?
"That's why I say that if they are engaging in missionary activity, I am against. I am not intervening in the matter."
If there's no proof of missionary activity, why shouldn't you intervene to protect them?
"The truth is that I am against holding demonstrations across from private homes and bothering the neighbors. All the neighbors are already very upset."
And what about the Messianic Jews - they are also very upset, aren't they?
"I just haven't been in Arad for the past two weeks. I will consider intervening in their favor. I will definitely consider it."
What the law says
Sergei Bikhovsky, a representative of the centrist, anticlerical party Shinui on the municipal council, and the party's top official in the south, says he is torn between the law - "For me the law is the most important thing, and the law says that missionary activity is forbidden" - and the people themselves, "who are very nice and have even opened a chess club for immigrants from the former Soviet Union. I'm in a really bad spot."
But aren't they in an even worse spot?
"The action taken by the Haredim is not right. The way they reacted isn't so nice."
Gabi Bahan, who was a representative of the liberal Meretz party on the previous municipal council (Meretz does not have a representative on the current council), objects to the Haredi demonstrations. "The rabbis here are conducting illegitimate politics by taking advantage of the Messianic Jews," he says. "It's very easy for a large group to exploit a minority group to crystallize itself. The Messianic Jews live their lives and don't make themselves felt. The question is who the missionary is here. The Gur hasidic sect built a school for secular children to get them to become religious. The town should be pluralistic. The greater the diversity, the stronger we will be as a community."
Nevertheless, Bahan has so far done nothing to protect the Messianic Jews. Maybe he'll write an article for the local weekly, he says. Eitan Michaeli, a resident of Arad and the deputy director of the Be'er Sheva branch of Shatil - which defines itself as "a capacity-building center for grassroots social change organizations" - was also a Meretz representative on the last council. And he has already written an article for the local paper. "It's hard to do more than that," he says. "Arad has become a place where it's very difficult to mobilize people. In the past, people here voted for Mapai [forerunner of Labor], Dash [the defunct Democratic Movement for Change, a centrist party] and for Meretz, but in the past few years the Likud and Shas have become stronger. It's a pity that the rabbis don't understand that they are playing with a double-edged sword. Just as they are now inciting against the Messianic Jews, tomorrow people will incite against them. They are fanning the flames and in the end they will be burned."
The head of the local Likud branch, Moshe Edri, says that he has read the law - "and I hope the mayor will act according to the law and thus resolve the problem."
Won't the problem be resolved if the Haredim are prevented from harassing the Messianic Jews?
"I don't see that anyone is harassing them. I would suggest that there be no missionary activity in any city in this country."
Three sections of the Penal Code deal with missionary activity. According to Par. 174(A), anyone "who gives or promises a person money, the equivalent value of money or any other material benefit in order to entice him to change his religion or so that he will entice someone else to change his religion, shall be imprisoned for five years or pay a fine of 50,000 [Israel] pounds." Par. 174(B) states that anyone who receives material benefits in order to convert is liable to a prison term of three years and a fine of 300,000 pounds. And Par. 368 stipulates that anyone who conducts a conversion ceremony for someone who is under-aged is liable to six months in prison.
In December 2001, the Knesset's Constitution, Law and Justice Committee voted down a bill by MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism), which would have imposed a three-month prison term on anyone who tried to cajole someone to convert by means of the mail or by fax. "I have a small boy at home, who could receive missionary material by mail, by fax or by e-mail," Gafni told the committee. "I'd be interested to know why you receive this kind of thing but I don't," wondered MK Ophir Pines-Paz (Labor). "I have spoken about this to the director of the postal service many times, and piles of this material arrive," Gafni said.
In recent years the Knesset has held only a few discussions on the subject of missionary activity. In one of the most exhaustive discussions, held by the Interior Committee in November 1999, Inspector Yosef Cohen, an officer with the police Investigations Branch, warned against militant persecution of the Christian sects in Israel. "The U.S. administration itself closely monitors the law-enforcement authorities in Israel in regard to persecution of what it calls religious sects, as the messianic sects in the United States have a very powerful lobby in the administration," Cohen said. "Therefore, as with any other law, the law-enforcement authorities in Israel should be especially careful and adopt an attitude that is completely legal, no less and no more."
Cohen also cited some interesting statistics. During the 1990s, he said, the police received between 10 and 20 complaints concerning offenses relating to religious conversion. However, the members of the messianic sects, he said, had submitted no fewer than 60 complaints against Yad L'Achim. "I would expect organizations engaged in guarding the Jewish public against Christian preaching not to resort to violent activity," he noted.
H., a lawyer, is very fearful of the Haredi activity in Arad. She is a 41-year-old single mother with three children. She refuses to divulge any details that might disclose her identity, but agreed to meet with me at the Arad shopping mall. She doesn't meet with strangers in her home, she explained, so that they won't find out where she lives. Her children try not to say anything about her religious beliefs to their friends, so as to spare her harassment.
She became a Messianic Jew two years ago, she says. "For many years I searched for God," she says. "In the course of the search I also became close to the Haredim. A few years ago I even became a regular donor to a Haredi radio station, and I wore long skirts, went to the mikveh [ritual bath] and read three chapters of Psalms every day."
One of her neighbors in Herzliya, where she lived, was a Messianic Jew. "She read me chapters from the Bible. It scared me, but I was also attracted to it. It responded to a lot of things that were bothering me." H. told hardly anyone about her new faith. "My mother knows. We have long arguments. She is a Holocaust survivor. My father doesn't know to this day. The father of my three children became very frightened. He was certain that harm would befall the children. He calmed down only after seeing that nothing happened to the children. My brother learned about it only recently."
Relatives who know about her belief sometimes harass her no less than the Haredim. "My son went to visit someone in the family who knows. My son was wearing a crown that he received from a fast-food restaurant. The crown had illustrations of crosses on it. The relative was so frightened that he cut out the crosses."
Her faith is a private matter, she says. "How can I be a missionary if I hardly talk about the subject with anyone? A friend expressed interest, and I gave him a book to read. He returned the book and said he's not interested in these subjects and that was the end of the conversation. In the past few months I took a course given by the Labor Ministry, and no one there knew I am a Messianic Jew. As far as I'm concerned, it's a private spiritual process. If I don't share it with even those who are closest to me, why would I share it with others?"
For the past few weeks she has been gripped by fear. "It was a bad surprise for me to find out that there are religious wars in Arad. It sounds absurd. It's a small, quiet, lovely town. When I was a girl we spent summer vacations here, and when my mother retired she dreamed of coming back here - which is why I came to Arad a year ago. Who believed it would happen here? We know that we can expect more persecution. We will accept it the way Gandhi did in India, with passive resistance. We will not leave this place. We believe we are doing a good thing for Arad. I pray that there will be an economic boom in Arad. I remember better days here. When I was a girl, there was the Masada Hotel, today it's a heap of rubble. In the winter I prayed for rain in Arad.
To secular eyes, you very much resemble the Haredim.
"That's true. There's a saying that we met our enemies and they are us. The sharpest clashes are with those who are like you."
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now