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Messianic Jews call for inquiry as Bible-burning row hits Israel

ICC Note

“The Bibles are not forced on anybody and are not forced into any homes. The book has never harmed anyone; you can choose to read it or choose not to read it. If this happened to Jewish books overseas we would be screaming anti-Semitism. This sort of thing happens in some regimes around us that we don’t like,”

By Michael Ireland

05/27/2008 Israel (ANS) — Messianic Jews in Israel say they want an inquiry into the burning of hundreds of copies of the New Testament by Orthodox Jews in Or Yehuda last week.

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) says the books were given to the town’s Ethiopian Jews by Messianic Jews, who believe in Jesus as the Saviour of mankind.

Or Yehuda’s deputy mayor says he received complaints about the books, and arranged for them to be burned, the BBC reported. He has now apologized after his actions have been compared to those of Nazis who burnt Jewish holy scriptures.

According to the BBC’s Frances Harrison, proselytizing to Ethiopian Jews is sensitive because historically they were the target of missionaries who converted many to Christianity in Ethiopia — though they later argued the conversion was forced and they had never really abandoned their Jewish faith.

The dispute is revealing growing tension between Messianic Jews and their Orthodox opponents who do not recognize them as Jews, the BBC correspondent adds.

The BBC says many of the details of exactly what happened in Or Yehuda are now being disputed. However, the deputy mayor says Messianic Jewish missionaries had targeted an area of the town where many Ethiopian Jews live, distributing packages containing New Testaments and pamphlets.

The deputy mayor says he received complaints and then drove around the area with a loudspeaker urging people to hand over the material to Orthodox religious students who went door-to-door collecting it. The books were then dumped in a pile and burned, the BBC reported.

The BBC news report says Messianic Jews complain of institutionalized discrimination and are demanding all those involved be put on trial. Meanwhile, Orthodox Jews are applauding the destruction of texts they say urge Jews to convert.

Jerome M. Epstein, a US-based rabbi who is the executive vice president of United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism, writing in the Jerusalem Post says that for six decades, Israel has distinguished itself as a bastion of freedom and democracy in a corner of the world where those values often are desecrated.

“It has been a haven of religious freedom and tolerance. It is worthy of note that in the Jewish state, Muslims, Catholics, Protestants and Buddhists are guaranteed by law the freedom to practice their religion openly. I am deeply proud of Israel .”

But his feelings of pride were dampened last week “by the distasteful behavior of Shas activists in Israel who burned copies of the Christian Bible, which they allege had been distributed by Christian missionaries.”

Epstein writes: “I certainly do not endorse missionizing activities in Israel , but the images of book-burning Jews makes me shudder. It is immoral for any Jew to act this way. For a religious Jew to do so is a hilul Hashem — a desecration of God’s name. Those Jews who burn books make a sham out of their personal piety.”

Epstein says he shudders at the irony of religious and committed Jews burning any books, whatever their content.

“Even if they do not remember the Holocaust, I do,” he says.

“When German Nazi soldiers and civilians burned books in 1933, the action was widely condemned, especially by Jews. That act pained us to the core. For us, the People of the Book, the mere idea of burning a book is destructive and the act itself inflicts an indelible wound.

Epstein continues: “I shudder at the irony of Jews burning religious books. Whether the text is holy to Jews is irrelevant. The texts that were burned are holy to Christians. Imagine how any Jew would feel if non-Jews burned our sacred texts because they disagreed with them. It does not matter whether they regarded those texts as holy.

“We Jews, whose ancestors lived through inquisitions, whose very essence was desecrated when Christians burned our treasured Talmud in European cities in the Middle Ages, know the tears that are shed when something holy to us is desecrated.”

Epstein shudders at the irony of book-burning in Israel . ” Israel is more than a homeland for Jews. It is a light unto the nations. Israel must not permit revered rabbis who condone sin — much less those who encourage it — to go unchallenged. Israel must not permit misguided reactionaries to go unpunished, even if those misguided reactionaries, ironically enough, are the revered rabbis. Book-burning in Israel is an attack on all that Israel stands for.

He said he also shudders at the irony of silence. “We know what happens when good people remain silent and evil edges out good. Israel and Jews throughout the world must condemn this atrocious behavior and take the bold and necessary steps to ensure that this one-time occurrence remain a singular nightmare.”

The author of Isreality Bites, writing under the pseudonym Izzy Bee at , also says that Messianic ‘Jews for Jesus’, who are closely linked with Evangelical Christian groups from America and now number up to 15,000 inside Israel, called for an official investigation after orthodox students from a yeshiva in the town of Or Yehuda allegedly dumped and burnt hundreds of copies of the New Testament. These had been distributed to Ethiopian immigrant families in the town.

“At first,” he says, “the action was defended by Deputy Mayor Uzi Aharon, of the Shas party, as ‘purging the evil among us,’ but he was quick to backtrack. Ultimately, he blamed ‘three or four’ hotheaded students for a ‘spontaneous act’ which led to an international public relations disaster.

Aharon apologized by saying ‘sorry we hurt the feelings of others,’ but he shrugged off criticism of his anti-missionary zeal. To proselytize is against the law inside the Jewish State, although Christian missionaries often are tolerated when they spread the gospel to Israeli Arabs.”

Izzy Bee says tensions are on the rise. “Two months ago, a parcel bomb left outside a house in Ariel wounded the son of a prominent Messianic Jew. Haredim massed outside messianic Jewish gatherings in Beersheba and Arad , and stirred up violence.

“And just before Independence Day, a group of religious Zionist rabbis called for a boycott of this year’s International Bible Quiz after discovering that one of the four finalists from Israel , Bat-El Levi, an 11th-grader from Jerusalem ‘s Pisgat Ze’ev neighborhood, was a messianic Jew.”

He states: “The rise in tensions is partly due…to increased fervor within haredi anti-missionary groups.” Izzy Bee says that Victor Kalisher, the son of Holocaust survivors, spoke to the Jerusalem Post about his shock and dismay at the burnings.

“As Jews we were raised and taught that where books are burned, worse things can happen. That’s what I think when I see the pictures of what happened in Or Yehuda. What worries me is that nobody has stood up against this. It seems there is a war against messianic Jews in Israel . Nobody cares about many, what I believe to be cults, in Israel . These cults, which are not based on the Bible, don’t pose a threat to the establishment. But God forbid a Jew learns about the messiah from the [Christian] Bible,” Kalisher said.

The blogger writes that Kalisher said he did not know who paid for and distributed the New Testaments that were distributed in Or Yehuda, but that there was demand for the books from many quarters.

“The Bibles are not forced on anybody and are not forced into any homes. The book has never harmed anyone, you can choose to read it or choose not to read it. If this happened to Jewish books overseas we would be screaming anti-Semitism. This sort of thing happens in some regimes around us that we don’t like,” Kalisher said.