While Israeli legal authorities have been intentionally refraining from implementing the law designed to curb the activities of Christian missions in Israel, passed by the knesset (Isreali parliament) last December, small groups of Orthodox Jews have been assaulting prayer meetings of converted Jews, damaging property and in some cases injuring participants.
The groups that were attacked were in most cases not part of established churches but fringe groups where the demarcation between Judaism and Christianity is not always clear. Among the main targets for the attacks are "Jews for Jesus" and the Messianic Hebrews, who claim to belong to the Jewish people despite their conversion to Christianity.
The most recent incident took place on June 18, when a group of Messianic Hebrews held a sabbath prayer meeting in a private apartment, belonging to one Arthur Goldberg, in a residential area in Rishon Le Zion, a town about 10 miles south of Tel Aviv.
There are two versions of the assault, which went almost completely unreported in the Israeli press. Baruch Maoz, the group's leader and editor of a quarterly on Messianic Judaism, claims that there were 200 attackers and they rampaged in the apartment for hours, ignoring the sanctity of the sabbath, destroying the entire interior of the apartment and injuring him and some of his colleagues. But the Israeli police tell a different story.
According to Major Yoesf Amir, spokesman for the Southern District of the Israeli Police, the first news of the incident reached the Rishon Le Zion Police Station in a phone call from neighbours at 11 a.m. (although it was later claimed that the attack began at 9:30 a.m. Although Amir confirms the charge made by Maoz that only a single policeman was sent to the spot in a patrol car, he succeeded in separating the brawlers and took two of the attackers into custody. They are now facing charges of causing damage to property. The police spokesman told The Washington Post that the owner of the apartment himself estimates that the damage to his property does not exceed about $60. Both sides claimed criminal assaults by the other side.
Knesset member Shulemit Alloni, leader of the Citizens Rights Party, who is also familiar with the incident, said in an interview that this was "only one example of the atmosphere of religious intolerance that exists in Israel today. I realize that the number of zealots involved in physical violence against what they consider efforts to convert Jews to Christianity is relatively small. Yet, many others condone their activities." Alloni said it was her feeling that the police are very nonchalant about violence by Jewish fanatics.
Other observers here believe that indifference would be a better expression to describe Israeli attitudes toward attacks on Christian missions.
Representatives of the religious parties who participate in the present coalition cabinet headed by Prime Minister Menahem Begin claim that they are against violence but at the same time feel that "missionaries have no business in Israel." The Labor Party claims that it has "other priorities" in its criticism of government policy.
The controversial law, which does not mention Christian missions by name, makes it a criminal offense punishable by up to five years in jail to give money or something worth money with the intention to tempt another person to change his religion. The law was presented as a private bill by Rabbi Yehuda M. Abramowitz, of the ultra-orthodox Agoudat Israel Party at a time when public attention in Israel and in the Knesset was focussed on the dramatic negotiations with Egypt.
Only when reactions began to come from Israeli representatives abroad, who reported on the negative impression the law made on Christian communities, mainly in the U.S. and in Europe was public awareness aroused in Israel.
Rather than try to repeal the law, the government has preferred to ignore it as much as possible. When a delegation representing the United Christian Church in Israel, which is composed of most of the Protestant groups, met with the Israeli Attorney General, Professor Aharon Barak, he assured them that the government has no intention to actively implement the law.