How the Messianic Jews Story is Playing in Israel

The other day I wrote about the different headlines Jewish news outlets in the US were putting on the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s story about former President George W. Bush’s appearance at the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute fundraiser last week.

I was pretty surprised to see the Times of Israel run the same JTA story under the headline: “Has the time come to accept Messianic Jews?” 

The Messianic Jewish Alliance of America is thrilled. Its blog boasts: “Israelis Ask: Time to Accept Messianic Jews?”

Well, a headline writer, at least. 

Facing the avalanche of criticism from the American Jewish community, it’s not surprising that Messianic Jews would try to find a thread of acceptance from an Israeli source. But it’s worth noting that the acceptance, or lack of acceptance, of Messianic Jews in Israel is steeped in very different issues and concerns than it is in the United States.

Most Israelis are unaware that there is a small but thriving, and relatively underground, community of Messianic Jews in their country. There are no hard numbers, but there are thought to be approximately 10-20,000 Messianic Jews living in Israel. Israelis who are aware of them in their midst—and think that it matters and they have to do something about it—tend to be Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox. The most visible of these groups is the anti-missionary group Yad L’Achim, whose zeal for preserving the Jewishness of Israel extends to “rescuing” Jewish girls from dating Arab boys.

Yad L’Achim was portrayed rather unsympathetically in an investigative report by Israel Channel 1 in 2011, which pleased Messianic Jews there for its treatment of what they consider to be harassment and even persecution by the ultra-Orthodox. 

Another group, Jewish Israel, which claims missionaries and Messianic Judaism threaten the Jewish identity of Israel, is more focused on educational, rather than confrontational efforts.

In Israel, Messianic Jews say they are denied religious freedom. For example, under Israeli law they cannot immigrate there even if they are considered Jewish under the Law of Return, if the government determines that they’ve changed their religion (in essense, to Christianity). It’s true, they’re harassed by Yad L’Achim, and the Jewish terrorist Jack Teitel left a bomb hidden in a Purim basket outside the home of Messianic Jew, seriously injuring his son. There are other, real instances of harassment. 

If Israelis are sympathetic to Messianic Jews, it may be because of issues of religious pluralism there. In other words, non-Orthodox Israelis protest Orthodox control of state religious matters, so they might be sympathetic to a group that also claims religious marginalization.

Here in the United States, though, Jews are a minority, and evangelicals play a significant role in public life and politics. The Jewish community is sensitive to a former president giving his imprimatur to a group that aims to convert Jews to Christianity, and still call themselves Jews. Many Jews object to the apocalyptic narratives underlying Messianic theology.

Because of the role of Christian Zionists in US politics and Middle East policy, many American Jews are very aware of the apocalyptic vision these religious groups embrace. Because in Israel Messianic Jewish groups operate underground, their views and theology are less public. Israelis might not be as aware of their aim to “restore” Israel, i.e., make Israelis recognize Yeshua (Jesus) as their messiah, anticipating Jesus’ return to Jerusalem to rule the world from the Temple Mount.

I don’t think many Israelis have popped in, as I did, at a prayer meeting on Jaffa Street in Jersusalem where there was prayer to “cleanse” and “purify” Jerusalem, and for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to accept Jesus as the Messiah.

Messianic Jews are claiming Bush’s appearance at their group is proof that they are becoming mainstream. That might be true in some evangelical and Pentecostal/charismatic communities. It is far from true in the American Jewish community. And in Israel, before acceptance there has to be awareness. It’s far from clear that either has yet happened.