'It was just kids spitting on nuns, now it's more organized'

Christians worry growing protests against ‘missionaries’ will soon turn bloody

Deputy Jerusalem mayor leads extremists’ campaign against evangelists they believe are trying to convert Jews, as Messianic Jews and others fend off attacks and missionizing claims

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Jewish activists clash with police during a protest against a conference of Christians outside the Davidson Center in Jerusalem, Israel, on May 28, 2023. (Arie Leib Abrams/ Flash90)
Jewish activists clash with police during a protest against a conference of Christians outside the Davidson Center in Jerusalem, Israel, on May 28, 2023. (Arie Leib Abrams/ Flash90)

Last week, dozens of teen boys and men were gathered inside the Clal Center, a run-down shopping center and office building in central Jerusalem.

The group, most of them dressed in distinctive ultra-nationalist garb, were there to crash a gathering of Messianic Jews and block them from a concert being held in an event space in the building.

As dozens of mostly young activists crowded against the main entrance, police — who seemed overwhelmed at times — were called to disperse the protesters and ensure the safety of the event.

The event, which ended with one person arrested for scuffling with police, underlined the current of anti-Christian zeal running through some of Israel’s more extreme nationalist movements, which have seemingly grown in ferocity and frequency recently.

Evangelical Christians and Messianic Jews in Israel fear that the protest and other recent episodes of harassment in Jerusalem could turn far more violent, as far-right Jewish anti-missionary groups step up their activities against them.

Most of the activists who had harassed the Christians hailed from Lehava, which opposes intermarriage and LGBTQ rights, and Or l’Achim, an organization that tries to counter Christian proselytization in Israel.

“You are putting a target on people when there are followers of this movement that are willing to commit violence and have a history of drawing blood,” David Parsons, spokesman for the International Christian Embassy of Jerusalem, said of Lehava.

Speaking to the media from outside the Clal Center hall as protesters whistled and jeered behind him, deputy Jerusalem Mayor Arieh King urged more people to come down and join the anti-Christian demonstration, accusing the groups inside of missionary work.

Weeks earlier, King had led hundreds of religious Jews in chants of “missionaries go home” as hundreds of Christians gathered near the southern section of the Western Wall for a prayer event.

Arieh King, director and founder of the Israel Land Fund, attends an Interior Affairs committee meeting at the Knesset on November 2, 2014. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In a statement, King decried allowing “Christian missionaries to hold a Christian worship and ceremony designed to prepare a missionary effort directed at Israeli residents.”

“As far as I’m concerned, let every missionary know they are not welcome in the Land of Israel,” he said.

‘They’ve drawn blood’

Parsons firmly denied that either event was meant to proselytize: “The event at the Southern Steps was a prayer call. It was praying for Israel, the world and other things, but there was no missionary activity planned there.”

The Messianic convention “was a musical concert, a worship concert,” he said.

“It wasn’t an evangelistic event,” said Michael Mistretta, an immigrant from Canada and CEO of Fellowship of Israel Related Ministries. “It was a national worship concert. It was a worship event with new music songs being released. And so all of the different congregations, messianic Jewish congregations in Israel, were invited to the event, and they came to the event.”

Some at the event reported being attacked by the Jewish extremists.

“It got pretty violent,” said Parsons, whose son performed at the concert. “There were people getting shoved around and kicked and hit.”

International Christian Embassy’s David Parsons speaks with Bnei Menashe immigrants in 2012. (Courtesy)

At the Western Wall protest, an Israeli Christian woman filed a police complaint alleging she was knocked to the ground and kicked repeatedly.

“They’ve drawn blood,” Parsons said. “And the concern is that the accusation of someone being a missionary is thrown around very loosely here and there are followers of this movement who don’t bother to check… They really don’t know who it is they’re protesting against, but they show with hatred in their eyes and hearts, and it’s not nice to face it.”

While there have long been periodic incidents of vandalism and harassment against Christian clergy in Jerusalem’s Old City, there has been a noticeable rise in attacks in recent months.

In November, two soldiers from the Israel Defense Forces’ Givati Brigade were detained on suspicion of spitting at the Armenian archbishop and other pilgrims during a procession in the Old City. In early January, two Jewish teens were arrested for damaging graves at the Protestant cemetery on Mount Zion.

Hosam Naoum, a Palestinian Anglican bishop, touches a damaged grave at the historic Protestant Cemetery on Jerusalem’s Mount Zion in Jerusalem, January 4, 2023. (Mahmoud Illean/AP)

The next week, the Maronite community center in the northern city of Ma’alot-Tarshiha was vandalized by unknown assailants over the Christmas holiday.

Jerusalem’s Armenian community buildings were also targeted by vandals, with multiple discriminatory phrases graffitied on the exterior of structures in the Armenian Quarter. According to the Armenian Patriarchate, “revenge,” “death to Christians,” “death to Arabs and Gentiles” and “death to Armenians” were all graffitied in the quarter.

The attacks kept coming. On a Thursday night in late January, a gang of religious Jewish teens threw chairs at an Armenian restaurant inside the city’s New Gate. Vandalism at the Church of the Flagellation occurred the very next week.

A toppled statue in the Church of the Flagellation, in the Old City of Jerusalem, February 2, 2023. (Custody of the Holy Land)

And in March, a resident of southern Israel was arrested after attacking priests with an iron bar at the Tomb of the Virgin Mary in Gethsemane.

Some tie the rise in aggressive behavior recently to the composition of the current Israeli government.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition is largely supported by ultra-Orthodox and extreme-right factions fiercely protective of Israel’s Orthodox Jewish character and strongly opposed to public displays of Christian worship.

His cabinet includes National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, a longtime associate of Lehava leader Bentzi Gopstein. Before becoming a lawmaker, Ben Gvir defended Gopstein in court against charges of incitement to violence, racism and terrorism.

“We’ve seen them at protests before, but it’s been a while, and they just seem to be emboldened because of Ben Gvir’s position in the government,” Parsons speculated.

Uri Steinberg, a former Israeli diplomat who now runs a consultancy that connects Christian groups and Israel, said the radicals’ tactics had become more extreme.

“What you’re seeing is an escalation, because in the last demonstration you had, the people of Lehava and Bentzi Gopstein are not only extremists, they’re violent,” he said. “It was just a bunch of kids spitting at nuns. Now it’s becoming much more organized, and now it’s becoming something that we’re fearing.”

Orthodox Jewish activists clash with police during a protest against a conference of Christians outside the Davidson Center in Jerusalem’s Old City, May 28, 2023. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

Adir Schwarz, head of the opposition Hitorerut party in city hall, urged authorities to step in before it’s too late.

“Violence usually gets worse,” he told The Times of Israel. “I believe that if we do not stop it when it’s small, it can get a lot bigger.”

Ancient battle

King told The Times of Israel that he has absolutely no issue with Christians coming to Israel.

“If a Christian comes to Israel as a Christian, without goals, without Jews as a target to convert them, he is more than welcome, even if he is a pastor or an archbishop, or any kind of religious leader, he is welcome,” said the deputy mayor.

At the same time, he emphasized that he will not stop countering missionary activity.

File: Christian Zionists at a 2013 Day of Prayer for the Peace of Jerusalem. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

“The goal of the activity is to convert Jews,” he said. “It’s a battle that we have had as a nation for thousands of years, struggling with people trying to convert Jews… to other religions like Christianity. According to [Jewish tradition], we need to act against people trying to take my brothers and sisters and make them Christians.”

“I will do everything, everything that I can to block him from making gains and to demonstrate against him and to make known to everybody who this person is or what this organization is all about,” he pledged. (King, the child of British immigrants, spoke in broken English. Some of his quotes, as well as others, have been edited for clarity.)

King pointed at Messianic organizations publishing flyers in Hebrew and posting in Jewish communities. “If you are focusing on Christians, why write in Hebrew?”

Mistretta said they publish in Hebrew because the event was for Israel’s Messianic community, which is largely Hebrew-speaking.

“It was very publicly a Messianic Jewish event,” he said. “It was put on by the Messianic Jewish Alliance of Israel. So there was no bait and switch. There was no trickery about what the event was.”

King said that Evangelical friends around the world thank him for standing up to missionaries who hide behind the banner of Christian Zionism. In a letter to King, a self-described Christian man in Dallas, Texas wrote that “The ‘missionaries’ drive me crazy too.”

But the writer denied that Christians in Jerusalem were only there to proselytize.

“Most of the people there were just good-hearted people who never knew a religious Jew,” wrote the man. He said he sought to show Jews that others have a role to play as well, “but we are Gentiles, we have always been among you as foreigners and strangers.”

Jewish extremists from the Or l’Achim and Lehava organizations scuffle with police outside a Messianic Jewish convention in Jerusalem, June 22, 2023. (Twitter video screenshot: Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Steinberg rejected the idea of widespread secret missionary work, arguing that paranoia over the issues is badly outdated.

“We’re like the poor Jews in [a] Polish shtetl,” he said, “and the Christians with their sinister ideas are all about converting and they’re talking about stealing small Jewish kids, which is something that is so completely unrelated to 2023.”

He allowed that occasionally some Christians cross lines around proselytization by trying to convince people on an individual level to leave Judaism and convert.

“But I think the majority of Messianic Jews that I work with and again – I’m saying it as 100 percent Jewish, as someone who initially had problems of trying to adapt and trying to understand what the heck is Messianic Judaism – I do think a lot of them are much more respectful than we think.”

Mistretta said Messianic Jews were “very careful to operate within the legal requirements regarding proselytization.”

Only proselytizing to minors without their parents’ consent and offering religious conversions in exchange for a material gift are barred by Israeli law. But there is a widely held misconception that missionary activity in the country is illegal, and the government has at times seemed open to advancing that reputation. In its 2010 International Religious Freedom Report, the US State Department wrote that Israel has “taken a number of steps that encouraged the perception that proselytizing is against government policy,” such as detaining missionaries and citing “proselytism as a reason to deny student, work, and religious visa extensions.”

Messianic Judaism is an evangelical movement that combines Jewish tradition and practice with the belief that Jesus Christ, whom they refer to as Yeshua, is the coming messiah. It is considered outside the fold by all mainstream Jewish denominations, who say the ideology directly contradicts many of their religion’s principal tenets. Some Messianic Jews want the movement to be accepted as a sect of Judaism, and view it as such, though they often have ties to explicitly Christian organizations.

Some 30,000-40,000 Messianic Jews live in Israel. According to Israel, Messianic Jews living abroad are considered Christians, and are not eligible to immigrate to Israel as Jews. The Chief Rabbinate does not consider the community in Israel as Jews either.

Jerusalem’s Christ Church is stripped of most Christian symbols and is designed to look similar to a synagogue to make worship comfortable for Messianic Jews. This photo of the sanctuary was taken in June 2022. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

“A lot of them are just very keen and very enthusiastic to share the fact that they love Jesus Christ,” said Steinberg. “And I think when you come to know them and I think that needs to be the message when you know the people and you actually converse with them, this is where you build bridges. Yes, there are issues. I think that the messianic community in Israel has some challenges with accepting Jewish fear, I would say.”

“But I feel that what’s happening is just pure hatred. There’s no real foundation and there’s no real connection to reality in it.”

If someone feels inspired … we would want them to also believe likewise. But that’s not a prerequisite for us to love and serve and do good in Israel

When asked about King’s charges, Mistretta made a distinction between spreading the good news and proselytizing. Many Israelis who hear the word “missionary” think of someone who is going to try to convert them, he said, but Messianic Jews are not like that.

“We see Yeshua as the Jewish Messiah, and we follow him as he has told us to love our neighbors as ourselves. So we’re going to do that publicly, proudly, not ashamed of who we are,” he said.

“Do we believe other people should believe the way we do? Yeah, I think anyone who believes the truth would want people to believe from their perspective… We simply share what our experience has been and what our understanding is about who Yeshua is.”

Illustrative: Christian pilgrims from Brazil pray at the Cenacle, or Upper Room on Mount Zion just outside the Old City on May 19, 2014. (AFP/Gali Tibbon)

He said that his organization’s goal is to “increase the presence” of Messianic Jews in Israel.

“We want people to understand that we see ourselves as still Jewish, that we see ourselves as Israelis, that we serve in the military, that we contribute to society, that we make a difference,” Mistretta explained.

“And yes, if someone feels inspired by the lifestyle of faith that we profess, of course we would want them to also believe likewise. But that’s not a prerequisite for us to love and serve and do good in Israel.”

The other cheek

There has been some pushback against the anti-Christian sentiment from senior Israeli figures. In June, the chief Sephardic rabbi of Jerusalem added his voice to the chorus of condemnation against the harassment of Christians in Jerusalem, following the May 28 incident.

“We were sorry to hear from non-Jewish clerics that a number of young Jews and some who pretend to be G-d-fearing, persecute them with curses, blasphemies and more, as they walk the streets of the city,” read the letter published by Rabbi Shlomo Amar, whose office rarely publishes statements in English. “No doubt, irresponsible people who are not at all observant of the Torah and its ways did this. We announce that such behavior is strictly forbidden.”

The issue also came to a head in Jerusalem’s City Council. In a meeting last Thursday, Schwarz submitted a motion to condemn violence against Christians in the Old City, calling for a formal condemnation by the mayor, adding security cameras, and cooperation with the police.

Adir Schwarz, chairman of the opposition Hitorerut party in Jerusalem’s City Council, speaks at a meeting, June 22, 2023 (Courtesy Hitorerut)

Yonatan Yosef, a councilman from King’s party, called for the city to instead condemn church violence against Jews. “I would like to add a condemnation of the Christians for the crusades, pogroms, and the inquisition… What was The Pope doing during the Holocaust?”

Schwarz said he expected wall-to-wall condemnation of the attacks during the meeting but was deeply disappointed by Mayor Moshe Lion’s response: a tepid comment that “most members of the coalition condemn the violence against Christians.”

“These are not our values,” Schwarz told The Times of Israel from his office last week. “This is not the Jerusalem we are trying to promote. We believe that Jerusalem should be a place for all, for all nations, for all races, for religions, Jews and non-Jews alike.”

Schwarz accused King of believing himself “beyond the law, above the law, and [he] does whatever he wants in those protests violently against those groups.”

“If there is a member of your coalition, a deputy mayor and a simple member of your coalition, and you do not take responsibility and act against them when they promote violence, then I believe you’re a partner to violence,” he said.

Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum told The Times of Israel that she has been working to end the attacks since December.

Jerusalem City Council member Fleur Hassan-Nahoum addresses a rally in solidarity with the alleged victims of Malka Leifer outside the Jerusalem District Court on March 13, 2019. (Johanna Chisholm/Times of Israel)

“Our latest effort involves leading a campaign aimed at encouraging highly respected rabbis to take a firm stance against these attacks and to make it known that such behavior is not in line with Jewish values and is, in fact, a desecration of God’s name,” she said. “I’m proud to say that our movement has been gaining traction, and more and more spiritual leaders are joining us in condemning these hateful actions.”

“Through our efforts, we hope to dispel the myth that all Christians are missionaries and to show that they are staunch supporters of Israel.”

Though Christians Zionists and Messianic Israelis insisted the incidents would not dampen their support for Israel, some see the potential for major damage to Israel’s reputation abroad and its relationship with some of its most dedicated allies.

“At the end of the day, the energy, and what’s been happening, and the fact that it’s becoming bigger and bigger, it will trickle down and it will go overseas and people will start asking questions,” said Steinberg.

“We do not want to be in a position where there is an Evangelical megachurch pastor that is being attacked, and he’s been interviewed on Fox News and speaking about the fact that he was violently attacked,” he continued.

Schwarz’s concerns are more local. “If it’s not a place for Christians, then it’s not a place for secular Jews. And then we’ll find ourselves in a Jerusalem where you can only flourish from the extreme. And this is a real danger to the future of Israel.”

Canaan Lidor contributed to this report. 

Most Popular
read more: