A bill making religious proselytization punishable by jail time induced alarm among Christian Zionists in Israel and around the world, despite assurances by government officials that it would not become law.
The proposal, submitted by United Torah Judaism’s Moshe Gafni and Yaakov Asher, claims that “missionary groups, mainly Christians,” have stepped up efforts to convert people in Israel.
The language of the bill would make soliciting an adult to change his faith punishable by one year in jail. The penalty would increase to two years if the individual being solicited was a minor.
The bill, which Gafni submits at the start of every Knesset and seemingly has no expectation of advancing, was submitted on January 9, but only made waves when it was picked up in recent days by Christian media.
The Trinity Broadcasting Network’s Joel Rosenberg, a messianic Jew, first broke the story last week. It was then picked up Tuesday by Newsmax, a right-wing American outlet that reaches tens of millions of viewers.
On Wednesday morning, the Foreign Ministry began receiving calls from heads of parliamentary friendship groups, diplomats, Christian Zionist leaders, and Jewish leaders around the world, an Israeli diplomat said.
Foreign Ministry staff prepared reports on the fallout of the bill for Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and Director General Ronen Levy, the diplomat said on condition of anonymity.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu got involved late Wednesday, tweeting in Hebrew and in English: “We will not advance any law against the Christian community.”
Juergan Buehler, president of the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, was placated by Netanyahu’s statement.
“We appreciate the assurance from Prime Minister Netanyahu that the proposed anti-missionary bill will not go forward, and thank him for speedily putting this matter to rest,” he said.
“He has done much over his long political career to strengthen and guard Israel’s relations with Christians worldwide, and our embrace of this nation is warmly returned.”
Christian Zionists form a vital and growing bloc of support for Israel around the world. Their efforts have changed countries’ stances on Israel, have brought massive amounts of money and tourists into the country, and have funded Jewish immigration and humanitarian projects within Israel.
לא נקדם שום חוק נגד הקהילה הנוצרית.
We will not advance any law against the Christian community.
— Benjamin Netanyahu – בנימין נתניהו (@netanyahu) March 22, 2023
Gafni’s spokesman stressed that the MK has been submitting the bill as a procedural formality for years, and that “it is not being advanced right now.”
“Discussions about it now are not relevant,” Gafni’s office said.
Attempts to convert Jews to Christianity touch a nerve in Israel. For centuries, hundreds of thousands of Jews in Europe were subject to forced conversions by the Catholic Church — and Orthodox churches to a lesser extent — on penalty of expulsion or death.
Israel has flirted with anti-proselytizing legislation in the past. In 1998, Labor MK Nissim Zvili sponsored a bill criminalizing written proselytization material that Christians feared could be used to outlaw possession of the New Testament.
He withdrew the bill after dozens of evangelical groups publicly committed not to carry out missionary work in the country.
Christian Zionists living in Israel said that the bill would not shake their support for the country, or their openness about their faith.
“As Christians who work to bridge between Jews and Muslims, we find that once our neighbors understand that we support them unconditionally, we are free to be ourselves, which includes expressing our faith openly,” said Jonathan Miles, founder of Shevet Achim, a Christian organization that brings children from neighboring Arab countries to Israel for medical treatment.
“No legislation can change this basic human interaction,” he insisted.
“It wouldn’t lessen my support for Israel,” said a Christian man who has lived in Israel his entire life, but asked for anonymity because he has not been granted permanent residency. “It would heighten my stress levels, though. I’m still here to do what I’m called to do.”
He emphasized that he is not in Israel to proselytize.
“As a Christian living here in Israel, I just do what the Lord asked me to do personally,” he said. “And that’s not necessarily to proselytize or try and convert people to my faith, to Jesus.”
“I’m called to serve as a light on the earth and salt on the earth. I feel that I’m doing that through helping the Jewish people in different ways, bringing the Jews back to the land, to help Holocaust survivors here, and just basically love the Jewish people as much as I can. For me personally, it doesn’t mean to share the gospel per se.”
Hopefully it’s not the start of an attempt to throw all the Christians out of the country.
The young man added that if the bill passed, he would not know whom he would be able to speak openly about his faith with.
“Hopefully, it’s not the start of an attempt to throw all the Christians out of the country,” he added.
Glenn Plummer, the bishop of Israel for the predominantly Black Church of God in Christ, said that while the bill itself is nothing new, “the atmosphere in the country is new. The government is a new government.”
He told The Times of Israel that he fears that even discussion of the law could engender hostility toward Christian supporters among Israelis.
According to Plummer, the language of the bill, if passed, is so imprecise that it could wind up criminalizing preaching in a church.
“I am a preacher of the gospel,” Plummer said fervently. “I have been a pastor for 22 years. Not only am I a pastor, I am a bishop.”
“If six and a half million Black Americans in my church hear that Israel is considering banning the gospel of Jesus Christ, it would be terrible,” he continued. “Frankly, I’m at a loss, because I don’t want to add on to the pile-on on Israel.”
At the same time, the preacher, a major TV personality in Christian broadcasting, said that even if the bill passed, it would not shake his support for Israel.
“There is nothing no one can do or say that would cause my love of Israel, my support for Israel to waver. Exclamation. Point.,” he said. “Because my support is biblically based. It is based on the God of Israel. Can anyone cause me to deny the God of Israel?”
“That is why we do not budge.”