A law has been proposed in the Knesset that would criminalize missionizing in Israel, sparking criticism among many Christian supporters of Israel. According to its critics, both Jewish and Christian, the proposed legislation has serious flaws and may violate democratic principles of freedom of religion and free speech.
Knesset Members Moshe Gafni, leader of the Ashkenazi Haredi party United Torah Judaism and Yaakov Asher, a member of the Knesset for the United Torah Judaism alliance, introduced legislation that would make “Solicitation for Religious Conversion” a criminal offense.
“Someone who solicits a person, directly, digitally, by mail, or online in order to convert his religion, the punishment – one year imprisonment; and if the person was a minor, the punishment – two years imprisonment,” the proposed law states.
Proselytizing is currently legal in the country and missionaries of all religious groups are allowed to proselytize all citizens; however, a 1977 law prohibits any person from offering material benefits as an inducement to conversion. It is also illegal to convert persons under 18 years of age unless one parent is an adherent of the religious group seeking to convert the minor.
The new legislation seeks to change that.
“Recently, the attempts of missionary groups, mainly Christians, to solicit conversion of religion have increased,” the bill stated. “At times these attempts do not involve monetary promises or material gains and are therefore not illegal according to the current law, but the many negative repercussions, including psychological damages, warrant the intervention of the legislature.”
“This is particularly in light of the fact that most of the attempts to bring people to convert their religion target the weaker classes who, due to their social-economic standing, are more easily open to persuasion attempts such as these.”
All Israel News, an evangelical news site, broke the news about the bill, describing it as “legislation making it illegal for people to share the Gospel message in the very land where Jesus was born.”
“Should it begin to gain traction inside the Knesset and begin moving towards passage, the bill could create a major new headache for Netanyahu’s government by sparking a serious clash with Evangelical Christians in the United States and around the world who are among the biggest supporters of the State of Israel,” Joel Rosenberg, the editor-in-chief, warned.
After the backlash, Prime Minister Netanyahu reassured Christian supporters of Israel, tweeting, “We will not advance any law against the Christian community.”
This is not the first attempt to outlaw missionizing. Gafni first introduced legislation to impose a legal ban on missionizing in Israel in 1999. The law was, in fact, submitted to the Chairman of the Knesset and the Deputies almost three months ago and it is identical to a bill presented to the 24th Knesset in 2021.
Rabbi Yehudah Glick, a former member of the Knesset and head of the Shalom Jerusalem Foundation, expressed doubts that the bill had any chance of being passed into law.
“Gafni has been saying this for years for purposes of impressing his Haredi electorate,” Rabbi Glick told Israel365 News. “It is being blown up now by the left wing to create problems for the coalition. It has no chance of passing.”
“Anybody who is familiar with the Knesset knows that there are hundreds of so-called ‘bills’ that are put on the table for political reasons even though nobody really means to promote them. The Knesset in Israel is not just legislators. It is also a platform for political interests.”
Former MK (Kulanu) and Israeli Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, was also critical of the bill.
“It is superfluous,” Oren said to Israel365 News. “There is already legislation protecting minors and preventing nefarious missionizing.”
Oren, who has described the support of evangelicals as “unconditional love for Israel”, saw the legislation as problematic.
“It unnecessarily and without risks alienating that important community,” he said.
Bishop Glenn Plummer the “Bishop of Israel” for the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), explained that while Christianity does emphasize “preaching the Gospel”, this is not a requirement to proselytize or attempt to convert Jews to Chrisitianity.
“The ‘Gospel’ is literally ‘the good news’,” Bishop Plummer explained. “You can actually have the Gospel of anything and spread any good news. Christians are supposed to spread what for them is the good news of Jesus.”
Bishop Plummer explained that until he came to Israel, he had never heard of a connection between proselytizing and Christian missionizing.
“For Christians, missionizing is positive,” he explained. “A missionary is an emissary who performs good works, classically in the form of helping people in crisis, and the missionary is driven by his faith. They go to serve. They are the best of us and this is the positive side of Christianity.”
“For Black American Christians, this has the negative association with European missionaries who went to Africa and colonized it,” Bishop Plummer explained. “But even then, they built schools and clinics. It was, in its intent, a positive effort.”
But Bishop Plummer understood that these terms had very different meanings to Jews in Israel.
“For Jews, this has an understandably negative meaning,” he said. “In Israel, the term missionary is on the same level as how we view racists.”
“Proselytizing is targeting a specific group of people for the purpose of converting them to Christianity. But we don’t do that. Our Bible tells us that Jesus and the apostles were all Jews. The Jews rejected Paul so he stopped spreading the Gospel and simply moved on, becoming the apostle to the Gentiles.”
“That is what is happening in Israel today. The Jews do not want to hear proselytizing. The Christian leaders know that and do not advocate proselytizing. There are individuals who are extreme and, frankly, embarrassing to us. I don’t think this should be the focus of this important dialogue between Christians and Jews.”
David Nekrutman, the Executive Director of The Isaiah Projects and an Orthodox Jewish theologian, has been building bridges between Christians and Israel for over two decades. Nekrutman posted a statement in opposition to the bill.
“While I feel it is wrong for Christian organizations, ministries, and individuals to use covert conversion tactics to ‘win’ Jewish souls toward Christianity, this proposed Knesset legislation should have never seen the light of day,” Nekrutman wrote. “Furthermore, I expect Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who champions the role of Christian support for Israel, to be more of an advocate on issues affecting the local Christian community.”
Nekrutman told Israel365 News that the legislation is criminalizing both verbal and digital solicitations of what is essentially protected under the freedom of expression.
“The bill criminalizes solicitation without defining what that solicitation is,” Nekrutman said. “Israel is a democracy, a democracy that advocates religious freedom and freedom of expression. This legislation would imprison somebody based on words alone. This is where the problem lies.”
“The last time I checked, adults have the capacity to say no to a verbal encounter on the street on this matter and delete or block digital missionary content,” Nekrutman said. He added, “I would never want a democratic country outside of Israel to impose legislation that would imprison the members of the Chabad movement for asking people on the street if they are Jewish or the Breslov movement from handing out their material in the public square.”
Nekrutman noted another challenge in the proposed legislation. “Without defining the exact nature of a verbal solicitation, you are infringing on their freedom of religion.”
Yishai Fleisher, the international spokesman for the Jewish Community of Hebron and a spokesman for MK Itamar Ben Gvir emphasized that some limits on missionizing should be appropriate.
“There’s a new Knesset bill which seeks to make MISSIONIZING illegal – not to limit religious freedom,” Fleisher tweeted. “Missionaries often use manipulation and prey on ‘soft targets’: the poor, the sick and injured, and children.”
“The Jewish State should indeed protect them,” Fleisher concluded.
Fleisher’s assessment is accurate. In one case, uncovered in 2021, a Christian woman came to Israel to volunteer to help Jews. In this capacity, she accompanied women to the hospital who were giving birth on Shabbat. She used these opportunities to proselytize, telling the women in labor to pray to Jesus for help.
There have been several cases of Christians posing as Jews in attempts to proselytize. In April 2021, a family of Christians posing as Orthodox Jews were discovered in French Hill, Jerusalem. The family made Aliyah from New Jersey under the Law of Return using forged documents claiming they were of Jewish descent. The father claimed to be a Kohen (descended from Biblical Aaron), a sofer stam (scribe), and a mohel (who performs ritual circumcisions). The mother claimed to be a child of Holocaust survivors. None of these claims had any basis in fact. The mother passed away and was buried in a Jewish cemetery, after which the community raised over $50,000 to help the family.
Last month, it was revealed that a family of Lutheran missionaries posed as Orthodox Jews over the course of twelve years, finally obtaining a visa to live in Israel under false pretenses. The men reportedly performed rituals that are only permitted to Jews such as writing Torah scrolls, washing the dead, conducting weddings, divorces, and even conversions. Under Jewish law, none of these rituals are valid if performed by a non-Jew.
In July 2020, the Israeli Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Council shut down Shelanu, a Hebrew-language channel set up by the Christian broadcasting network God TV, on the Israeli cable television provider, Hot. The council justified its actions, claiming the network had misrepresented the nature of the program in its application.
In its response, God TV issued a clarification in a new video message, stating that the network had no intention of trying to convert Jews to Christianity but that it merely “wanted them to accept Jesus as their Messiah.”
One of the main principles of Judaism is that God does not take a Jewish form so a Jew who believes in the divinity of Jesus is considered an apostate under Jewish law. Efforts to convert Jews to Christianity are sometimes regarded by Jews as antisemitic. Most evangelical and conservative Christian churches disagree and say their efforts to convert Jews are not antisemitic.