At a time when Israeli society is experiencing the greatest internal contention in its history, there is another crisis brewing. Over the past few months, a series of events has combined to undermine the support of Israel’s closest friends, the Evangelical Christian community. The following examples are, sadly, only a sampling of what has hit the headlines.
Back in March of this year, it was widely reported that a new law was under consideration in the Israeli legislature that would make it illegal for Christians to share their faith with non-Christians. The bill, proposed by a pair of Orthodox Jewish members of Knesset, would have made any attempt to persuade someone to accept the Christian faith, “directly, digitally, by mail, or online” punishable by a year of jail time. The coverage of this proposed bill in the wider media outside of Israel gave the impression that this proposal by these two MKs meant that such legislation was imminent. Headlines like “Is Israel Banning Christianity?” went viral.
In truth, such bills are proposed by one or two Orthodox Knesset members in almost every session of Knesset going back some 30 years. These bills are essentially performative, political signaling to the ultra-Orthodox voting base and have no chance of passing. Usually, these proposals barely make the news.
Then, in late May, images and video of an unruly demonstration by Orthodox Jews interrupting a Christian worship event near the Western Wall were seen everywhere. The Jewish demonstrators were drawing attention to the prayer event, which explicitly advertised that it was the start of a new “Crusade” of proselytizing efforts in Israel. What was not included in most of the coverage was the fact that a number of the groups that organized the prayer event are among those who do openly call for evangelizing to Jews. Regardless, the message that Jews are persecuting Christians in Jerusalem again spread like wildfire.
And now, over the past few weeks, it has come to light that several long-standing Christian Zionist organizations operating in Israel are being denied their clergy visas, threatening their ability to continue their humanitarian and Israel-promoting activities. According to reporting, Israel’s Interior Ministry declared that these organizations, including the International Christian Embassy of Jerusalem, founded four decades ago, no longer qualify as religious institutions. Again, this has made headlines in Evangelical news outlets everywhere.
Most Christians are unaware or don’t fully appreciate how sensitive the issue of evangelizing to Jews is. Part of the problem is widespread ignorance among Christians of the centuries of persecution of Jews by Christians. This persecution remains fresh for Jews to this day. Every committed Jew knows that our survival over the past 2000 years is due to the heroism of the centuries of Jews who came before us who refused to forsake Judaism for Christianity, often at the point of a sword. A majority of Christians simply do not understand that for Jews, any attempt to persuade us to accept Christian faith is experienced as a direct attack on our identity and survival.
The truth is that many of the most prominent Christian Zionist organizations and leading Christian supporters of Israel are opposed to evangelizing Jews. They have embraced a mutually respectful relationship. They sincerely support the State of Israel and the Jewish people without any conversionary agenda. Millions of Christian supporters of Israel feel this way as well.
Part of the problem lies in the fact that it is nearly impossible for any Jew who is not directly involved with Christian Zionist leaders and organizations to see these distinctions among Christians. It is too easy to see YouTube ads in Hebrew that promote Christianity to Israelis, to see events like the “Crusade” at the Western Wall, and to listen to those Christian leaders who promote missionary activity to Jews and assume that all Evangelical Christians feel the same way.
Is there widespread Christian Evangelizing in Israel? The answer is yes. Has such activity intensified in recent years? Yes, again. But here’s the thing. The increase in such activity does not have its source in the Christian Zionist organizations that operate in Israel. The fact is that the community of Jewish-born Israelis who believe in Jesus, what is known as the Messianic community, has been growing. And they have become more public and bolder in their efforts to persuade their fellow Jews to embrace the Christian faith. As one prominent Christian leader put it to me recently, the problem of missionary activity to Jews in Israel is largely an internal Jewish problem at this point.
The lashing out that we have seen against Christians in the form of proposed legislation, violent demonstrations, and the withholding of visas is counterproductive. Such actions do absolutely nothing to curb efforts to evangelize in Israel. In fact, they exacerbate the problem. There is little doubt that the fundraising efforts of those who are working to evangelize to Jews are helped, not hurt, by this kind of pushback. To put it bluntly, those Jews who create the headlines I cited at the beginning of this column are assisting the missionaries. Period.
The more obvious result of this mess is, of course, negative media coverage of Israel in the wider Christian world. And this couldn’t come at a worse time. A 2021 survey by Barna Group and researchers at the University of North Carolina shows a marked drop in the support for Israel among Evangelicals aged 18 to 29. According to the poll, 33.6% support Israel, 24.3% said they support the Palestinians, and 42% said they supported neither side. This represents a significant change from only three years earlier, in 2018, when 69% of young Evangelicals said that they support Israel, 5.4% supported the Palestinians, and 26% said they support neither side. The negative media fallout described above only makes the job of those who are promoting Israel more difficult.
The problem of Christian efforts to evangelize to Jews in Israel is a serious one. It threatens the health of the growing relationship between our communities. But Israeli Jews must understand that there is no easy solution to the problem. Denying visas and creating viral moments depicting Jews spitting at Christian worshippers are not the answer.
Israel’s greatest allies, not only in the United States but around the world, are Christians. Maintaining and nurturing this relationship are not always simple. The Israeli government, as well as Jewish communal leaders, must act with wisdom and discernment in consultation with those Jews who are experienced and knowledgeable regarding the complexities of the Christian world.
At the same time, it is incumbent upon the leaders of Christian Zionist organizations to be more open and more direct about their intentions. Public disavowals of efforts to evangelize to Jews are necessary for the continuing health of the Jewish-Christian relationship. The Jewish community must be made to feel confident that it is not the intention of those who profess love for Israel to steer Jews away from the faith that got us here after 2000 years.
Rabbi Pesach Wolicki serves as Executive Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation and is cohost of the Shoulder to Shoulder podcast and a weekly contributor to Israel365.