In The Messenger, a documentary describing the mission and life of prominent Israeli messianic missionary Jacob Damkani, Damkani claims to have introduced tens of thousands of Jews to Jesus and Christianity, but the truth may not be what anyone – neither those who support him or those who oppose him – expects.
The movie, which was released on March 24th, begins dramatically with an image of a pious prophet that might irk any religious Jew who sees it: Damkani, wandering through the desert, shofar in hand. His shofar, large and unwieldy, is gaudily decorated with two engraved bands of silver. A melodramatic touch, the silver detail renders the ram’s horn unfit for holy service, a visual analogy for Damkani’s misguided spiritual mission of bringing Christianity to Israeli Jews.
There are as many stories of people changing their lives and discovering God as there are stars in the sky. Damkani’s story begins in Holon in the north of Israel, which he compares to Harlem. He grows up in poverty, dropping out of high school and leaving his religious Yemenite parents in order to join up with gangs. He gets involved with drugs and becomes a criminal, taking part in serious heists.
Damkani’s saga continues in America, where he once more enters the world of crime. In a retrospective conversation with an old crony, Damkani describes finding the “courage” to rob Brinks’ trucks at gunpoint. The conversation closely resembles the boasting of unrepentant Mafia dons: “How much money was there? A lot, but how much I won’t say.”
This is where the film tries to convince the viewer that Damkani was indeed a bad man – a certified sinner whose return to faith was miraculous. It succeeds in at least half of its mission. Missing from the story is the path to repentance, the fixing of past sins, and the regret, none of which are part of his narrative.
Damkani uses his ill-gotten gains to open a jewelry store in New Jersey, which also served “as a cover for other things”. He meets Jeff, a sweet and humble Christian with an enthusiasm for the Bible, who engages Damkani in discussion about Jesus and gives him a copy of the New Testament in Hebrew. Inexplicably, the Christian Bible reminds him of the synagogue he attended in his youth, leading him to declare, “No Jew was more Jewish than Jesus.”
As he reads story of a savior overturning tables in the marketplace, Damkani falls in love with Jesus in the character of troublemaker. For Damkani, Jesus is forgiveness without repentance, a concept he could not find in Judaism, so he rejects Judaism.
The film follows Damkani as he then begins to preach to Christians. He wants to transform their Christianity, take Christmas and Easter from them, and introduce them to a Jewish Jesus named Yeshua. He travels the world, draping the Israeli flag over smiling foreigners, teaching the people of Papua New Guinea to recite the Shema, reciting words in a language they don’t understand.
Damkani loves oxymorons, and he is a man of contradictions. “If it’s a sunny day, Jacob will convince you it’s night,” his sister tells the camera. But his most important mission is the most perplexing, the ultimate contradiction: to bring Jesus to the Jews of Israel.
Damkani’s message is despised in the Holy Land; his gleeful attempts to preach it are greeted with disbelief or open anger. The camera shows him confronted by furious Jews pleading with him to allow them to live as Jews. He responds, “Are you going to hit me? Hit me!” Some oblige, provoked beyond endurance.
Jacob Damkani’s mission is twofold: bringing Jesus to the Jews while presenting Jesus as a Jew to Christians. But a Jew cannot accept Jesus and remain a Jew, just as a Christian must accept Jesus in order to be Christian. His message is unacceptable to Jews, but his vision of Jesus as a Jew has drawn a strong following of Evangelicals. In his own way, Damkani is trying to bring the two Abrahamic religions closer, and perhaps, to some degree, he succeeds.
Unfortunately, he also pushes people apart. The movie reinforces the common Jewish fear of Christian proselytizing, bringing it closer to home for Israelis. To have an Israeli Jew join this effort is incredibly destructive, leading Jews to suspect Christians even more.
Amazing changes are taking place in relations between Judaism and Christianity and proselytizing is no longer part of that. With the common threat of Islamic Jihad and overwhelming secularism, Christianity is choosing a productive alliance with authentic Israel-based Judaism, rejecting a path that requires Jews to convert. In this new reality, Damkani’s mission is a problem and not a solution.