From The Tablet
ISRAEL Controversial law
On 27 December  the Knesset passed on its second and final readings a private members’ bill entitled Penal Code Amendment Law (Enticement to Change of Religion) 1977 (see The Tablet, 24/31 December). As it now stands, the law, which is accompanied by the officially published “explanatory matter,” provided by the Knesset member from the extremist Agudat Israel religious party who presented it, reads as follows: (1) He who gives, or promises to give money, money’s worth, or another benefit, in order to entice a person to change his religion, or in order to entice a person to bring about the change of another’s religion, the sentence due to him is five years imprisonment, or a fine of 1E50,000. (2) He who receives, or agrees to receive money, money’s worth, or a benefit [a Hebrew word that also means simply “favour”] in exchange for a promise to change his religion, or to bring about the change of another’s religion •the sentence due to him is three years imprisonment, or a fine of 1E30,000.
The explanatory matter says, among othet things: “Missionary organisations working in Israel use many and varied means to ensnare souls to bring them to change their religion, so that they fall into their net . . , These organisations, which are flooded with unlimited financial means, use them for material enticements . . . Organisations of the Mission are even at work amongst soldiers . . . (they) try to influence them to desert. . . . The only way that it is possible to put a stop to the activities of missionaries in Israel is the enactment of a law that prohibits such activities . . . The aim of the proposed law is therefore to put a stop to the activity of the organisations of the Mission . . . ”
When the bill was given its first reading on 5 December, among the diatribes against the churches was that of a former Supreme Court judge, Dr B. Halevi: “The Christian missions are a cancer in the body of the nation and are trying to carry forward the aim of physical liquidation [of the Jewish people], which had been furthered by the Catholic Church since it was established.” The member who officially proposed the bill, spoke of “thousands of missionaries . . . active in the country with unlimited funds at their disposal . . . working in a highly organised and intensive manner.”
Only a handful of members, including those of the Communist Party and a couple of veteran human rights campaigners opposed the bill, pointing out the real intentions behind it, namely the fulfilment of the promise given on 3 November 1965 by the present interior and police minister, Dr Joseph Burg, then already the representative for the National-Religious Party in the Cabinet, that: “By the publication of these statutes the first and decisive step has been taken in the direction of eliminating the plague of missionary activity from our midst.” He was speaking after the passing of the “Supervision of Housingplaces Act” which, by laying down in effect that Jewish parents could not send their children to Christian-run boarding schools, forced the closure of some badly needed institutions, to which parents had continued to send their children in spite of harassment by extremists.
In spite of the protests which greeted the bill when it was made public after the first reading, it was suddenly announced on 27 December, when most of those likely to oppose it were in fact absent from the Knesset, that it would be given its second and third readings on that day, and as a result it was passed. The matter had been handled in such a way that not only were Knesset members who might have voted against it had they been present, deceived, but so also were such bodies as the American Jewish Committee and the Israel Interfaith Committee, and a senior government official directly involved, all of whom had been invited to give testimony before the competent subcommittee in the following week.
The Christian response was immediate. On 29 December, on the same day on which church representatives exchanged formal greetings with the President, the heads of the Catholic churches held an urgent consultation; and during the meeting with President Katzir, Canon Naem Ateek, Anglican chairman of the United Christian Council in Israel (ucci) gave the President the text of a sharp ucci protest addressed formally to the Prime Minister, commenting as he did so on the seriousness of the matter to which the President was being asked to give his full attention.
The text of this message, which was read by Canon Ateek at a press conference later that day, puts thus the central issue of central concern: “Moreover it seems to us unprecedentedly serious that the Knesset, a privileged, protected and exclusive forum was made the place for a defamatory attack against a small minority community unable to defend itself. Both the content of material presented in the Knesset and the method of steam-rollering the bill through during the Christmas season have caused us considerable distress and have left us stunned with disbelief.” The statement insists: “None of the member bodies of the um engages in such practices [those ostensibly prohibited by the law]. None of the other Christian communities in this country known to us engages in such practices.” Christian fears are frankly declared: “This [the fact that the abuses alleged to justify the enactment of the law do not exist], coupled with the loose wording of the bill, and with what amounts to incitement to hatred heard in the Knesset, points ominously to what may really be in the mind of some of the bill’s proponents, namely to wield it as a powerful weapon in the long and now more radical campaign to end the presence of witnesses to the Christian faith in Israel.”
Religious leaders will now go into the matter in greater depth with officials from both the Foreign Ministry and the Ministry for Religious Affairs. There is little doubt that quick and decisive action, especially on the part of the Holy See; but also on the part of Catholic and Protestant church leaders everywhere, is a condition for the success of the campaign to get the law repealed.
Others reported: A wide spectrum of Jews in Israel and abroad backed the United Christian Council in Israel (UCCI) protest against the sweepingly vague wording of the law as a threat to “the survival of freely expressed Christianity in the land of its birth.” They asked for Israeli governmental rejection of the “calumny, slander, libel and incitement to hatred” expressed in the Knesset to secure passage of the law. Furthermore, they appealed for an international commission of inquiry to look into the overall situation.
Baruch Maoz was one of the delegation from the UCCI who met with Israeli politicians. He reported:
In 1977, a bill was presented to the Knesset, ostensibly aimed an inhibiting evangelism. Orthodox Jews had insisted for years that Christians took advantage of straitened emotional and economic circumstances in their efforts to persuade people to convert. With a view to reducing missionaries’ liberty to act in such an unworthy manner, the bill proposed outlawing the offering of emotional, social or economic advantages in exchange for conversion.
Needless to say, the Christian community did not oppose the law itself – there was firm Christian opposition to any such abuse of human dignity and of the Gospel. But the passing of the bill involved crediting false rumors and thereby substantiating a grievous charge against the Christian church. It also opened a wide door for the Orthodox to harass Christians under the false charge that they had transgressed the law, or even to entrap Christians under false pretenses. The United Christian Council in Israel (UCCI) spearheaded opposition to the bill, and I joined arms with the UCCI in this important matter.
We met with the Minister of judicial Affairs and with the Attorney General, professor Aaron Barak (later President of Israel’s Supreme Court). We also met with the ambassadors of various countries and sought their support, with Knesset committees, various Knesset Members and other influential individuals. We appealed to them all to work for the rejection of the proposed law.
Political circumstances were such that the bill inevitably passed. However, our contacts with the Attorney General led to him effectively emasculating the law by ordering that no investigation be conducted unless approved in advance by the AG. That order has never been rescinded. As a result, no investigations have been conducted nor charges laid against anyone in accordance with that shameful law.
Prayer: “Father, forgive them – they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Lord, help us to love those who persecute us. Help us also to be above reproach in our own personal and corporate ethics, as Messianic Jews in Israel and around the world. May the world know that we are your disciples, by our love for you and for one another. In Yeshua’s name. Amen.