Israel's Messianic Jews Under Attack

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Pedestrians walk near the outer wall of Jerusalem's old city.

The flyers appeared everywhere inside the Jewish settlement of Ariel, on car windshields and telephone poles, and in bus shelters. "Beware," it read, "these are the members of the Jewish Missionary Cult. They are baptizing Jews into Christianity." Included was a photo of Pastor David Ortiz and his address.

Ortiz didn't give it a thought. His Jewish neighbors liked him, and so did Ariel's mayor, who found Ortiz, originally from Brooklyn, useful in recruiting funds and political support from American and German Evangelicals for this stone-clad settlement on a breezy hilltop inside Palestinian territory.

But somebody disliked Ortiz and his beliefs enough to try to kill him and his family. By chance, Ortiz and his wife Leah were gone on March 20th when an unknown person dropped off a bomb disguised as a holiday gift package loaded with candy and chocolates. When Ortiz's 15 year-old son Ami plucked off a chocolate, it detonated a bomb powerful enough to blow out all the apartment's windows apartment and to be heard a mile away. The bomb was packed with nails, screws and needles. Doctors found over 100 pieces of metal embedded in the boy's body by the blast, which sheared off the skin and muscle on his legs and chest. The teenager survived, but still faces six more operations of skin grafts and the removal of shrapnel from his eyes. Whoever did it, says Ortiz, knew "that we adults wouldn't open up the Purim package — it would be the kids."

Messianic Jews, as these Jews who believe in Jesus are called, number just a few in Israel — anywhere between 6,000 and 15,000 — but they provoke hatred all out of proportion to their meager numbers. Many orthodox Jews view them as traitors for joining the Christian faith, which for centuries has persecuted Jews. One Messianic Jew, Tzvi Sadan, a teacher and editor, recalls telling his father, a Holocaust survivor, that he had accepted Jesus as his savior. "My dad flipped out. He said that the SS guards in the camp had 'God Is With Us' written on their belts. He told me, 'You've joined the enemy.' But he calmed down a bit when he saw my prayer shawl."

Some rabbis also view the Messianic Jews' conversion as part of a grand Evangelical scheme to fulfill Biblical prophecy (which requires the conversion of the Jews) and hasten the Messiah's arrival. Messianic Jews observe Judaism's rites, holidays and customs but believe in Jesus as the Messiah.

But lately, the outrage among extremist orthodox Jews has spilled into violence. Even after the Ariel bombing it has continued. Last month, when the deputy mayor of Or Yehuda, a town near Tel Aviv, found out that Messianic Jews had been passing out copies of the New Testament to a community of poor Ethiopian Jews, he ordered the books to be collected and they were set alight in a bonfire. He later apologized and said the Bibles had been burned accidentally. "If somebody had done that in Europe to Jewish Torahs, you can image what sort of a reaction that would provoke here," says Ortiz. To be fair, commentators and officials in Israel were quick to condemn the act, comparing it to the infamous book burning by Nazis.

Messianic Jews living in the Negev Desert also say they are routinely harassed and attacked by yeshiva students, some inspired by Yad L'achem, a religious organization dedicated to stamping out Christian missionary activities in Israel. Random acts of anti-Christian violence have also occurred: last October in Jerusalem, a church was fire-bombed, and several days after Christmas, a German pilgrim who was returning from Bethlehem carrying a large wooden cross was attacked by a gang of ultra-orthodox youths who smashed the cross into splinters. These are isolated attacks, and Christians living in Israel say that as long as they refrain from missionary work — prohibited by the Israeli government — they are left free to worship.

Israel finds itself in a predicament: it wants to welcome Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land out of goodwill and for tourism revenue, but it also wants to keep exuberant missionaries from trying to convert Jews. At the same time, news of these attacks — especially the Ariel bombing and the Bible-burning — has circulated widely among Christian churches around the world. "I'm getting calls from Norway," says Leah Ortiz, "asking if Christians are being persecuted in Israel, and I say 'No, of course not.' What happened to our son, this isn't religion. It's insanity."

So far, police have failed to make any arrests in the Ortiz bombing. But whoever assembled the bomb knew what he was doing and had access to plastic explosives, probably stolen from the Israeli military. "We're afraid that whoever did this," says Ortiz, "might try it again. With us, they crossed the line, and we're afraid of it happening to someone else."

Given the hardship Messianic Jews face in Israel and his son's multiple injuries, would the Ortiz move his family back to Brooklyn? "No way," Ortiz replies. "Jesus wasn't born in Brooklyn. He was born here. We're staying." With reporting by Aaron J. Klein/Jerusalem