Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is rejecting a proposed law that would criminalize sharing the Gospel in Israel. The bill, supported by members of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, would punish Christian proselytization with up to one year in prison.
The proposal, submitted by United Torah Judaism’s Moshe Gafni and Yaakov Asher, claims that “missionary groups, mainly Christians,” have stepped up efforts to convert people in Israel.
The language of the bill would make soliciting an adult to change his faith punishable by one year in jail. The penalty would increase to two years if the individual being solicited was a minor.
The legislation comes at a time when protesters on the left and right march in opposition to elements of a judicial reform bill being debated in the Knesset.
After what’s being called an anti-missionary bill was brought to the attention of Netanyahu, he issued a statement.
We will not advance any law against the Christian community
“We will not advance any law against the Christian community,” Netanyahu tweeted in Hebrew and English in response to concerns.
What the bill says
Gafni, a long-serving lawmaker who has frequently proposed anti-Christian legislation over the past couple of decades was seen as going full-throttle against Christians in the bill’s language.
“Recently, the attempts of missionary groups, mainly Christians, to solicit conversion of religion have increased,” the bill said. “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.”
The proposed legislation would have even prohibited the creation of Hebrew-language online videos that preached about Jesus out of concern that Jewish minors might watch them.
There is no verifiable evidence that missionary work has increased, even after Israel approved the first Israeli-based Christian cable channel.
Bill went unnoticed until recently
The bill went largely unnoticed in Israel because of the judicial reform protests and because there was little chance of it passing. It only gained publicity when American Christian media and conservative news outlets began talking about it. One diplomat revealed that the Foreign Ministry began receiving calls from heads of parliamentary friendship groups, diplomats, Christian Zionist leaders, and worldwide Christian and Jewish leaders.
Israeli news outlets reported that one diplomat said Israel’s Foreign Ministry prepared reports on the fallout for the foreign minister.
Joel C. Rosenberg, an evangelical bestselling author who has dual Israeli citizenship, warned that the bill would 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.”
Israel already has legal, and mostly unenforced, measures to curb Christians from evangelizing to minors in the nation’s Jewish majority and the threat of jail time for anyone who bribes Jews to convert to Christianity or any other religion.
But the lack of prosecutions hasn’t allayed concerns.
Interviewed by The Times of Israel, Glenn Plummer, bishop of the Memphis-based, 6.5 million member Church of God in Christ, stated that even if the bill failed to pass, he was concerned that it could create hostility towards Christians and lessen support for Israel.
“I am a preacher of the gospel,” Plummer said emotionally. “I have been a pastor for 22 years. Not only am I a pastor, I am a bishop. If six and a half million Black Americans in my church hear that Israel is considering banning the gospel of Jesus Christ, it would be terrible,” he lamented. “Frankly, I’m at a loss, because I don’t want to add on to the pile-on on Israel.”
He’s not alone expressing alarm by other churches, Christian Zionists in Israel and around the world, despite assurances by government officials that it would not become law.
International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, long a supporter of the State of Israel, welcomed Netanyahu’s opposition.
“We appreciate the assurance from Prime Minister Netanyahu that the proposed anti-missionary bill will not go forward, and thank him for speedily putting this matter to rest,” said Juergan Buehler, president of the ICEJ.
“He has done much over his long political career to strengthen and guard Israel’s relations with Christians worldwide, and our embrace of this nation is warmly returned.”
According to the New York Times and The Times of Israel, it is not the first time the country’s legislators have flirted with such legislation. “Attempts to convert Jews to Christianity touch a nerve in Israel. For centuries, hundreds of thousands of Jews in Europe were subject to forced conversions by the Catholic Church — and Orthodox churches to a lesser extent — on penalty of expulsion or death,” reports The Times.
It goes on to say, “In 1998, Labor MK Nissim Zvili sponsored a bill criminalizing written proselytization material that Christians feared could be used to outlaw possession of the New Testament.” That bill was withdrawn.
One Christian man living in Israel says open proselytization is not what every believer is called to do. In fact, many surveys find that most Jews have heard the Gospel message because they understand Christians believe Yeshua (Jesus) is the Messiah. They just don’t agree with it.
He emphasized that he is not in Israel to proselytize.
Christianity in Israel video:
To proselytize or not
“As a Christian living here in Israel, I just do what the Lord asked me to do personally,” he told The Times of Israel. “And that’s not necessarily to proselytize or try and convert people to my faith, to Jesus.”
“I’m called to serve as a light on the earth and salt on the earth. I feel that I’m doing that through helping the Jewish people in different ways, bringing the Jews back to the land, to help Holocaust survivors here, and just basically love the Jewish people as much as I can. For me personally, it doesn’t mean to share the gospel per se.”
For Plummer, the proposed Israel bill will not shake his support for Israel or God’s Chosen People.
“There is nothing no one can do or say that would cause my love of Israel, my support for Israel to waver. Exclamation. Point.,” he says. “Because my support is biblically based. It is based on the God of Israel. Can anyone cause me to deny the God of Israel?”
–Dwight Widaman | Metro Voice