Persecution in Israel
By Joel and Lynn Rosenberg
“In fact, everyone who desires to live a godly life in Jesus the Messiah will be persecuted.” The Apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 3:12
“"Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me,” Jesus in Matthew 5:11
Israel is a democratic country, and an oasis of religious and personal freedom in a neighborhood dominated by radical Islam. Believers in Israel largely experience great freedom to live and worship as they wish. However, the decision of a Jewish person to follow Jesus most definitely comes with a cost. Believers need to grapple with their identity in Christ as they try to live in peace with the people and culture around them.
When an Israeli Jew comes to understand that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah and decides to follow the Lord, there are many trials and much opposition which they must face.
Painful misunderstandings and objections can come from within their own family, their community and their culture. In addition, disturbing and even violent persecution can come from a small but vocal group of anti-Jesus activists.
For more than two thousand years, the leaders of rabbinical Judaism have been building thick walls between Jesus and the Jewish people. Rabbis and Scholars have made the denial of Jesus as the Messiah one of the only things that they can agree upon! They have changed Jesus’ very name from Yeshua (Savior) to “Yeshu” which is an acronym for “may his name be accursed forever.” In fact, when you speak to the average Israeli about his name being Yeshua they won’t believe you.
In addition, there have been centuries of undeniable anti-Semitism coming from those who call themselves Christians and even claimed to be acting in the name of Jesus as they persecuted the Jewish people. The Holocaust was only 74 years ago and the generation of today’s Israeli parents have heard the stories from their parents and grandparents of the church bells ringing just outside the walls of the concentration camps.
These two factors, religious instruction and “Christian” persecution of Jewish people, make belief in Jesus by a Jew seem at the least incongruous and at the worst like a betrayal of the Jewish people. Even though a person can explain that their belief in the Jewish Messiah is the most Jewish thing they could do, to their friends and family they will initially seem to have turned their back on their own people. This can cause many reactions within a family, from indifference to hostility to being excluded from the family and forced from their home.
One young believer who has become a friend of our family suffered a frequent barrage of verbal abuse whenever she was home. She has remained loving and faithfully respectful of her parents, but living at home long-term has not been a healthy option. Several other young believers have been told that they are “dead” to the family and not welcome at home anymore. One woman is currently serving in the Israeli army and no longer has the loving family to welcome her home for a Sabbath meal after a difficult week of service. Israeli culture, like the rest of the Middle East, is deeply centered in family life. When a new believer loses the love, connection and protective covering of their family it is devastating.
Two of our sons were riding a bus in Jerusalem and one of them was wearing a shirt with a verse from Isaiah 53 written in Hebrew. One of their fellow passengers began asking them about the shirt and they explained that they were Messianic Jews and new immigrants from America. Another passenger overheard their conversation and began to loudly berate them and use crude language to say that they should not have been allowed to immigrate and describe how he thought they should be “strung up!”
Recently, two young Messianic soldiers were sitting on a bench outside the base synagogue having their devotions together during the time allotted them for prayer. A group of observant soldiers came out of the synagogue from their morning prayers and stopped at the bench to talk about what the Jewish believers were studying and what they believed. The conversation was warm and friendly. Then another young soldier came up and began to yell and say they shouldn’t be associating or speaking with the believers. He went further, to shove one of the believers and knock his glasses from his face. Thankfully, the instigator of the trouble was punished for his behavior.
In addition to the pain of family and cultural misunderstanding and rejection, there are occasional cases of aggressive and even violent persecution. These acts are carried out by a small minority of religiously motivated “heredi” (or ultra-Orthodox) Jewish individuals and groups.
In 2008, fifteen-year-old Ami Ortiz, a son of a Messianic pastor found a gift basket at his family’s apartment door during the Purim holidays. It had been left there by a Jewish radical (later arrested, convicted and serving a life sentence in Israel) opposed to Jesus followers, Palestinians and others. The basket exploded and nearly killed the young man. He required 14 surgeries in addition to the plastic surgery needed for the scars that cover his entire body.
One congregation in the Galilee was without a place to worship for several years, because they were vandalized and then fire-bombed. No one in the area would rent space to them and so they met in the woods. As the colder, rainy months approached an Arab pastor offered them the use of his congregation’s church since they met on different days for worship. What men meant for evil, God used for good as these Arab and Jewish believers demonstrated the unity and peace that comes through Jesus.
Many times, posters are plastered around towns with the picture of Messianic pastors and words that declare these men dangerous to the community. One Messianic leader and his family were shocked to see fliers had been circulated in their entire new apartment building which warned their neighbors to beware of them.
Several congregations in the south have been subject to weekly persecution by large groups of religious neighbors. Their cars were damaged and a group of people blocked the entrance to their congregation, verbally abusing those who tried to enter, even young children.
In May, 2019, a Messianic music concert was targeted by a loud, vulgar and eventually violent group of about sixty religious youth, led by several men who directed them. Concert goers sustained minor injuries and property was damaged.
Following Jesus anywhere in the world can bring trouble. Jesus Himself said that the world hated Him and will hate His followers. Most of the time, God uses the pressures of being “different” for His glory as the believers find unity under duress, grow stronger in their faith and gain an opportunity to share the gospel message of God’s love!