Julie Stahl | Jerusalem Bureau Chief | Friday, May 23, 2008
According to press reports, local Messianic Jews (Jews who believe that Jesus is the Messiah) distributed the New Testaments to new immigrants from Ethiopia in the town of Or Yehuda.
(Traditional Judaism believes in what is commonly called the Old Testament but not the New Testament.)
The initial story, which ran in the Israeli daily Ma'ariv on Tuesday, said that Or Yehuda's Deputy Mayor Uzi Aharon had encouraged youths from a local yeshiva (Jewish religious school) to retrieve the books and burn them. It happened last week.
In a radio interview shortly after the story appeared, Aharon defended his actions and called it "purging the evil among us." But later he apologized and said he never intended for the books to be burned. The town has been back-peddling ever since.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spokesman Mark Regev condemned what he called "this despicable act" and said police should thoroughly investigate the incident.
"Israel is a country in which freedom of religion is one of our highest principles," Regev told Cybercast News Service. Jews should always remember whose books were burned in the past, he said.
Evangelical Christians from around the world are some of Israel's most loyal supporters. Many of them continued to visit Israel during the violent Palestinian uprising that began in 2000, despite a drastic tourism slump.
Regev said he is hopeful that Christians around the world will realize that the people in the Israeli government "are not represented by a few misguided extremists."
Or Yehuda Mayor David Yosef issued a statement condemning the act and said his town had no connection to it.
"We are shocked at this act. The Nation of the Book remembers other dark and horrible times in the history of mankind in which the burning of books was used to advance deviant purposes," Yosef said.
"In our perception, the Book [the Jewish Bible] represents everything we want to teach our children - culture, ideas, language, and tolerance," he said.
Or Yehuda, which means the light of Judah in Hebrew, was established as a camp to receive newcomers to the nascent state of Israel in 1949, said city spokeswoman Nurit Shulman. It is now a city of 33,000 with a large number of its residents adhering to traditional Jewish values, she said.
Israeli religious leaders have not yet commented on the New Testament burning. But Rabbi David Rosen, international director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, welcomed Aharon's apology and urged Israeli leaders to speak out against such "despicable behavior."
"Burning books, especially scriptures of any religion, is a travesty of Jewish ethics and historical experience," Rosen said in a statement. "No provocation can justify such outrageous behavior. We hope a strong reaction from Jewish leaders in Israel will serve as a deterrent against the repetition of such deplorable acts."
Rosen, who has been involved in top level inter-religious meetings for years, told Cybercast News Service he hoped top Jewish, Islamic and Christian leaders here would issue a joint condemnation.
The Anti-Defamation League also issued condemned what it called "this heinous act" as a "violation of basic Jewish principles and values."
"The Jewish people can never forget the tragic burning of Talmuds and Torahs [Jewish commentaries and the Bible] throughout history. It is essential that we respect the sacred texts of other faiths," said ADL Interfaith Director Rabbi Eric J. Greenberg.
Greenberg said that any legitimate concerns about proselytizing should be addressed through proper legal channels.
The alleged burning of the New Testaments comes at a time of growing fervor against Israel's Messianic Jewish community by small groups of radical anti-missionaries.
Israel's chief rabbis called for a boycott of an international Bible quiz on Independence Day, after anti-missionaries discovered that one of the finalists was a Messianic Jew.
In a more serious incident in March, a Messianic Jewish teenager, whose father is a prominent pastor here, was severely injured when a bomb exploded as he opened a package sent to the family home disguised as a holiday gift basket.
No one has yet been charged in the crime and the court has ordered that details of the case remain under wraps for the time being.
Attorney Calev Myers, who represents Messianic Jews, told Cybercast News Service that it is against Israeli law to desecrate or destroy a religious place or object that is considered holy to a group of people with the intent of humiliating the religion or with the knowledge that it would be offensive to practitioners.
It also is illegal to say something in a public setting that could cause gross offense to a person's religion or hurt his religious sensitivities, Myers said.
If people in other countries were making bonfires out of Torah scrolls, Israel and the Jewish people would hope that those countries would prosecute the perpetrators as having committed a serious crime, he said.
Victor Kalisher, director of the Bible Society here, told Cybercast News Service that the incident was "very dangerous," particularly because it appeared to have been instigated by the deputy mayor. He said he hoped the incident would not be dismissed as the prank of some youngsters.
Kalisher, a Messianic Jew and son of a Holocaust survivor, said he was born in Israel, had served in the army, worked in a high-tech company and was part of mainstream Israel. As such, he expects to have the same rights as any other Israeli.
"As the director of the Bible Society, our goal is to distribute the Holy Scriptures, and the New Testament is one of them," said Kalisher. "We think it's a blessed thing and religious people should respect it." He also offered to give a copy to the deputy mayor and discuss it with him.
David Parsons, spokesman for the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, said the book burning was an "outrageous act." In the past centuries, Christians sometimes burned Jewish books but that is a "totally outdated" way of dealing with issues, Parsons told Cybercast News Service.
Parsons noted that the issue of Messianic Jews has come to the forefront in Israel recently.
"Christians need to realize the history and sensitivity behind this," said Parsons, and Israel and the Jewish people need to discourage violence against a religious minority here in the land.
ICEJ brings thousands of Christian pilgrims to Israel for the annual Feast of Tabernacles Celebration. It is the leading Christian Zionist organization and represents the pro-Israel views of millions of Evangelical Christians around the world.
Parsons said that Christians worldwide would be watching to see how the Israeli authorities deal with this latest incident.
Attorney General Menachem Mazuz asked police to open an investigation into Aharon, the Jerusalem Post reported on Friday. Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said earlier that police were examining the press reports and would decide on what course of action to take.