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Israel's Messianic Jews Wary of Stepped-Up Persecution

Israel's Messianic Jews Wary of Stepped-Up Persecution

January 5, 2009

ARIEL, West Bank (RNS) -- After their teenage son was nearly killed last year by a bomb disguised as a holiday gift basket, few people were as eager for Ya'acov Teitel to see justice as Leah and David Ortiz.

Teitel, an Orthodox Jewish loner who confessed to placing the package in the family's stairwell said he targeted the Ortiz family because they are Messianic Jews -- Jews who believe in Jesus as the Messiah.

"We want justice, not revenge," said Leah Ortiz, who has lived in this religiously mixed city of 30,000 since the late 1980s. "This happened because Teitel had hate in his heart. He needs to be in prison."

The attack, which left 15-year-old Ami with shrapnel wounds and burns over much of his body, has highlighted the vulnerability facing Israel's small and increasingly beleaguered Messianic Jewish community.

Community members say the decades-old harassment has intensified in recent years, as ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups dedicated to stopping missionary activity have grown stronger and more confident.

Anti-missionary activists hold protests outside Messianic places of worship and post photos and the addresses of believers on lampposts.

They tell the Ministry of the Interior that Messianic Jews are converts to Christianity, something that would make them ineligible to immigrate to Israel.

Although Israeli law permits missionary activity -- provided the evangelizer does not offer any material incentive to a potential convert -- the persecution and forced conversion of countless Jews for generations has made Jews extremely wary of proselytizing.

Messianic Jews, who publish and distribute the New Testament in Hebrew, say they are eager to share the "good news" with anyone willing to listen, but insist that they do so within the parameters of the law.

Aaron Rubin, who heads the anti-missionary department at Yad L'Achim, Israel's leading anti-Messianic organization, insists that Messianic Jews lure unsuspecting Jews by speaking Hebrew and quoting Jewish texts.

"They lie. They try to convert people but say they're not Christians. They're fundamentalist Christians who call themselves Jews," Rubin asserts.

Several of Israel's estimated 100 Messianic Jewish congregations are reporting an unprecedented level of harassment:

-- In the southern cities of Beersheva and Arad, fervently Orthodox Jews regularly protest outside Messianic Jewish congregations and the homes of worshippers. A chess club run by one of the congregations was burned to the ground.

-- When ultra-Orthodox Jews in central Ashdod learned that Israel and Pnina Comforti are Messianic believers, they convinced local rabbinical authorities to revoke the all-important kosher certification for the couple's bakery. Despite an order from Israel's Supreme Court last June, the rabbis continue to refuse to recognize the bakery as kosher.

-- In early December, two ultra-Orthodox men were arrested for torching the car of the Levine family, Messianic Jews who live in the northern town of Beit Shean. Activists armed with a megaphone go around town, telling residents the Levines are Christian missionaries who bribe children to convert to Christianity.

Barry Segal, a Messianic leader who co-founded the Joseph's Storehouse Humanitarian Aid Center with his wife outside Jerusalem, attributes the recent rash of high-profile incidents to his movement's growing popularity.

"The number of believers in Israel was roughly 300 in 1981, and today it's over 12,000," he said. "I'm talking about those of us who are Jewish born, who were married in Jewish weddings."

Thousands more Israelis, primarily Russian and Ethiopian immigrants whose Jewish status is questionable, combine Jewish and Christian ritual in their daily lives.

"In times past, the harassment mostly consisted of mail tampering and phone calls with vicious intent," Segal said. But in recent years, "there has been a rising tide from harassment into violent acts."

Segal is quick to point out that Sudanese and Pakistani Christians face more deadly threats than Messianic believers in Israel. Still, "any violence, actual or threatened, is unacceptable."

Pnina Comforti, the bakery owner, says anyone who wants to understand the fear she faces should watch a YouTube video that re-enacts a phone call in which a man tells her, "I am coming to take your soul. How do you feel knowing you are about to die?"

The man in the video proceeds to recite her address. "You will know my name when I write it on the wall with your blood."

Comforti said business has been down 50 percent since her bakery's kosher certification was torn off the wall. "People come and say, `We heard you do something to the cakes"' that renders them unkosher. "What the rabbis say, people do."

Still, she is undaunted. "What those who threaten us don't understand is that they strengthen our determination and our faith."

Leah and David Ortiz say much the same thing. Seated in the apartment that was badly damaged by the blast that nearly killed the youngest of their six children, Leah said half the town came to visit their son in the hospital. "They said prayers, they cooked us meals. We've lived here so long, people know us to be good people."

David, who serves as the spiritual leader of this town's 50-family Messianic Jewish congregation, produces grim photos of Ami taken about a month after he opened the package at the kitchen table.

"It blew off three of his toes, the muscle from his thighs, and caused second- and third-degree burns on his chest and thighs," he said.

"Bolts and screws tore through his eye and it's a true miracle he wasn't blinded."

Ami, now 16, has undergone 12 operations and has at least four more to go. After spending five months in the hospital, he returned to school and now plays on two basketball teams.

As grateful as they for Ami's recovery and community support, the Ortiz family is still upset by how Israeli authorities handled their case.

"There was a condescending attitude, almost like they were saying, `What did you think would happen if you live as Messianic Jews?"' Leah said. "Government officials told us privately, `You don't have many fans."'

A police spokesman said the Ortiz attack "was investigated thoroughly for months and Teitel was ultimately apprehended. We act on every complaint that is filed."

Mostly, though, the family is looking forward, not back.

"I'm doing great, but I have to see what my physical abilities will be," said Ami, who at 6 feet 6 inches tall, would normally be drafted into the military at age 18. "I hope to play basketball professionally."

Ami says the bombing strengthened his spirituality.

"I've seen a lot. I've been through a lot. I've seen what God can do and it makes me feel safe."

His parents say they have forgiven the bomber, who was recently indicted in the March 2008 attack.

"Otherwise he would have control over us, and we would be victims twice," Leah said, stroking the family's 15-year-old dog, who became deaf due to the bombing. "Forgiveness frees you and frees God to work his miracles."