A bill tabled by ultra-Orthodox elected officials aims to punish evangelization in Israel with a prison sentence. The text deeply worries Christians, accused of monetizing conversions, but the head of government, Benyamin Netanyahu, announced that he would oppose it.
On March 19, the media outlet All Israel News posted online its translation of a text proposed to the speaker of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, and entitled “Criminal bill: Amendment – Prohibition of solicitation of religious conversion”. The proposal tabled on January 9 by MPs Moshe Gafni and Yaakov Asher, members of the religious coalition Yahadut Hatorah (United Torah Judaism) within the parliamentary majority, provides for a one-year prison sentence for anyone who "seeks a person, directly, digitally, by mail or online in order to convert them to their religion”. The minority is an aggravating circumstance, two years of imprisonment are provided if the person approached is a minor at the time of the facts.
The two parliamentarians justify their proposal by stating that “recently, attempts by missionary groups, mainly Christians, to invite religious conversion have multiplied”. Stating that "sometimes these attempts do not involve monetary promises or material gain and are therefore not illegal under applicable law", they object, however, that they cause "numerous negative repercussions, including psychological harm [ which] justify the intervention of the legislator”. According to them, in most cases, proselytizing Christians “target the weaker classes who, because of their socio-economic status, are more easily open to such attempts at persuasion. »
Netanyahu faces the concern of Christians
The translation by All Israel News, taken up in particular by the right-wing American media Newsmax the same day, alerted Christians across the Atlantic, particularly evangelicals, an important support for Israel, but also other denominations. According a Pew Research Center study published on May 26, 2022, 86% of white American evangelicals support Israel, as do 58% of black Protestants, or 67% of their Catholic compatriots. This significant support has made it possible to develop humanitarian projects in Israel and led to the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel by President Donald Trump.
On March 22, the Prime Minister posted a reassuring message in Hebrew and English on Twitter: “We will not advance any law against the Christian community. »
לא נקדם שום חוק נגד הקהילה הנוצרית.— Benjamin Netanyahu - בנימין נתניהו (@netanyahu) March 22, 2023
We will not advance any law against the Christian community.
Juergan Buehler, the president of the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, thanked Netanyahu and said :
“The Prime Minister has done much throughout his long political career to strengthen and maintain Israel's relationship with Christians around the world, and we warmly reciprocate his acceptance of our community. »
A habit of the ultra-Orthodox
Such proposals are common in Israel where, with each new legislature, religious lawmakers introduce bills to ban proselytism. But this time the strong media coverage of the translated text caused a greater wave of panic. Moreover, its authors are members of a coalition which has seven seats out of the 120 in the Knesset, while the government has a majority of 64 deputies, and the elected representatives of the other religious parties could support the text. Although numerically small, the support of Yahadut Hatorah is important for the government.
In 1998, ultra-Orthodox lawmakers worried evangelical organizations supporting Israel with a text aimed at criminalizing evangelization. Gafni proposed a similar text the following year, blocked by Netanyahu, before tabling another in 2013 rejected by all parties except the ultra-Orthodox. Subsequent attempts in 2015 and 2021 failed due to the dissolution of the Knesset.
The question of the conversion of Jews to Christianity is a subject of tension, in particular because of forced conversions over the centuries and the fear of the disappearance of Jewish identity.
Image credit: Shutterstock / Ververidis Vasilis