Missionaries in Israel have unfortunately come a long way. From passing out pamphlets on street corners or stuffing them in mailboxes, they’ve become a force on the internet and on cable TV where they reach out to Jews in the privacy of their homes, undisturbed by Yad L’Achim and other counter-missionary groups.
Earlier this year, an international Christian broadcaster, cinched a seven-year contract with HOT, Israel’s main cable provider, to present “content” on Christianity — in Hebrew.
“Presenting content is one thing, but trying to convince people that belief in that man is not Christianity but Judaism, and that the ‘new testament’ is part of the Tanach, is a whole different matter,” Shimon Abergil, the field coordinator for Yad L’Achim’s counter-missionary operations, told Hamodia.
The missionaries let the cat out of the bag when the head of the evangelical media network, Ward Simpson, created a video for supporters hailing the opportunity they had been given to “win some souls” together.
He claimed that his deity “supernaturally opened the door for us to take [our gospel] into the homes and lives and hearts of His Jewish people,” Simpson said in the video. “They’ll watch secretly, they’ll watch quietly.”
He added that his deity “is removing the blindness from their eyes.”
Simpson later removed the video and apologized “for any offensive remarks” he may have made. He also promised to abide by the terms of his agreement with HOT. But the promises of a man who speaks privately of the need to “remove the blindness” of those who are “confused and lost” isn’t worth much.
“Simpson called the Israeli channel Shelanu, which means ‘ours,’ as a way of saying that [the founder of his religion] is one of us, one of the Jews,” notes Rabbi Binyamin Kluger, who was born into a Catholic family, joined the evangelicals and trained to become a missionary. (He says that when he realized he was being told to lie to Jews, and that for the missionaries the end justified the means, he decided to explore deeper and converted to Judaism. He moved to Yerushalayim to learn in yeshivah and kept encountering missionaries, leading him to approach Yad L’Achim and offer his services.)
How widespread is the missionary influence in Israel? For starters, they have 180 “congregations” throughout the country, where unsuspecting Jews attend services that are presented as a form of Judaism.
“They’re told that to believe in [Christianity], not to put on tefillin, and not to keep Shabbos is another stream of Judaism,” Abergil explains. “Just like there are chareidim, and national religious, and Chassidim of different sects, so too there are ‘Messianic Jews.’”
Moreover, the church leaders are careful not to display Christian symbols. “People walk in and see an aron kodesh, a sefer Torah, a shofar, a chanukiyah, a tallis, Kiddush on Friday night — all they see is Jewish symbols, which reinforces the notion that they are being sold a form of Judaism…”
Fighting missionaries has become much more difficult. “Once, when you came to a congregation and met a Jew entering the premises, you could explain to him what was really going on inside and he’d understand what you were saying and sever ties with them,” says Rabbi Kluger. “But now it’s totally different. The individual has been at home, staring at a screen and getting brainwashed by advertisements that come with their favorite song or program. They establish a relationship with the missionaries that can continue for years before they first appear at the congregation, by which time they are deeply immersed in Christian teachings that they think are Jewish. It’s much more difficult at that point to explain things to them logically.
“We’re also talking about children as young as 13 who’ve been brainwashed.”
The way to combat the missionaries’ use of the internet is through the courts. Yad L’Achim is suing social media firms for running missionary material that targets minors, including cartoons and graphics, a criminal act that carries a prison sentence. The proceedings have been suspended due to the corona crisis.
But even if they produce results, the missionaries now have a TV channel at their disposal, which reaches more than 600,000 homes. “The child is at home bored, flipping channels, and comes across their programming,” says Rabbi Kluger. “There’s no one there to explain to him the myth of ‘Messianic Judaism.’”
One of the biggest problems facing those seeking to protect innocent Jews from missionaries is the lack of legislation barring such activity and the refusal of the police to prosecute those who violate the few laws that are on the books.
“In order to get a case against missionaries prosecuted, you need special approval from the attorney general,” says Abergil, adding, “That’s how sensitive the topic is.”
Not only do the police do nothing about missionaries who preach to minors to convert — a crime that is punishable by prison time — they don’t even take action in cases of baptism. “We have a case of a missionary who baptized two 16-year-olds … in Ashkelon two years ago,” Abergil says. “The case was closed due to lack of public interest.”
Who are the leaders of the missionary congregations, and where do they get the funding to prey on the poor and elderly, often from the CIS, with handouts?
Abergil says that a third are Jews who converted out and married non-Jews, and the rest are Christians. The money, unimaginable sums, comes from evangelicals abroad.
“We compiled a report of funds raised over a five-year period from 15 major organizations and came up with billions of dollars in assistance to operations in Israel,” he says.
Is the fact that President Donald Trump is supported by evangelicals, and Israel doesn’t want to run afoul of him, a possible reason why the Israeli authorities look the other way at missionary activity?
Abergil doesn’t think so. “The evangelical movement is very broad,” he says. “At one extreme, you have people who love Israel and the Jews and don’t want to convert them. At the other extreme, you have the missionaries who support missionary activity in Israel.”
At least one prominent evangelical supporter of Israel has come out against the channel for airing missionary content aimed at Jews, saying it encourages anti-Semitism.
“In recent decades, millions of Christians have felt the call to stand with the State of Israel and the Jewish people with no hidden agenda,” said Laurie Cardoza-Moore, a Tennessee-based evangelical. “Any attempts to convert Jews or downgrade their religion will only [sow] undue hatred at a time when we should unite in the face of darkness.”
What can be done to get Shelanu off the air?
“We’re in touch with the Communications Ministry and with the Council for Cable TV and Satellite Broadcasting demanding that it be closed down if it is found to be broadcasting missionary messages in violation of the terms of its agreement,” Abergil said.
In addition, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Harav Yitzchak Yosef appealed to the outgoing communications minister, Dudi Amsalem, to intercede, and chareidi MKs have joined the battle.
“MKs who are faithful to kodshei Yisrael will do everything in their power to prevent this dangerous channel from continuing to operate,” MK Rabbi Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) said.
For the time being, Simpson is being allowed to continue his broadcasts, and that infuriates Rabbi Kluger.
“There are Christian countries that bar various cults,” he said, “and here, in a Jewish state, there is no law that bars taking advantage of people in distress or people who are ignorant? That’s outrageous.”