Political Pundit: “Anti-missionary bill pushed by media to pull Christians into judicial reform debate”

The anti-missionary bill recently introduced by two members of the governing coalition was pushed by the media to pull Christians into judicial reform debate, Director of the Knesset Christian Allies Caucus and President of the Israel Allies Foundation Josh Reinstein suggested.

Last week, Knesset Members Moshe Gafni, leader of the Ashkenazi Haredi party United Torah Judaism and Yaakov Asher, a member of the Knesset for the United Torah Judaism alliance, introduced legislation that would make “Solicitation for Religious Conversion” a criminal offense. 

The bill caused consternation among the evangelical supporters of Israel. While the bill is not considered to be likely to pass into legislation, a closer look reveals that much can be learned from the episode, Reinstein said.

“This legislation has been proposed in almost every Knesset by Gafni since 1995,” Reinstein said. “It has zero chance because it’s a freedom of speech issue. It was irresponsible for people in the media to present it as something that was going to happen.”

Reinstein had a compelling theory about why the anti-missionary legislation was highlighted by the Israeli media.

“I believe that the reason that this narrative was pushed is that this was an attempt to raise the heat on the judicial reform issue and get evangelical Christians involved in that issue which really has no relevance to them and which they are uninterested in for the most part.”

“Evangelicals have either supported judicial reform or said it was an internal Israeli issue that they don’t care to get involved in,” Reinstein said. “But there is a narrative being pushed that this legislation can pass and the only hope for maintaining free speech for minorities in Israel is by keeping the power with the Supreme Court and not allowing the reform to go through. I believe this narrative was pushed to try to get evangelicals to be against judicial reform in Israel.”

Reinstein emphasized that even if the bill could garner popular support, it contravened many basic Israeli principles protecting free speech.

“We have laws on the books that prohibit proselytizing to minors, for example, or prohibiting the offering of financial or commercial gifts in exchange for conversion,” Reinstein said. “So, there are issues to be considered but this idea that people can’t share their beliefs publicly in Israel is not realistic.”

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki, the executive director of the Center for Jewish–Christian Understanding and Cooperation, agreed that the anti-missionary bill had little hope of becoming law, but he emphasized that there was a lesson to be learned in the bill.

“This proposed legislation has very little chance of passing,” Rabbi Wolicki said. “It certainly does not reflect the Israeli attitude towards free speech and towards our Christian friends of most Israelis.”

“It does express a sentiment that is prevalent in the Jewish community,” Rabbi Wolicki said. “But even if it does pass, the bill does not prohibit Christians from talking about Jesus or talking about the gospel. The bill specifically forbids attempts to change someone else’s faith. While I don’t believe that there should be laws against such an activity, it is important to understand this from the perspective of the Jewish community. The anti-proselytizing sentiment is understandable considering the many centuries of active attempts, including violent attempts, to get Jews to change their faith and to accept Christianity. This history is very front and center for Jews. It dominated almost 2,000 years of relations between Jews and Christians.”

Rabbi Wolicki called on Christians to take note.

“What many Christians don’t understand is that attempts by Christians to get Jews to accept the Christian faith are viewed as outright attacks,” he said. “When a Christian shares the gospel with a Jew with the clear intent of trying to convince the Jew to accept it, it is, for the Jew, almost like pulling out a knife and attacking them. This is a sensitivity that more and more Christians have and, in recent years, more and more Christians understand that is something that harms our relationship.”

“So, while I’m not in favor of passing restrictions on what people can say in a free and open society, it’s important for our Christian friends to understand where this sentiment is coming from.”

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