A contingent of about 300 Messianic Jews from the US will protest this weekend against what they call Israel's discriminatory immigration policy against Jews who believe that Jesus is the messiah.
The Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations, an umbrella body for about 80 US congregations, is holding a three-day conference in Jerusalem that starts Thursday.
During the conference a number of issues will be discussed - including the recent public burning by haredim of New Testaments distributed by missionaries in Or Akiva, a bomb attack that seriously wounded the son of well-known Messianic Jew in Ariel and the attempt to disqualify a Messianic Jewish high school girl from this year's International Bible Quiz for Jewish youth.
"We are planning to call on the Israeli government to address the problem of discrimination against Messianic Jews who wish to make aliya," said Rabbi Russ Resnik, executive director of the US-based Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations.
"Messianic Jews see Israel as the place of our past, from the earliest visit by Abraham to the modern rebirth of the Jewish state. And it is the place of our future, which will culminate in the messiah's return," Resnik said.
"We are avid supporters of Israel in the present, and that's why we brought our conference here. But we are also concerned about recent expressions of violence against Messianic Jews."
Messianic Jews include all people with Jewish ancestry who identify as Jewish but who believe that Jesus is the messiah, Resnik said.
Like Reform Judaism, Messianic Jews recognize both matrilineal and patrilineal descent. Orthodox Judaism recognizes only matrilineal descent.
There are an estimated 12,000 Messianic Jews living in Israel, most of whom made aliya under the Law of Return. There are about a quarter of a million Messianic Jews living in the US.
According to the Law of Return, anyone with a Jewish parent or grandparent is eligible for automatic Israeli citizenship. The law was designed to turn Israel into a safe haven for any Jew in the world who would have suffered persecution under the Nazi regime's Nuremberg racial laws.
In principle, the Law of Return grants automatic citizenship to all descendants of Jews, regardless of religion.
Nevertheless, in 1962 the Supreme Court ruled that Daniel Rufeisen, a Polish Jew who converted to Catholicism and became a Carmelite monk, could not be granted citizenship under the Law of Return. The court based itself on "common sense" criteria, assuming that the average person would agree that Rufeisen was not Jewish.
The Chief Rabbinate argued at the time that Rufeisen should be considered a Jew since according to Halacha a Jew can never repudiate his or her Jewishness.
Since then the Supreme Court has ruled that Messianic Jews whose mothers are Jewish can be denied Israeli citizenship. In contrast, those who are Jewish solely through their fathers cannot be denied citizenship. This is based on an interpretation of a 1970 amendment to the Law of Return.
"An absurd situation is created in which Messianic Jews have to prove they are not Jewish in order to make aliya," said Calev Myers, a Messianic Jewish attorney who specializes in immigration cases. "The Law of Return as envisioned by David Ben-Gurion was originally created to ensure that if you are Jewish enough to die in Auschwitz you are Jewish enough to be granted automatic Israeli citizenship. But that is no longer true."
Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, head of the Ataret Yerushalayim Yeshiva and a leading religious Zionist leader, said Messianic Jews should not be considered Jews.
"It is true that a lot of righteous people were persecuted and murdered by the Nazis," Aviner said. "But that does not make them Jewish."
He said that Messianic Jews living in Israel should be marginalized and distanced from Jewish communities.
"Those people are proselytizers. They should not be allowed to have an influence on Jews who might be too weak to resist," Aviner said.
Resnik admitted that he wanted to spread the word about the "good news of the messiah" among the Jews.
"People need to hear that message. But just because it is such a vital message does not mean that everything goes. Our way is by showing solidarity with the Jewish people, by being part of the people," he said.
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