In recent times, tension between Israel’s rabbinate and the liberal streams of Judaism both at home and abroad have been in the spotlight due to disputes over religious pluralism. But another group, Messianic Jews, is continuously ostracized both by mainstream world Jewry and by Israel.
Every now and again a story reaches the media about a self-identified Jew whose application for immigration to Israel, or aliya, has been denied on the basis that he or she is a Messianic Jew.
Such was the case of Swedish psychologist Rebecca Floer
, 64, who was deported from Israel last month. Though she does not define herself as a Messianic Jew, she does believe in Yeshua, the name used by Messianic believers for Jesus.
After having lived part-time in northern Israel on a renewed tourist visa for the past three years, her passport has now been blacklisted, and her lawyer has warned her that she will find it difficult, if not impossible, to return to the country.
Both in Israel and across the Jewish world, there is an almost blanket rejection of Messianic Jews, or Jews who believe in Jesus. They are ineligible to make aliya, because while they consider themselves to be Jews, is it not accepted that a Jew can believe in Jesus.
Therefore, they are excluded from the Law of Return as people who have voluntarily converted out of Judaism. Some, such as Floer, were also baptized as babies, another reason cited by the Population and Immigration Bureau as grounds for rejection.
Floer is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor and says she has been a victim of antisemitism in her home country, Sweden
, but these arguments do not hold up against the law.
Population and Immigration Bureau spokeswoman Sabine Hadad says the bureau receives recommendations from the Jewish Agency regarding who is eligible for aliya. The Jewish Agency says it operates according to the law.
“We work according to the law, and we operate according to that…. They [Messianic Jews] are not connected to the Jewish community,” the agency’s top aliya official, Yehuda Scharf, tells The Jerusalem Post
“If someone declares that they believe in Jesus, then he is not a Jew – he does not believe in our faith,” he adds. “It’s simple. A Jew who wants to immigrate to Israel will move to Israel if he can prove his Judaism. If he can’t prove his Judaism, then it’s a different story.”
The Law of Return was enacted by the Knesset in 1950.
In 1970, Amendment 4A (a) to the Law of Return was passed, stating: “The rights of a Jew under this Law and the rights of an oleh under the Nationality Law, 5712-1952, as well as the rights of an oleh under any other enactment, are also vested in a child and a grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew and the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew, except for a person who has been a Jew and has voluntarily changed his/her religion.”
In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that Messianic Jews’ belief in Jesus makes them Christians, thus ineligible for automatic Israeli citizenship.
That ruling, however, was left open to future changes. “The ‘secular test’ is composed of various elements, and it is possible to enumerate between them the foundations of the Jewish religion, the Hebrew language, the history of the Jewish people and the rebuilding of its independence in its state. The internal weight of these elements has changed over time, and will change in the future. The secular-liberal conception is a dynamic concept that changes with the Jewish people’s path over history,” it reads.
In April 2008, the court ruled that several Messianic Jews were entitled to Israeli citizenship because they were the descendants of Jewish fathers or grandfathers, but had never been Jewish themselves, and thus had not converted.
“You have to differentiate between whether they are eligible as a Jew or as a relative of a Jew [Amendment 4A (a)],” explains Prof. Barak Medina, a professor of constitutional law from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Medina notes that if a person defines himself as a Messianic Jew, he isn’t eligible on his own merit, but on the merit of his Jewish relative – as long as he did not voluntarily convert. Someone who voluntarily converted, he stresses, is seen as having given up his right to aliya.
“I don’t think this approach is going to change in the near future,” Medina says.
“The question is whether the Law of Return is still suitable to current needs,” a source familiar with the issue tells the Post
He says the situation is complicated for those who are in the “twilight zone of religions,” between Judaism and Christianity, for example, or those who converted under duress in order to save their lives. “The law has no answer to that. Nobody has given it any thought and nobody wants to touch the Law of Return, for fear that it will jeopardize the very foundation of the justification of Zionism.
“The absurd thing is that if they join a friendship association with Israel in the West, they will be very welcomed by Israel as friends, just like any Friends of Israel Christian group,” he adds, “although I believe that they would be shunned by local communities because they are too ambiguous about their Judaism, and communities in general are not afraid anymore of Christian Friends or even Muslim Friends but are very weary of all those who are in between.”
Indeed, Messianic Jews are largely shunned by mainstream Jewish communities around the world, and are commonly seen as proselytizers.
“The term ‘Jews for Jesus’ – and probably even ‘Messianic Jews’ – is a bit disingenuous,” says Rabbi David Rosen, adviser on interreligious affairs to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, who also serves as the director of the American Jewish Committee’s Department of Interreligious Affairs.
“If people believe Jesus is one of the triune persons of God, then they should be honest as identifying themselves as Christian.
Therefore, they can identify themselves as ethnically Jewish Christians or Jewish Christians if they want. But they are Christian,” he tells the Post
. “Part of the problem with those who use these terminologies is that it’s very often for missionary proselytizing purposes.... That, I think, is the major source of distress for the Jewish community, where they are seen as predatory in their religious approach and disingenuous in their terminology.”
Addressing arguments that the situation of descendants of Holocaust survivors and those targeted by antisemites should be taken into account, Rosen says: “I sympathize with their plight but think it’s ridiculous to suggest that antisemitism, let alone Nazism, should determine who is considered a Jew.”
This question, in his opinion, should not be in the hands of the state at all.
“From my point of view, the state should not be interfering in questions of people’s identity at all. It should not be going into the business of who is a Jew, let alone what is a Jew,” he asserts. “The state itself originally, prior the Law of Return, followed Ben-Gurion’s approach that anyone who wants to consider themselves as a Jews should be seen as a Jew.”
He also opined that the state, as a secular democracy, should not be preferring one group over another.
“Most Jews believe the Law of Return should still remain as a declarative testimony of the fact that Israel is a home for Jews everywhere in the world. But it is very dubious as to whether the Law of Return should be defining exactly who is a Jew,” he says, noting that in his opinion, the duty of absorbing immigrants should be the responsibility of an organization of the Jewish people, such as the Jewish Agency.
There are an estimated 20,000 Messianic Jewish believers in Israel, and an estimated 350,000 worldwide.
Scharf says very few Messianic Jews apply for aliya from abroad, but the Jewish Agency does not have data on those who apply to immigrate while already residing in Israel. The Population and Immigration Bureau says it does not have statistics specifically for Messianic Jews.
The Messianic Jewish Alliance of Israel declined a request for an interview.