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The burning of hundreds of New Testaments by yeshiva students in Or Yehuda last week was regrettable and unplanned, the city's deputy mayor, the man who spurred the students to act, told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.
Deputy Mayor Uzi Aharon of Shas used the opportunity of speaking to the Post, which publishes a monthly Christian Edition, to apologize to Christians worldwide, saying he hoped the incident would not inflame tensions between Jews and Christians.
Following the publication of the story on Tuesday, however, many messianic Jewish and other Christian groups expressed grave concern over the increasingly violent nature of anti-missionary activity in Israel.
Aharon had a very busy Tuesday. In the morning, Ma'ariv ran a story on how he organized to retrieve and burn hundreds of New Testaments given to Ethiopian Jews in his city by local messianic Jews. By 9 a.m. he was on an Army Radio news-talk show defending his actions, which he called "purging the evil among us."
At 10:30 he was on Channel 2's morning news show saying that Ethiopian immigrants in Or Yehuda were being encouraged to go against Judaism by messianic Jews. "We need to stop being ashamed of our Jewishness and to fight those who are breaking the law by missionizing against us," he said.
But by the early afternoon he had already been interviewed by Russian, Italian and French TV, explaining to their highly offended audiences back home how he had not meant for the Bibles to be burned, and trying to undo the damage caused by the news [and photographs] of Jews burning New Testaments.
But then he also told The Associated Press that he didn't condemn the Bible burning, calling it a "commandment."
Aharon then told the Post that he was very sorry for the book burning and that it was not planned, and that he was aware that the incident may have caused damage to relations between Christians and Jews. The deputy mayor said he had organized, together with "three or four" yeshiva students from the city's Michtav M'Eliahu Yeshiva to go to apartments in the city's Neveh Rabin neighborhood, which has many Ethiopian immigrants, and round up packages given to them several days earlier by messianic Jews. The packages contained a New Testament and several pamphlets, which Aharon said "encouraged on to go against Judaism."
"I wasn't even on the scene when the boys rounded up all the Bibles and brought them all to one place [near the synagogue in Neveh Rabin]. They started burning them before I got there. Once I arrived the most I could do was pull a Bible out of the fire. I put it in nylon and its now in my car. I am really sorry for the book burning, but I did not organize it, it was a spontaneous thing by the yeshiva boys," Aharon said.
"We respect all religions as we expect others to respect ours. I am very sorry that the New Testament was burned, we mean it no harm and I'm sorry that we hurt the feelings of others," he said.
However, he added, Israel could not allow messianic Jews to "come into our homes and incite against our religion, and turn our children away from Judaism. That is against the law."
Aharon said he had received phone calls from Neveh Rabin residents complaining about the packages. "They called me because they know I've been fighting missionaries for years," he said.
Last Thursday, Aharon drove around the neighborhood with a loudspeaker asking residents to gather all the New Testaments that were given to them. The yeshiva boys then went from apartment to apartment and picked up the books.
Hundreds were burned in a scene that reminded some of past atrocities.
The incident in Or Yehuda is the latest sign of rising tension between segments of the modern Orthodox and haredi sectors and the messianic Jewish community. Two months ago, the son of a messianic Jew was seriously wounded by a parcel bomb left outside his home in Ariel. Earlier this year, haredim demonstrated outside messianic Jewish gatherings in Beersheba and Arad, and there were instances of violence.
And just before Independence Day, a group of religious Zionist rabbis called for a boycott of this year's International Bible Quiz after discovering that one of the four finalists from Israel, Bat-El Levi, an 11th-grader from Jerusalem's Pisgat Ze'ev neighborhood, was a messianic Jew.
The rise in tensions is partly due to an increase in the number of messianic Jews in Israel over the past few years, with some estimates putting the community at 15,000, and partly due to increased fervor within haredi anti-missionary groups.
Sources familiar with the Falash Mura - whose Jewish ancestors converted to Christianity under duress in Ethiopia, and who made aliya under the understanding that they would return to Judaism - say that some continue to be Christians in Israel, and that this makes them amenable to messianic Jews. Several messianic Jews and at least one Christian group in Israel contacted by the Post on Tuesday expressed fear that if they spoke on the record, they would be attacked.
Some of the New Testaments burned in Or Yehuda were published by the Bible Society in Israel, part of a worldwide organization of 140 Bible societies that publishes in some 200 countries.
The society's director in Israel, Victor Kalisher, the son of Holocaust survivors, spoke to the Post about his shock and dismay at the burnings. "As Jews we were raised and taught that were books are burned, worse things can happen. That's what I think when I see the pictures of what happened in Or Yehuda. What worries me is that nobody has stood up against this. It seems there is a war against messianic Jews in Israel. Nobody cares about many, what I believe to be cults, in Israel. These cults, which are not based on the Bible, don't pose a threat to the establishment. But God forbid a Jew learns about the messiah from the [Christian] Bible," Kalisher said.
He said he did not know who paid for and distributed the New Testaments that were distributed in Or Yehuda, but that there was demand for the books from many quarters. "The Bibles are not forced on anybody and are not forced into any homes. The book has never harmed anyone, you can choose to read it or choose not to read it. If this happened to Jewish books overseas we would be screaming anti-Semitism. This sort of thing happens in some regimes around us that we don't like," he said.
Kalisher noted a recent increase in tension between the messianic community and their opponents. "Bombs have been sent [in Ariel] and now books have been burned. This cannot be allowed to happen here," he said.
Michael Zinn, who heads a Christian organization called Beit Far Shalom, which "brings good news to people all over Israel," said the book burning was "unacceptable behavior which reminds me of the Middle Ages."
What happened in Or Yehuda, Zinn said, could spread to other parts of the country. What is important to watch now, Zinn said, was the reaction of the general Israeli public. "I expect Israeli society to put a large question mark on this incident," he said.
According to Calev Myers, a lawyer representing messianic Jews in Israel, the incident in Or Yehuda was an "illegal act" committed by Aharon and his yeshiva charges. Myers added that there was growing institutionalized discrimination against messianic Jews in Israel.
Myers said that according to Criminal Code section 170 and 172 it was illegal to harm in any way a place, symbol or icon of religious importance to a community who imbues that icon with religious significance. Furthermore, it was illegal to speak publicly in a way that is offensive to people of any religion, he said.
Likewise, it was illegal to actively convince a minor to convert to another religion, or to pay someone to convert, he said.
Myers is waiting to see whether Or Yehuda police open an investigation into the incident, and if they don't, he will petition, through the Jerusalem Institute for Justice that he runs, for Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz to order a probe.
"I expect the police to investigate everyone who was involved in the book burning, including those who incited the youths to the act, even if that includes Mr. Aharon," Myers said. Myers said the book burning was tantamount to incitement to violence.
"Israelis have to understand something: Messianic Jews here have strong ties to American evangelical Christians, and there are hundreds of millions of people in the world who see the burning of the New Testament as a very serious issue. The New Testament is believed in by hundreds of millions of people. It is not in Israel's national interest to allow the burning of their holy book," Myers told the Post.
Myers is not worried about opening up a legal battle over missionary activities in Israel. "Messianic Jews distribute literature here and are very careful about it. Chabad is a much larger group that distributes material and literature," he said.
[Aharon says it is okay for Jews to give material to Jews, but not for Christians to target Jews.]
"The messianic Jews in Israel are Jews like anyone else. They are registered with the Interior Ministry as Jews. So they are just as entitled to hand out pamphlets as anyone else, as long as it is from adults to adults and does not involve minors. Since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 there has never been one case of proven missionary work that has led to an indictment," Myers said.
David Parsons of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem said the burnings "would be offensive to most Christians."
"We need to understand that in the past some Christians burned many Jewish holy books, and so it seems that this is an outdated mode of dealing with these issues. In today's world, the public burning of anyone's books is considered unacceptable," Parsons said.
By the evening, Or Yehuda's deputy mayor said he had heard nothing but praise and thanks from residents of his city. Aharon said that he had never met or held a dialogue with any Jewish messianic group or person, but that he would welcome such a meeting.
For more articles by Amir Mizroch, see his personal blog Forecast Highs
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