'Watch out, missionaries!'

The remote desert city of Arad has become a hot spot in the ongoing struggle between the Messianics in Israel and the haredim who want them out.

Jews for Jesus 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jews for Jesus 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The word "nigger" features prominently in the videos taken by Eddie Beckford and his wife Lura, a Messianic Christian couple living in the desert town of Arad. The videos, going back to 2005, show anywhere from a handful to a mob of local Gur Hassidim harassing them and other Messianics in town. Eddie Beckford, 61, is a black American, hence the racial slur. "Nigger, go back to Harlem!" chants one gleeful man in the midst of hundreds of shouting, singing, fired-up hassidim who surrounded Beckford's storefront chess-club-cum-Christian-mission on Shabbat, June 17, 2005. Eddie was filming from inside the club while about 10 other fearful Messianics were praying. "Come here you stupid nigger!" another hassid calls out. "Nigger bastard!" yells another. They curse in English, usually accented. The police keep the crowd a short distance away from the club; otherwise they do nothing. The term "bastard" is also popular with the Gur Hassidim seen in the videos, but it's usually in reference to Jesus. "They took some bastard and they believe he rose from the grave," says one haredi filmed last year taunting the Messianics who were giving away second-hand clothes outside the chess club. "Where is your bastard?" the man demands, laughing quietly. About two months after the video was taken, the club, near the entrance to the town's market, was burned down in the middle of the night. (Rebuilt, it now has bars over the rear entrance.) Some time later, dozens of liters of gasoline were poured around the club's perimeter in the daytime, when several elderly Russian immigrants were playing chess inside, say local Messianics. Members of the Arad congregation, which numbers about 50, say they've had their tires slashed dozens of times. They've been surrounded, threatened and cursed by Gur Hassidim in the market, on the streets or in their homes for about five years. In all this time they can only recall one arrest of a suspect, and he was released immediately. I tried three times, in person and by phone, to speak to Yuval Paz, Arad's police chief, and he was never available, nor did he call me back. "All their claims are false," insists a haredi man passing by Yeshivat Lev Sameah near the entrance to Arad's Halamish neighborhood, where the 2,000 or so local Gur Hassidim live. The man, who wouldn't give his name and who was the only hassid I approached who agreed to talk with me even off-the-record, said he took part in some of the protests against the Messianics. "We all did," he said, pointing to the Halamish quarter. He said he wasn't against Christians, just against missionaries who proselytize Jews, insisting that this was against the law. (In fact, it isn't. Israeli law only forbids proselytizing minors or "bribing" potential converts with money or material favors.) "This is not their land, this is the land of the Jews," he said. "All these missionaries have to be removed." From Arad? I asked. "From Israel," he replied. ISRAEL'S MESSIANIC Jewish congregations, which are heavily mixed with born Christians like the Beckfords, have been hounded by the haredim in numerous cities over the years. But no congregation has gotten it worse than the one in Arad. In nearby Beersheba, the main local Messianic group also receives much more than its share of trouble from local haredim. Yoyakim Figueras, the Israeli-born leader of the local congregation, says that when the demonstrations outside his family's Arad house began a few years back, "they used to yell 'Nazi,' and 'Nazi dog.' Now they've become more sophisticated and they chant, 'Stop baptizing Jews into Christianity.'" The congregation in Arad includes Christians, Arabs, African refugees, foreign students and workers and Russian immigrants who weren't brought up Jewish, says Figueras. Asked if there were also "standard" Israeli Jews - those raised Jewish by a Jewish mother and father - he replied, "Very few." The Messianics baptize those who "come to Jesus," but they have scant attraction for mainstream Israeli Jews. As for gaining new converts, Figueras says nothing has helped the cause in Arad like "the publicity we've gotten from the ultra-Orthodox." Virtually every Tuesday night, about 15 of them come to chant outside his house. "This is where we used to hold our prayer meetings. They got a permit to demonstrate, and now we hold the prayer meetings elsewhere, but they keep coming to my house and bothering my wife and kids. When I ask the police how they can let people demonstrate week after week outside a person's private hone because they don't like his religion, they tell me, 'This is a democratic country,'" says Figueras, 39, a social worker who now works full-time as the congregation's pastor. A couple of haredi protesters also show up at the Messianics' weekly Shabbat morning services, he adds. Those protests are the focus of the local Gur Hassidim's campaign now that Beckford is under house arrest for assaulting one of them. Beckford has been confined to a rented, furnished house in a nice part of Arad, where he is kept company by his wife and by frequent visitors from the congregation, since February of last year. He is under house arrest because of an incident that occurred last year, when he was visited at the chess club by a Messianic couple who'd brought their infant along. A few Gur Hassidim pursued them and soon had them surrounded. Beckford, a tall, strongly-built Vietnam War veteran raised in a rough part of Manhattan, waded into the pack, pushed the leader to the ground and punched him out, injuring his ear. The husband of the visiting couple, who has since left Arad to get away from the hassidim's harassment, told me by phone that he and his wife, who had been holding their baby in a "snuggly," were terrified. "Before that they'd come to our house and yelled 'goy,' 'Christian,' 'traitor.' They once threw a placard at my daughter, she was afraid to leave the house for a long time after that. One of them, named Mendel, had given me a lot of trouble, and when he saw us that day in the shouk he began following us, yelling, chasing us with the others and I thought he was going to attack us. Then Eddie jumped in, threw Mendel down, hit him and then I grabbed Eddie and pulled him off," the husband recalls. On the wall opposite the chess club are faded posters put up by Yad L'Achim, the haredi anti-missionary organization that's instrumental in the campaigns in Arad and elsewhere. "The missionary Edwin Beckford under house arrest," reads the headline above a copy of the court order. Underneath, it reads: "Citizens of Arad: The missionaries are out to ambush you! Don't give them a stronghold in Arad." Underneath that, the warning, "Watch out, missionaries!" is repeated four times. SITTING IN their living room, Beckford, with his thick white moustache and goatee, looks like a distinguished jazz veteran while his wife Lura looks like a youthful Middle American grandmother. She immigrated to Israel in 1995 with her Messianic Jewish husband, a Vietnam War buddy of Eddie's. After her husband died of a heart attack, Lura and Eddie gradually became close and eventually married; Eddie joined her here in 2001. On the soundtrack of the video of the 2005 mob scene outside the chess club, Beckford, after the first time he films someone calling him a "nigger," is heard saying into the microphone, "You're the only guy who's living who doesn't have a broken jaw for calling me that... You better be glad I'm saved." He's taken a lot in Arad. "They slashed six tires on our car and van. They scratched the car; they wrote 'f**k' all over it. They'd call us up all the time in the middle of the night. I'd come home and see them leaning up against the wall of the house," he says. "I went to the police over and over again, and they'd tell me to wait here, sit over there, go to some other office. I'd be there for four hours, six hours, and nothing ever got done." After being called "nigger" repeatedly by one haredi man, Beckford sued him for slander, but the case has been delayed from one date to the next. A Jewish shopkeeper in the market says: "Everything that happened to him, his troubles with the law, are a result of the provocations by the haredim. They were very, very aggressive. The haredim came every Monday, when the produce stands are open and a lot of people come to shop. They'd come by the dozens every week, and on holidays there'd be hundreds of them, blowing a shofar. They called him and his wife terrible names. They'd call him 'nigger'; they'd call her 'whore.' Really, no normal person could listen to that all the time and do nothing. Eddie's a good man, peaceful; he has his own ideology, but he doesn't bother anybody. Just finally he couldn't take it anymore, and so maybe he hit one of them." The shopkeeper says he called police several times against the marauders, "but as soon as the police showed up, they would run away, and that was it." Since Beckford was placed under house arrest and no longer comes to the chess club, the haredi assaults have stopped, he adds. "It's quiet here now." The shopkeeper insisted on anonymity, saying, "I don't want to take any chances with the haredim around here." IN ONE of the Beckfords' videos, a Gur hassid is seen berating one of the Messianic women handing out free clothes when the hassid is told that the woman was born Jewish. Speaking to the camera in accented English, he offers Jesus a sarcastic word of thanks. "All the rotten Jews he took out of us, we should thank him. Take all the rotten Jews. Take all the stinking Jews that no one wants," he says. Pointing to the woman he's targeted, he goes on: "She has a black child. All the blacks, he'll take them all." Waving his hand dismissively, the hassid mutters, "Sick people." A Messianic woman is heard telling him, "God made black children." He continues: "We needed that stupid Jesus, that bastard of Jews, to take out all the sick Jews and all the sick Christians out of us." In the end he says something about "six million Jews." It's hard to make out the context. Overall, though, the picture is clear enough.