Our View on Contemporary Israel and Its Implication for Jewish Evangelism
By Tony Higton, General Secretary of CMJ
The re-establishment and survival of the State of Israel is a modern miracle, which is a sign of God’s faithfulness in accordance with Scripture. Its achievements over the last 57 years are nothing short of remarkable. The sense that it is a special place in God’s purposes remains even in those who live there.
However it is largely a secular democracy, which is increasingly marked by disillusionment with religious Zionism and military action in the territories. Disengagement from Palestinian areas, though supported by the majority, is beginning to cause civil unrest amongst the powerful settler lobby. There are gloomy prophecies of resulting civil war. Despite its military might and the current peace process, the country retains a sense of insecurity and anxiety.
There is a consequent spiritual vacuum and openness to new spirituality. This, linked with a significant improvement in Jewish/ Christian relationships (despite continuing anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism in other quarters) and a new move of the Holy Spirit, affords a great opportunity for evangelism, especially by the growing Messianic Movement, but also by expatriates.
We examine those characteristics briefly:
Out of a population of six million, there are between 20,000-30,000 drug addicts, not including alcoholics. More that 300,000 Israelis are "occasional" users. (There is more than one Messianic rehabilitation center in Israel, where addicts are experiencing remarkable deliverances).
Since 1980, the number of legal abortions performed in Israel has fluctuated between an estimated 14,000 to 19,000 per year. Believers are deeply involved in pro-life activities which include opportunities for witnessing.
According to a Tel Aviv University survey, 85% of Israelis are “worried” or “very worried” about violence. 23% regard it as their top concern. The organizer said that violence had reached "an extreme point of intolerability" which reflected a society that has lost respect for its own citizens. 38 to 40% of primary school children reported violent attacks, and 18% admitted being afraid of attending school. The number of children abused at home rose by 66% - from 21,765 in 1998 to 36,000 in 2002. Of these, only 2.9% were false reports.
As other democracies, Israel is currently facing the full impact of the gay lobby, with moves towards recognizing same-sex marriages. Huge controversy has begun over the 10-day "Jerusalem World Pride 2005," scheduled for the middle of August. This has led to an unprecedented co-operation between the extreme religious Shas party and Christians.
A few weeks ago, a conference of lay leaders and rabbis met in Jerusalem to discuss the problem of premarital sex within the Orthodox community.
The fact that there are so many secular Israelis is significant, in that they tend to be more open to the gospel than those who are religious, and many are coming to faith.
In addition to the general secular apathy or antagonism towards Orthodox Judaism in many quarters, there is widespread specific disillusionment with religious Zionism. The disengagement plans to withdraw from Gaza and other Palestinian areas are seen as a rejection of Zionism.
This has led right wing activists and National Religious Party rabbis to call for secession from the state because "There is a feeling going around that the religious Zionists are no longer wanted by the state. Instead people feel like the state wants to break them." Indeed “the current government is … rebelling against God." Many are moving towards the extreme Orthodox Neturei Karta movement which does not recognize the State of Israel.
One of the greatest causes of concern to the Israeli leadership is the refuseniks: soldiers who, for conscientious reasons, refuse to serve in the Palestinian areas or who may refuse to assist with disengagement.
Some months ago 13 reservists wrote to Ariel Sharon "No longer will we sacrifice the humanity within us in military-occupation missions," the letter states. "We have long ago crossed the line that ensures the justice of a warrior's path and approached the line that leads to the subjugation of another people. This line we will cross no longer! … "We say to you today, we will no longer give our hands to the oppressive reign in the territories and the denial of human rights to millions of Palestinians, and we will no longer serve as a defensive shield for the settlement enterprise."
There are serious worries that the violent reaction to the disengagement plan will lead to civil war. The Israeli newspaper Hatzofeh stated, "We live in a country in which the prime minister has initiated a racist expulsion of citizens of the same country from their homes, in complete contravention of the platform on which he was elected.”
Senior Israeli Rabbis have written that the Israeli government has declared war on God and His Word by relinquishing its birthright in the Gaza Strip and Samaria in return for a false peace. It “is about to destroy Israel and place millions of Jews in grave danger.”
Ephraim Halevy, ex-head of the National Security Council and of Mossad "We shouldn't talk about civil war lest it become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Whereas one cannot rejoice in the disillusionment, it nevertheless makes people more open to spirituality than the overconfidence of the early years of the state’s existence. Israelis are looking for answers and Yeshua HaMashiach is the answer.
“If you have country that’s a sliver and you can see three sides of it from a high hotel building, you’ve got to be careful what you give away and to whom you give it.” So said Donald Rumsfeld in August 2002. Despite its military might, Israel is well aware of its vulnerability as a small nation, just a few miles across in many areas. After almost 2000 years of anti-Semitism Israelis have an underlying concern lest they should ever lose this (relatively) safe homeland. Nearly 10% of Israeli adults (380,000 people) have witnessed a terror attack and it is said that every family has been affected by terrorism. Such trauma does not fade easily.
True the peace process is underway and the situation seems better. But Israelis are well aware that barely a day has passed since Abbas' election in January in which there has not been an attempt to launch a terror attack against Israeli civilians from within the PA territories. There was the bombing of the Stage nightclub in Tel Aviv on February 25, which killed five people and wounded dozens. More recently a car bomb containing more than half a ton of explosives was seized in Jenin by the Israel Defense Forces.
Steven Hobfoll, professor of psychology and psychiatry at Kent State University, Ohio discovered that at least half of Israel's population feels higher-than-normal levels of anxiety most of the time despite a marked drop in terror attacks inside the green line this year. He said the anxiety levels were so high they appeared to be an exaggeration but were in fact based on the findings of two wide-ranging surveys conducted by the University of Haifa's National Security Studies Center. "The level of depression among the public is running at a rate of 16-20 per cent, which is enormous, compared to the US and Western Europe, although the rates are similar to those among residents of New York City 2-3 months after the September 11 attacks." He added that a clear indicator of the fact that four years of terror have taken their toll on the nation's psyche is evidenced by the high level of those suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In Europe this is 1-1.5%. In Israel it is 7-9% of the population.
Our reaction to the traumas and insecurity experienced by Israelis should be one of compassion. But part of that compassion is the realization that they desperately need to embrace the Prince of Peace and to know his healing. The gospel has never been more relevant to them. Congregations can reach out offering the healing ministry of Yeshua in the widest sense.
4. Spiritual vacuum
There are, of course, many religiously observant Israelis and there are those who have turned to Judaism to find solace, in the face of the disillusionment and insecurity. However, there is also a spiritual vacuum in many people’s lives. They are searching for spirituality. Hence, as in other countries, a high proportion of people attending New Age events are Jewish. This is one very fruitful interface between Israelis and followers of Yeshua. There is scope not only for attendance at New Age events but also for running Messianic equivalents of such events.
It is also the case that many Israelis are fascinated by Christian festivals such as Christmas. For example, literally hundreds of them attend churches in Jerusalem on Christmas Eve. This affords wonderful opportunities for them to appreciate that Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophecies in the Tanach.
It would be naïve to ignore the long antagonism of Jewish people towards the gospel, some of it the legacy of shameful Christian anti-Semitism. It means that those wishing to share the gospel with Israelis are often walking on egg-shells. There have been attempts in the Knesset to pass bills which would outlaw evangelism. So far none has succeeded. But there are drafts in existence, which could easily be resurrected.
However, there are positive changes in Jewish Christian relationships. Much credit must be given to Pope John Paul II. In 1986 he visited the Great Synagogue in Rome and embraced the Chief Rabbi. Full diplomatic relations were inaugurated between the Vatican and Israel in 1993, and the Pope made an official visit to Israel in 2000, in a clear rejection of the traditional position of the Church that the Jews had been exiled from their land because of their refusal to accept Jesus and were condemned to wander. He visited Yad Vashem and wept at the suffering of the Jewish people. He issued many condemnations of anti-Semitism and apologized for earlier church policy and sins against Jews carried out by Catholics. All of this had a profound effect on Israel.
Then much work has been done by Christian Zionist organisations in Israel and amongst the Jewish people elsewhere. Although these organisations often deny that they do evangelism, and there is always the danger of being manipulated by the Israeli authorities, they do open up possibilities for evangelism by building bridges of compassion. In fact, Jewish people do come to the Lord through their ministries.
The Knesset's Christian Allies Caucus, which was established in 2004 with 12 MK's from six parties, meets monthly with Christian leaders to further mutual interests. This year Knesset members from the Caucus and representatives of the Chief Rabbinate took a short course in Christianity. The Ministry of Tourism is to build a major Christian center in Northern Galilee. Although encouraging tourism is a major motive, bridges are being built and relationships improved. Involvement by (mainly expatriate) believers will give many opportunities to witness to Yeshua.
6. Messianic movement
One of the most significant developments in Israel is the encouraging growth of the Messianic Movement. There are about 100 Messianic congregations amongst the six million population. They are reaching out in evangelism and seeing positive results. Many distribute the “Jesus” video area by area and do follow up based on this. A large proportion of these results is immigrants, who seem particularly open to the gospel. But there are Israeli evangelists who are effective at bring ordinary Israelis to faith. There is a place for sensitive expatriate evangelism, but the main work should be done by and through Israeli evangelists.
7. Work of the spirit
Finally, the Holy Spirit is clearly at work amongst Israelis. Secular and even Orthodox Israelis are coming to faith in Yeshua. God has clearly turned his attention to the Jewish people, including in Israel. This is, of course, the most encouraging factor. It is the beginning of the fulfilment of the prophecy that “all Israel will be saved” (Rom 11).
Secularism makes many Israelis more open to the gospel, as does the widespread disillusionment, insecurity and anxiety in Israeli Society. There is a spiritual vacuum which often leads Israelis to search for spirituality. The measure of Christian-Jewish reconciliation which has taken place builds bridges for the gospel and the growing (but controversial) Messianic Movement is very active in evangelism throughout the country. The Holy Spirit is clearly at work bringing Israelis to Yeshua in ever-increasing numbers.