The US-based Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations has thrown down the gauntlet in what may become a renewed battle over the issue of who has the right to immigrate to Israel.
The group is an umbrella organization for approximately 80 American Christian missionary congregations comprised of worshippers who seek to convince Jews to believe in Jesus. In their houses of worship, these congregations observe some Jewish traditions. But while Jewish law clearly says that Judaism is passed to the next generation through the mother, these missionary congregations say that if the father is Jewish, that's enough.
Some of the missionaries were born to Jewish mothers and are therefore Jewish according to Jewish law. Under the State's current Law of Return anyone with at least one Jewish parent or grandparent on either side of the family is eligible to immigrate to Israel. It is this law that enabled the Jewish Agency to utilize Jewish funds to bring in some 300,000 non-Jews to Israel from the Former Soviet Union (FSU).
In the past, however, those who profess belief in Jesus have been blocked from acquiring Israeli citizenship because such belief is in direct contradiction to the Jewish faith.
A more serious problem is the compulsion that most members of these missionary congregations feel to convince other Jews to believe in Jesus.
"Those people are proselytizers," says Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, head of the Ateret Yerushalayim Yeshiva. "They should not be allowed to have an influence on Jews who might be too weak to resist."
The issue of missionary activity in Israel has been heating up over the past year, particularly since Purim, when the son of a missionary was injured after he opened a booby-trapped gift package received by the family in Ariel.
Orthodox Jewish anti-missionaries were accused of having sent the package, but there was no evidence to indicate that Jews were involved. The boy's father, Pastor David Ortiz, had been warned repeatedly by Palestinian Authority religious authorities to stop trying to convert Muslims to Christianity.
In the small southern city of Arad, Christian missionaries have also been at the center of controversy. Eddie Beckford, a tall, burly American missionary was arrested earlier this year for attacking a Gur Chassid during a protest by the Yad L'Achim anti-missionary organization outside one of the group's centers.
Beckford was remanded to house arrest and has since moved to Be'ersheva, where he has joined forces with pastor Howard Bass at the burgeoning Congregation Nahalat Yeshua (Jesus' Inheritance).