by H. Robert Cowles
Some tentative answers to the question of how evangelical missionaries are faring today in Israel and why.
To the Jew first,"1 the Apostle Paul said, reflecting the evangelistic mandate Jesus gave his disciples prior to his ascension.
The Acts makes it clear that not only did the disciples and early church follow the sequence literally (and with uncommon success); they found it difficult to break from their cultural mold and offer the same gospel to the Gentiles. Even Paul himself, confessed apostle to the Gentiles,2 usually bean a new evangelistic campaign in the local synagogue,3 turning to the Gentiles only after the Jews had rejected his gospel.
Sometime not too far from the heady years immediately following the Pentecost of 30 A.D., evangelism of the Jews became difficult. We shall assess some of the reasons a little later on. For now it is sufficient to state that Jews are not turning to Christ in remarkable numbers, though Christian groups ministering to Jews in North America are finding more cause for encouragement now than they have had in the past.4
An eerie silence surrounds most Protestant missionary work in Israel itself. Prophetic pieces about Israel there are. Travelogues abound. Scholarly studies of the land are not wanting. And international conflict regularly puts Israel into the newspaper headlines. But those having any success in winning Israelis to Christ are not talking publicly.
TOUR, PRODUCES ANSWERS
Recently I returned from a ten-day tour of Israel sponsored by the World Zionist Organization for Christian clergy media personnel. I went with my eyes and ears open. I think I returned with some tentative answers to the question of how evangelical missionaries are faring today in Israel and why.
Normally I would gladly keep my observations private, deferring to those who by long years of immediate contact with Israel are much better qualified than I to write. But those who are better qualified find it inadvisable to speak. I, on the other hand, am expected to. I was the ten-day guest of the Israeli government that I might observe and form opinions and relay those findings through the North American press. I would be a disappointment to the government of Israel if I remained silent.
Our experiences in Israel as a Christian media tour group went far beyond the usual tourist attractions, although we saw them, too. The sites of such events as the Annunciation at Nazareth and the Nativity at Bethlehem are of questionable authenticity. With few exceptions ancient churches shelter these places. Apart from the strikingly beautiful new Basilica of the Annunciation at Nazareth, the accretion of ugly ornamentation within these shrines is more repulsive than attractive. Only Galilee seemed still unspoiled.
But beyond the pilgrimage route, we saw Israel, the confident little nation of destiny that twenty-seven years ago did not even exist.5 No amount of money could have bought the contacts we were freely granted: interviews with government officials and religious leaders, conversations with writers, journalists, university people. It was a look at Israel that few tourists are privileged to see.
ROLE OF THE LAND
No understanding of Israel the nation is possible without understanding the role of the land in the hearts of Israelis. Palestine is not just land, it is the Land. Israel is not simply a resettlement; it is a return. Jews who for nearly two millennia have lived in diaspora are back in their historic homeland. They have bought up malaria-infested swamps and arid deserts and bare mountains and by bone-wearying work have made them productive.
We stopped at a small kibbutz almost within sight of the 1967 cease fire line in the Golan Heights. It had been briefly overrun in the Yom Kippur War, and the settlers were in the process of replastering the telltale pockmarks of cannon fire.
Somewhere in the small labyrinth of brightly-decorated, modern concrete buildings planted firmly on stark, hilly land our guide produced a young Israeli who had emigrated from New York State four years ago. Her children sleep each night deep within the earth in bombproof bedrooms. She was almost nonchalant about the potential dangers. She regarded the hostilities as a necessary part of the job of claiming the land.
In Tel Aviv we listened to an Israeli, formerly a college rector in South Africa, now a pensioner involved in receiving and processing immigrants from all over the world-some 80,000 entered Israel last year, more than half of them from Russia. In precise British English he explained all the steps: equipping and clothing the more destitute immigrants; providing language schools where they can learn Hebrew; finding jobs and housing. The Israeli government has erected banks of modern apartment buildings where incoming Jews may reside for up to six months during this period of processing and adjustment.
Israel is one of the few nations in the world that wants immigrants and encourages a high birth rate. Israel sees its continued progress in proportion to its utilization of the land, now supporting 3,200,0006 and ultimately capable of twenty million-"if we can solve the problem of water," the semiretired rector added.
And utilizing the land they are. Beersheva, once a sleepy desert village, is a bustling city with a modern university and block after block of apartment buildings. Tel Aviv is unbelievable. Miles of worthless sand dunes have been transformed into a sprawling contemporary metropolis.
Even Jerusalem has not escaped the twentieth century. Skyscrapers press in upon the ancient Walled City, a luxury hotel is perched atop the Mount of Olives, and the Judean hills have been commandeered by modern buildings of every purpose.
Israelis have no intention of relinquishing the land they consider theirs by the triple right of heredity, political decision and fair conquest. At the same time, Israelis are most anxious for peace. The Yom Kippur War of 1973 was a demoralizing drain on the nation’s economy. Israel is prepared to trade off some fringe territory in return for assurance that she can live at peace amid the surrounding Arab states.
She will trade off some territory, I say, but not that part of the Golan Heights essential to her defense. And certainly not the ancient Walled City, Jerusalem. And probably not much of the so-called "West Bank"-the strip of land immediately west of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea.
There are Israelis who see this return to the land as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. One of the two rabbis who accompanied our group from New York quoted Ezekiel:
"But ye, O mountains of Israel, ye shall shoot forth your branches, and yield your fruit to my people Israel, for they are at hand to come. For, behold, I am for you, and I will turn unto you, and ye shall be tilled and sown: And I will multiply men upon you, all the house of Israel, even all of it: and the cities shall be inhabited, and the wastes shall be builded: And I will multiply upon you man and beast; and they shall increase and bring fruit: and I will settle you after your old estates, and will do better unto you than at your6 beginnings: and ye shall know that I am the Lord.
"Yea, I will cause men to walk upon you, even my people Israel; and they shall possess thee, and thou shalt be their inheritance, and thou shalt no more henceforth bereave them of men."7
These two rabbis saw Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones in chapter 37 as an equally positive prediction of Israel’s return to the land.
But apart from the two rabbis, in our ten days in Israel we found not a person who equated the return to the land with the historic purposes of God as foretold by the Old Testament prophets. Certainly not our official Israeli hostess, Miss Tirza Gur-Arie-animated, intelligent, friendly, but almost defensively secular. Nor Shemaryahu Talmon, the articulate and knowledgeable associate professor of Bible at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who saw no correlation between biblical prophecy and what is taking place in Israel today.
This preponderant secularity in Israel was the biggest surprise of, all to me. Yet secularity is not quite an accurate term, for Israelis generally cling to the observance of the Sabbath Eve, to bar-mitzva and circumcision. On holy days the synagogues everywhere are crowded to capacity. The feast days such as Tabernacles and Chanukka are universally observed.8 We were in Tel Aviv during Purim and the downtown area was a carnival with youth and adults jamming the streets late into the night, celebrating with Hallowe’en-like merriment.
Yet only about a quarter of the Jewish population in Israel is classified as "observant,"9 meaning regular attendees of the synagogue and participants in the rules of the Torah (Pentateuch). At the 500-member Kibbutz Ginossar on the shores of Galilee there is no synagogue. "We will build one," said a spokesman, "when ten members desire a synagogue."
Perhaps cultural piety is a better term to describe the religious temperament in Israel. Orthodoxy in the traditional and biblical sense is rejected by the majority, yet most of them, for all their impatience with the tedium and restrictions of rabbinical regulations, prefer to maintain at least a nodding acquaintance with Jewish religious tradition.
Some Jews, however, are avowed atheists, a situation that rankles Hebrew Christians. The atheistic Jew who denies even the existence of God is received as an integral member of the Jewish community, while the Christian Jew whose faith encompasses the entire Old Testament tradition is ostracized.
The whole piety-secularity axis is a heated issue revolving around the question, "Who is a Jew?" Serious official debate has been postponed until such time as the international situation is under control. While the tiny nation is fighting for its very survival is hardly the time to engage in internecine warfare over the emotional subject of what really constitutes Jewishness.
Despite the comparatively small number of Jews who are "observant," Orthodoxy at the moment has a tight if tenuous grip on government." There may be divergences in intensity of expression, or in outlook," says an official publication; "there may be evidence of the intrusion of modern secularist influences; but [Israel’s] Jewishness is basic and taken for granted. And here organized religion — the Establishment, as it were-naturally assumes prominence."10
That "prominence" of the Establishment permeates all life in Israel. The Shabbat (Sabbath), as I already indicated, is observed to a large degree throughout the land. Stores close. Public transportation grinds to a halt. In some sectors of Jerusalem no vehicular traffic is permitted on the Sabbath. Orthodoxy touches the military, which observes religious dietary rules and issues the Jewish Scriptures to alb personnel. Both in the State Religious Schools (Orthodox) and the State Schools (non-Orthodox),11 the Old Testament is taught and students are acquainted with ancient Hebrew culture.12
Conservative and Reform Jews (as opposed to Orthodox) resent some of this heavy-handedness. Their rabbis are unrecognized by Israeli government and cannot even preform the marriage ceremony. And the secular Jews, even farther removed from the vortex of Orthodoxy, wonder if any of it is necessary.
The Christian observer has mixed feelings about the struggle between piety and the secular. For it is the adherence to Old Testament and Rabbinic tradition that to him has made the Jews unique over the centuries. Something of the mystique of Israel would be lost if the state were to go secular. Half a Bible seems better than none at all.
On the other hand, he asks whether it is not the Jews’ adherence to time-honored traditions that has contributed to the difficulty of evangelizing them. If Israel were to abandon her religious precepts, would Israelis conceivably be more amenable to the gospel of Jesus Christ?
This blend of piety and secularity is a puzzling thing to any outsider, and the more so when the array of other religions are added to the mix. For Israel is a nation of religious toleration. Israel recognizes the other two monotheistic religions, Christianity and Islam, protects their shrines, and permits Muslims and Christians to observe their holy days and legal tenets.
RELIGIOUS FREEDOM OR NOT?
Does this mean that there is religious liberty in Israel? Yes and no. Yes, says the Israel government. No, say some minority groups, especially Jewish Christians, who find themselves the objects of discrimination when it comes to both housing and employment. Both answers are correct, within their frame of reference.
And this is the important point. There is religious liberty in Israel within the religious compartment in which the worshipper happens to be. The Muslim has complete freedom to practice Islam. The Catholic or Protestant Christian has freedom to worship as he chooses. And of course so does the Jew. The intolerance begins to be felt when any one group seeks to proselytize. And evangelical Christians are by character and command proselytizers.
Let’s back off a moment, however, and try to see this from the perspective of the Israeli Jew. From the early persecutions which he shared with Christians at the hands of the Roman emperors, the Jew has been the object of discrimination. And as the Roman Empire became the Holy Roman Empire, that discrimination became church-inspired.
To be sure, the Jew during the Middle Ages enjoyed a certain status not accorded heretical Christians-or Christians the church considered heretical. They had no status. The Jew had some status, even though it was second-class. The Jew eked out a substandard existence, discriminated against by the majority, yet grudgingly permitted to survive. With stubborn tenacity he maintained his ethnic separation, refusing to be absorbed into the Christian community except in the not-infrequent instances of forced conversion.
As the Age of Enlightenment, the Protestant Reformation and the Industrial Revolution brought civilization to bold new resolution, the Jew continued to be the target of discrimination. His ancestors’ role in the death of Jesus was flung at him in biting epithets. And in that crowning act of senseless barbarity, six million of his fellows died at the hands of a Christian nation-Germany-and other Christian nations raised not a finger to halt the outrageous genocide.
It will have to be admitted that some of the Jewish antagonism against Jesus whom we call Christ is the same emotional unwillingness to examine the evidence that characterized some of their first century forefathers. But it must also be acknowledged that the treatment of Jews at the hands of Christians has been a major contributing factor an disposing Jews against Jesus. I say it to my shame, for I am a member of the Christian community and I must share the responsibility.
We were in Israel not long after three Christian places in Jerusalem-the House of Zion bookstore, the Israel Baptist House and the Swedish Theological Center-had been firebombed. Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek deplored the violence, calling it "contrary to the true spirit of the Holy City," and offered aid in repairing the damage (which, as it turned out, was not extensive). But an anonymous phone call threatened the mayor with death if he followed through.13
We asked a Jewish spokesman at the Christian Information Center to comment. He shrugged his shoulders. "All Jews are allergic to missionaries," he replied. "Some are more allergic than others."
This allergy of course is tied directly to the Christian missionary’s avowed purpose to make disciples in a country where proselytizing is officially proscribed. The Jew is quite willing to coexist peacefully with Christians and Muslims, provided neither tries to convert him. As David and Evie Schaafsma, who have lived in Israel for two and a half years, are quoted as saying, "The average Jewish person thinks of the Gentile Christian differently than he thinks of the Jewish Christian. He can tolerate and respect the Gentile Christian. It is very difficult for him to understand the Jewish Christian."14
This impasse between the missionary sent to make disciples and the nation intolerant to proselytizing is skirted by governmental approval for a sort of "presence evangelism." The missionary is free to press his views by oral argument. He is free to pass out literature. If the Jew is thus persuaded to become a Christian, so be it. But the missionary under no circumstances may "buy" converts.
Unfortunately, missionaries in the past have not been beneath the practice of gaining adherents by proffering them material benefits. And of course there is a narrow line between buying converts and seeking to minister with Christian compassion to the temporal as well as the spiritual needs of people, especially if their financial hardship is related to their overt interest in the Christian faith. The Christian witness, be he missionary or laymen, cannot turn from human need simply because his motives may be impugned.
Missionaries have not always been sensitive to the Jewish position, either. The divine mandate to evangelize does not necessarily require us to wade in rough-shod with a let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may attitude. Our purpose is to persuade, not to coerce.
Another ingredient must be considered if the mosaic of Israel is to be uncaricatured. Both the Old and New Testaments predict that Israel shall figure prominently in events yet future. God has not abandoned the people whom he foreknew.15 A day shall come when they will again bask in divine blessing.
Devout Jews themselves equate this, at least in an indefinite way, with their present return to the land. "The belief in the Restoration of Zion became a cardinal principle of the Jewish faith, an all-pervasive element in Jewish life," runs an official government release. "Wherever he is, the Jew, in prayer, turns his face and directs his heart toward the Land of Israel….The climax is reached in the cry that marks the termination of the Passover service and the Day of Atonement- `Next Year in Jerusalem!’ With the rise of the State of Israel, prayers for its welfare have been added to the liturgy of every Jewish community in the world; in them the State is seen as the beginning of the flowering of Jewry’s redemption."16
A memorial stands upon a mountain outside Jerusalem dedicated to the Holocaust-the murder of six million Jews by Hitler. Most Jews who have any thoughts on the subject equate that devastation with the prophesied Tribulation. With the Tribulation past and the nation again in the Land, the Millennium cannot be far behind.
Christian evangelicals generally hold to a different prophetic view. They too see Israel as literally returning to the Land. But there the similarities end.
Sometime after Israel is in the Land, she will rebuild the temple. We deduce this because Anti-Christ, who makes a seven-year covenant with Israel, shall dissolve that agreement midway, desecrate the temple and launch unbelievable persecution against the Jews.17
In due time Messiah shall destroy Anti-Christ with the brightness of his coming. 18 Surviving Jews will look on him whom they pierced,19 recognizing belatedly their Messiah Jesus, who will then set up his Kingdom on David’s "throne" and reign in righteousness.20
That bare outline in essence describes the view of many, if not most, Christian evangelicals. It indicates that before "all Israel shall be saved,"21 another Holocaust, more intense, more devastating than Titus’ plunder of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. or Hitler’s wanton, barbaric genocide in this century, must intervene. Therefore, if today’s sons of Israel are to be saved, they must be individually evangelized.
And so, the Christian missionary in Israel.
PRESENT STATUS OF MISSIONS
According to the MARC Mission Handbook22 twenty-five Protestant agencies are working in Israel, thirteen of them church denominations or church-related. At least one-The Christian and Missionary Alliance-dates back into the nineteenth century (not all indicate the date they began their work in Israel or Palestine). The Southern Baptist Convention, with a reported fifty missionaries, is far and away the largest. At least eleven agencies entered subsequent to the founding of the State of Israel. Not all agencies are engaged in Jewish evangelism. Sortie are oriented toward the Arab population in Israel.
At the end of 1972 the Christian population23 in Israel stood at 77,300-110,000 if you count East Jerusalem and the administered (occupied) areas.24 Not more than 5,000 of these were Protestants,25 and Hebrew Christians in Israel probably do not exceed 500.26 The Muslim community numbered 343,900, plus more than another million in the administered areas.27 Jews were predominant with 2,636,600; Druzes and others made up the balance of 37,300 for a total population of approximately 3,100,000. Estimated population at the end of 1973 was 3,200,000.28
"Contrary to what some believe," says Dr. S. P. Colbi, adviser to the Ministry of Religious Affairs, "conversion through missionary activity has been a negligible factor in the growth of the Christian population."29 But it has not been negligible, or Chief Rabbi Schlomo Goren and the militant Jewish Defense League would not be so vocal in their call for curtailment of missionary activity in Israel. (Not so incidentally, Rabbi Goren was unavailable to meet with us, even though an appointment had been arranged and confirmed in advance of our trip.) For a fact, the gospel is getting through to Israeli Jews.
SERVICE FOR CHRISTIAN JEWS
I attended one service in Israel for Christian Jews. The meeting, held at sundown following the Sabbath, convened in a contemporarily-styled private home. An even dozen were present, half of us non-Jewish. I had inquired in advance whether anyone would object if I took pictures. "I think they would," my friend advised. Although no effort was made to keep the singing at a discreet level of volume, I noted that our host and hostess pulled the blinds before the service got under way.
One man in the group, a recent non-Jewish resident, was experiencing considerable frustration in finding both employment and housing for his family, a situation at least partly related to his Christian faith.
In that sort of antagonistic climate, is there any point in trying to continue missionary work? The person who even countenances the question has a defective understanding of Christ’s commission to the church30 and the urgency of these last days as we see the end approaching.31
Right here is where Jews and Christians need to come to some sort of mutual understanding. Put yourself in the place of the Jew, living in a land he can at last call his own after centuries of dispossession. Recall again that most of his persecution over the centuries was at the hands of so-called Christians. It is not difficult to understand his reluctance to give Christian missionaries free reign in his new Jewish homeland.
But the Jew needs to put himself in the place of the Christian, whose religious heritage is as Jewish as his own. The difference between the Jew and the Christian-from a religious standpoint-is a Jew named Jesus whom many first century Jews were convinced was the Son of God and the true Messiah. His final mandate to those Messianic Jews of the first century was that they should make disciples of all nations.32 "To the Jew first," was the order of priority, "and also to the Greek ( Gentile )."33
Obviously, then, the Christian missionary has a delicate task as guest in a land not his own. The rules have been laid down. Cultural, social and economic pressures exerted upon the Jews make it very difficult for them to become Christians. Within that framework the missionary must seek to do God’s work, like Paul willing himself to be cut off from Christ if his doom would mean the redemption of Israe1.34
The instructions given to the first group of foreign missionaries to depart from the United States, commissioned at Salem, Mass., in 1812, have special relevance for the missionary in Israel today [The people to whom you go], by your pious conduct must be convinced that your religion…is preferable to theirs. It will be fruitless to tell them about invisible things, about Heaven and Hell, eternal happiness and eternal misery, if they do not see in your Christian conduct what they ought to imitate. You will spend your breath and time in vain, except you let them see the real expression of Godliness in your uniform example. The [ir] eyes….you will note, rather than their ears, are the avenues by which you can readily have access to their hearts.35
Example like that and spiritual concern, coupled with urgent prayer, the persuasive words of God’s wisdom and the power of God’s Holy Spirit, will have their positive effect.
1. Romans 1:16.
2. Romans 11:3.
3. Acts 13:14ff; 14:1ff; 17:1ff; etc.
4. For instance, in an article in the March 27, 1974, Alliance Witness George Gruen, Director of Jewis Ministries for The Christian and Missionary Alliance Home Department, cities the productive evangelistic effort among Jewish youth in Greater Philadelphia where his recent activity has been centered.
5. Israel became a State on May 14, 1948, by a declaration of independence.
6. 1973 estimate. The 1974 World Almanac, New York, Newspaper Enterprise Association, Inc., 1973, p. 576.
7. Ezekiel 36:1-12.
8. Israel Today — Religious Life, published by "Israel Digest", p. 29.
9. New York Times, March 18, 1974, page 12.
10. Israel Today, op. cit., p. 23.
11. In the school year 1972-73, out of 407,700 pupils of Hebrew primary and intermediate schools, 68.5 percent attended State Schools, 31.5 percent attended State Religious and Recognized Schools. (From Israel Today, op. cit., p.15. )
12. Ibid., pp. 14-15.
13. The Alliance Witness, April 10, 1974, The Christian and Missionary Alliance,. 13.
14. Missionary Mandate, Feb.-Mar., 1974, Inter-Varsity, p. 1.
15. Romans 11:2.
16. Israel Today, op. cit., p. 5-6.
17. Daniel 9:27; 11:29-31.
18. 2 Thessalonians 2:8.
19. Zechariah 12:10.
20. Isaiah 9:6-7.
21. Romans 11:26-27.
22. Edward R. Dayton, ed., Mission Handbook: North American Protestant Ministries Overseas, Monrovia, Calif., Missions Advanced Research and Communication Center, 1973, p. 536-7. The listed organizations with date of entry (when noted) and number of missionaries (when noted) are as follows: American Baptist Association, 1967; American Board of Missions to the Jews, 1964; American European Bethel Mission, Inc., 6 missionaries; American Institute of Holy Land Studies, 1959, 8 missionaries; American Messianic Fellowship, 1943,1 missionary; Apostolic Church of Pentecost of Canada, Inc., 1 missionary; Assemblies of God; Child Evangelism Fellowship, Inc., 1951, 2 missionaries; Christian and Missionary Alliance, 1890,4 missionaries; Church of God; Church of the Nazarene, 1952, 4 missionaries; Holy Land Mission, 5 missionaries; Home of Onesiphorus, 1951, no missionaries; Independent ,Assemblies of God, International; Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, 1946; Mennonite Central Committee, 1963, 10 missionaries; Mennonite Church, 1953, 11 missionaries; Minneapolis Friends of Israel, 1948; Pilgrim Fellowship Inc., 1967, no missionaries; Protestant Episcopal Church in the U.S.A., 2 missionaries; Southern Baptist Convention, 1921, 50 missionaries; United Evangelical Churches, 2 missionaries; United Fundamentalist Church, 1962; World Wide Missions, 1961; World Wide Prayer and Missionary Union, Inc., 2 missionaries.
23. Statistics, unless otherwise credited, are from Facts about Israel, Jerusalem, Division of Information, Ministry for Foreign Affairs, n.d., . 65.
24. S. P. Colbi, The Growth and Development of Christian Church Institutions in the State of Israel, published by The Israel Economist, n. d., p. 11. "The Catholic-Greek (26,000), Roman(27,000), and Maronite(3,500)-and Orthodox – Greek (40,000) and small congregations of Russian and Romanian -Churches are largely concerned, outside their spiritual ministrations, with supervision of the Holy places."
25. Israel Today, op. cit., p. 21.
26. Missionary Mandate, op. cit., p. 1.
27. Israel Today, op. cit., p. 22.
28. The 1974 World Almanac, op. cit., p. 576.
29. S. P. Colbi, op cit., p. 11.
30. Matthew 28:19-20.
31. Hebrews 10:23-25.
32. Matthew 28:19-20.
33. Romans 1:16.
34. Romans 9:1-5.
35. Alford Carleton, "Religion and the Religious," Occasional Bulletin, Mar./Apr., 1974, Missionary Research Library, p.5.
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