Sunday 10 May 2015

Converting the Missionaries

It may come as a surprise to some that missionary groups are alive and very active in Israel.  Groups like the Jehovah's Witnesses have been operating in Israel for some time, as they have operated all around the world for many years.  It is their belief that they should make every effort to convert as many people to their way of thinking as possible.  And their reason for being in Israel is entirely understandable.  When seeking out potential converts, it is known that the Jehovah's Witnesses consider the conversion of Jews is of much greater value than converting anyone else.  Now that Israel houses the largest community of Jews in the world, Israel is an obvious target for them.

The issue has become very public over the past few weeks, with the Jehovah's Witnesses trying to hire a hall in the city of Ra'anana for their meeting.  Some have labelled the meeting as an annual conference or convention, and others have described it as a baptism for some of their recent converts.  The Municipality of Ra'anana initially declined the request for a municipal hall to be hired to them, and then acceded to their request.  Their agreement to rent out the hall was challenged in a district court by those opposed to the municipality allowing such a group to hold a meeting in its hall.  The court decided that Israeli democracy is the primary issue at stake here, and that the Jehovah's Witnesses are as entitled as anybody else to rent a municipal facility, and have their right to freedom of speech, religion and expression.  An appeal lodged with the Supreme Court of Israel upheld this decision, and the event was allowed to go ahead.

Many hundreds of Orthodox Jews turned out to protest against the event, and held prayers outside the hall in which the meeting took place.  There were even sporadic outbreaks of violence against the Jehovah's Witnesses and their supporters when they arrived at the hall.  While such an event being held in the midst of a Jewish city certainly represents a provocation to those living within the proximity of the event and in the city of Ra'anana, the Supreme Court of Israel has made its decision regarding the important issue of democracy and how this ought to be applied in our country.  It is, of course, the democratic right of all those who oppose this, to voice their opposition.  This should, however, be undertaken within the confines of what the law allows.  If that was not enough, members of the religious community in the city have turned on each other to make scapegoats out of those who are held responsible for allowing such an event to take place.

For me, the question was not about the work that the Jehovah's Witnesses are doing to try to convert Jews to their belief system, or about the municipality for allowing their meeting to take place here.  They are fully within their rights to do this, even though many are affronted by their efforts.  The greater question is why so many Jews feel that they are forced to find their spiritual fulfilment with the Jehovah's Witnesses.  Nobody observed any Jews being forced against their will to convert to the Jehovah's Witness belief system.  This indicates that these Jews are doing so out of their own choice.  It also indicates that they have rejected the possibility of finding their spiritual home within Judaism.  Instead of protesting against the work that the Jehovah's Witnesses are doing to convert Jews, the religious community should be asking themselves why Orthodox Judaism does not provide this home to its own people?

It seemed to me not to be coincidental that these events took place in the same week as the United Torah Judaism Party signed a coalition with the Likud to enter the new government.  This coalition agreement is sprinkled with concessions that the new government will make to give religious Jews certain rights that other citizens of Israel do not have.  There are also agreements that will ensure that government funding is allocated to religious groups and institutions at the expense of others.  When considering that Israel is currently experience a period of austerity when the government does not have funding available for additional requirements, and when considering the relatively small amount that Haredi Jews contribute to government coffers, this agreement is highly controversial amongst many Israelis.  To make matters worse, the agreement requires the reversal of legislation that was recently passed in the Knesset in an attempt to bring the treatment of ultra-Orthodox Israelis in line with everybody else.  It seems little wonder that there is such a large stigma attached to the notion of secular Israelis reconnecting with their religious roots when seeking spiritual fulfilment.  The behaviour of those who are the public face of these religious roots is so unattractive and opposite to anything that good, law-abiding people consider to be acceptable, that they would not wish to be associated with anything that these people represent.

It would appear as though the success of the Jehovah's Witnesses in Israel has little to do with the authorities permitting them to operate here, or decisions made by the Supreme Court.  If there was no public need or desire to listen to the alternatives that they offer, they would have left these shores a long time ago.  The fact that they continue to be successful in Israel says more about the religious alternatives that Judaism offers, than it says about those public officials who allow them to hold meetings in our municipal facilities.

Judaism certainly offers attractive alternatives to those who wish to seek it out.  In order to attract people to seek this out, people need to be attracted to those who practise this Judaism as much as they are attracted to the Judaism itself.  It is extremely unfortunate that the lie of the religious land in Israel favours the ultra-Orthodox community at the expense of the secular and modern Orthodox Jews.  And as much as Jewry offers many different strands for those who are interested to choose from, the headlines that are attracted by the negative activities of the ultra-Orthodox serve to drown out the good aspects that Judaism can offer.  The storm created by the Jehovah's Witness event is an easy scapegoat for the failure of Judaism to make itself attractive to its own people.  This is a classic case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

  of proselytising has raised its head again in Israel following attempts by a group known as

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