What To Do When Missionaries Come Knocking On Your Door In Israel
We do not expect door-to-door missionaries in Israel. But it happens. The responses to my Facebook post a few weeks ago regarding my consternation at having had two Jehovah Witness (JW) missionaries knock at my door were in part funny, in part disturbing and in part thought provoking. I promised to write up my reflections on those responses and I am now keeping that promise.
It is Not Just About JW Missionaries
One thing I learned that should be stated at the outset is that JW members consider themselves Christian but they are not regarded as Christian by the rest of the Christian world. This is because they do not accept some basic tenets of Christianity and take Bible texts out of context. As a Jew, I am not concerned with whether or not JW is Christian; I am concerned with any group that intends to pry Jews away into a different faith.
JW is commonly considered a cult. As a cult, it is one of many cults operating in Israel and around the world. Some of these cults are Judaism-based just as JW is Christianity-based. In this article, I will not deal with cults. They deserve an article all to themselves, or two or three.
When Missionaries Come Knocking
There were several different sub-threads that arose in response to my post and I will organize my thoughts around these.
- Is it illegal to proselytize in Israel?
I wrote in my post that after I closed the door on the missionaries, I called the police to see if proselytizing was illegal in Israel, as I believed it was, and if so, what to do about it. The officer with whom I spoke said that it could be regarded as incitement or harassment but there was nothing to do since they were nowhere in sight by then. It turns out she was wrong.
The short answer to the question regarding the legality or illegality of proselytizing is: “sometimes”. Trying to get someone to change their religion is illegal only under two conditions: (a) one is attempting to convert a minor; or (b) one is offering some kind of material reward for converting. Handing out reading material is not considered a material reward. In fact, a Christian friend of mine told me that her group was given permission to hand out pamphlets in a public space not long ago. I am not sure about handing out Bibles that have more monetary value than a pamphlet.
In sum, then, any blanket statement that it is illegal to proselytize in Israel is wrong. I have copied the relevant sections of the Law as an appendix to this article and added my own translation.
- Ways to respond to missionaries who knock on your door unbidden.
Here is where it was sometimes mild and sometimes a bit hairy. I was told to just point to the mezuzah on the doorpost and then shut the door, or not to open it in the first place; or to invite them in and play mind games with them in some fashion until they were convinced of the error of their own beliefs or just sufficiently befuddled that they no longer posed a danger to anyone; or to invite them in and invite a rabbi to come at the same time or otherwise have a serious exchange about their beliefs and ours; or to invite them in then shoot them.
The tone of the suggestions ranged from light hearted and fun to serious to downright vicious. Personally, I take the matter seriously and I am not a violent or disrespectful person.
As a result of the discussion on my Facebook page, I have decided that should a missionary come to my door again, I would invite them in and have a conversation. My purpose would be to try to figure out if they would have been willing to talk with a minor if an adult was not present in the home. This is a possibility given that they came at a time when kids are home from school and many parents still at work. I would try to find out where their church is so that I could investigate it a bit more and see if their whole purpose of being in Israel is to convert Jews. I would see how strong a pitch they were willing to throw in the attempt to win over another Jew.
- Should we invest much time and energy in concern about this when there are much more pressing things to attend to, such as terror attacks?
Short answer: in my opinion, yes. In my daily life I am not attending to warding off the next terror attack. In fact, I am living quite a normal life. And I regard the suggestion that my call to the police is a despicable waste of their time to be arrogant, especially coming from someone who does not live here. If there was a law against proselytizing in all forms, then I would have every right to expect that law to be upheld by the police.
It is a big deal, contrary to what some commenters seem to think. I consider attempts to convert Jews to any other religion an attack against us. The physical body, of course, would survive, but the spiritual body of the Jewish People would have been diminished. I do not consider the holder of any belief system to have the right to come to us with the purpose of convincing us that his or her belief system is THE TRUTH and mine is not. Of course Christians believe that the only way to eternal salvation is by accepting Christ into one’s life. That still does not make it true, and as much as anyone may try to convince me that that is THE TRUTH they will not succeed with me because it is only THE TRUTH within their own belief system. It is still a BELIEF. Ditto for other belief systems. Ditto for Judaism. To each his or her own. Unfortunately, not everyone is sufficiently strong or knowledgeable to be able to ward off temptations to convert and that matters.
- Would a law against proselytizing in Israel imply an attack on freedom of religion or freedom of speech?
One commenter very angrily spoke of the hypocrisy inherent in my post given that Jews in Western countries fought against the Christian nature of those countries because we hated to be a minority without rights. And here I was, according to him, suggesting that Israel should infringe on the rights of our religious minorities.
First of all, Jews did NOT fight against the Christian nature of any country; we did not act in any way with the purpose of making any country secular. I have no problem with a country having the cultural-religious nature of the majority. I expect it to, in fact. I grew up in a country with a Christian majority (I suppose that believers will say that most of the population are not, in fact, Christians but I am not going to go into that discussion) and I have nothing negative to say about that. I wanted to live in a Jewish-majority country and thank goodness that option was available to me 40 years ago when I decided to move to Israel.
Secondly, perhaps some people have not figured out how a country can have an overall nature consistent with the belief system of the majority and still be open and free for minorities to express themselves. In fact, Israel has clear laws protecting religious freedom and protecting members of all religions from harassment (see appendix below the article).
Religious freedom is the freedom to live according to one’s own belief system as long as it does not infringe upon the right of others to live according to theirs. It is the freedom to talk about what is important to you as long as you respect that others have other beliefs. It does NOT include the right to set out to convert others to their religion. It is one thing to interact with others out of curiousity and a totally different matter to interact with the end-goal of converting the other; the entire nature of the discussion is different.
For the latter, informed consent would be required and I have the feeling that informed consent forms are not handed out and explained together with proselytizing materials.
There is no law against a Jew exploring other religions and that is how it should be. But, as a Jew, I want to walk my land without anyone trying to catch me in a web. Because that is how it feels when I am approached by a missionary. Outside of Israel I expect it to happen from time to time. But here, in my own land, in the only Jewish country in the world, I want to be free of that. And whoever does not accept that does not respect us.
Instead of telling us that we are being hypocritical or mean or petty by wanting laws to protect us from proselytizers and telling us that Israel will lose friends if we do so, consider this: We are constantly being told that if we do this or if we do not do that, nobody will like us anymore. Does anyone tell Italians or Germans or Argentinians, etc. what laws their country should or should not pass for fear their country will lose friends?
Well, we are not very much liked in any case and I no longer care. If you think I sound defensive I admit it. I am defensive of my right to be a Jew in my own land, to make laws that are befitting a Jewish country, to protect the Jewishness of my fellow Jews. And we do that without infringing on the rights of members of other faiths to practice their faiths (as long as they do not try to turn Jews into something else).
- What about Ultra-Orthodox groups that “accost” secular Jews and try to convince them to live according to religious law?
This is another topic that deserves an article devoted to it alone. I will return to it at a later date.
Ideally, we should not need anti-missionary laws. Yet we do need them because too many secular Jews do not have a solid enough foundation in the tenets of our own religion and traditions. This leaves many of us vulnerable, at any age, to missionaries from a variety of faiths.
The ones who are most vulnerable are those who seek spiritual meaning in their lives and, in the greed-oriented world of today, more and more people are seeking deeper meaning and turning to religion or mysticism. Many have not been exposed in a meaningful way to the richness that Judaism has to offer, and, given the behaviours of the Ultra-Orthodox parties in our political system, I think they are “turned off” at any hint that they explore Judaism.
There is an almost automatic allergic reaction among many secular Jews to any hint of anything “too Jewish” (i.e., religious). And that is leaving our kids vulnerable.
Our secular kids are not being taught love of Judaism in the various ways it can find expression in their lives – for those who want a connection with God, there should be a way for them to learn about it joyfully without fear of censure from the community in which they are growing up. For those who love law and philosophy, there is so much in Judaic studies that can excite and stimulate them. For those with a more spiritual bent, there are avenues for exploration of spirituality and mysticism within Judaism.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett wants to bring love of Judaism into the schools and parents balk at that. They should be saying “it is about time!” Learning about Judaism is not going to turn kids into Haredim. Sure, some may go that way. But some go that way anyway. The point is to give kids a solid grounding in our own heritage. The only way to make sense of being a Jew living in our ancient homeland is to understand what that means at the deepest level possible. This is a gift we should offer our children wholeheartedly. And it is a gift that would make anti-missionary laws redundant.
Laws in Israel Regarding Religious Freedom:
170. Anyone who destroys, damages or desecrates a place of worship, or anything held sacred to a community, with the purpose of defiling their religion, or knowing that the community is likely to see this as an insult to their religion – 3 years in prison.
171. Anyone who willfully disturbs a gathering of people who got together lawfully for the purpose of worship, or who willfully assaults an individual fulfilling a position at said gathering or one of the attendees, and cannot prove justification or legal reason for such – 3 years in prison.
172. Anyone who enters, without permission, a place of worship or burial or place set aside for attending to funeral needs or for the preservation of the remains of the deceased, or who treats the deceased without respect, or who disturbs people gathered for a funeral, all with the purpose of offending the sensitivities of an individual or to defile his or her religion, or if he or she knows that the behaviour is liable to insult the individual or defile the religion – 3 years in prison.
173. Anyone who does one of the following – 1 year in prison.
- Publishes a publication that intends to grossly offend the beliefs or feelings of members of another religion;
- Makes heard in a public place within hearing distance of any person a word or sound with the intention of grossly offending the beliefs or feelings of his or her religion.
Laws Against Proselytizing
174a. Anyone who gives or promises an individual money, services or other material benefits in order to tempt him or her to convert to another religion or in order to tempt another individual to convert to another religion – 5 years in prison and 50,000 lira fine.
174b. Anyone receiving or agreeing to receive money, services or other material benefit in exchange for the promise to convert to another religion or to cause someone else to convert to another religion – 3 years in prison and 30,000 lira fine.
368. (a) Anyone who conducts a conversion ceremony for a minor or who does another act that brings about the conversion of a minor to another religion, in opposition to paragraph 13a of the Legal Capacity and Guardianship Law of 1962 – 6 months in prison.
(b) Anyone who pressures a minor, in a direct approach to the minor, to convert to another religion – 6 months in prison.