During the week covered by this review, we received 19 articles on the following subjects:
Christian Jewish Relations / Jerusalem
Messianic Jews (Individuals)
Various Articles (11)
In a rare move, the heads of the Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, and Catholic Churches in Jerusalem closed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for the first time in a few decades, in an effort to protest two main issues. First, a law initiated by Knesset Member Rachel Azaria, and supported by the Department of Justice, proposed to give the government the right to expropriate lands sold by the churches to private third-party land developers. The lands had been previously leased by the churches, and entire neighborhoods were developed on them. Residents of these neighborhoods had believed the lease would automatically renew itself, however, they now find themselves in a situation where they might be asked to pay large sums of money in order to extend the lease that is now owned by private anonymous developers. Property values have plummeted as a result. The Church Lands Law is meant to give the government the retroactive right to expropriate lands sold by the churches in order to deter private investors from buying large portions of land. David Rosen, International Director of Interreligious Affairs of the American Jewish Committee explains that the churches oppose the legislation because “no future investor would want to buy church land knowing that it could be taken away by the state,” which in turn would threaten an important source of income for the churches.
Second, churches are protesting the Municipality of Jerusalem’s recent decision to charge municipal tax (arnona) on those church properties that do not directly serve as worship and prayer houses, such as hospitals, schools, and guesthouses. The sums are expected to amount to 650 million shekels. The Municipality has already frozen a number of accounts belonging to various churches, blocking access to 7.2 million shekels belonging to the Anglican Church, 2 million belonging to the Armenian Church, and 11 million belonging to the Catholic Church. One church reported that government officials unexpectedly arrived at their door and threatened to seize property. The churches claim the move violates a longstanding status quo, according to which churches were exempt from such a tax – a tradition that extends back to the days of the Ottoman Empire. Jerusalem Mayor, Nir Barkat, has argued that it is unacceptable for Jerusalem residents to have to shoulder the costs for these properties.
The heads of the various churches released a joint statement, saying that the recent moves made by the Knesset and the Municipality represent a “systematic attack on the Christian minority in the Holy Land.” They asked: “How would the government respond if minority Jewish lands in other countries were expropriated?” Due to the protest and the closure of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, hundreds of pilgrims were prevented from visiting the holy site. In one interview, a pilgrim noted that she was heartbroken: “This was a lifetime dream for me. I’ve saved for this for so many years. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to come again.”
In one article, David Rosen mourns the fact that these issues were not being dealt with earlier and had been allowed to fester. “This looks very bad,” says Rosen, “and it is very easy for hostile elements to make negative propaganda about it.” However, one commentator, while conceding that the government handled the situation very poorly, having acted unilaterally and publically rather than opting to enter into quiet negotiations, argues that church leaders are not beyond reproach. This commentator makes the case that by painting the issue as having to do with “minority rights,” church leaders risked escalating tensions that are already high due to President Trump’s decision to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem. Furthermore, while it is true that Christians are a minority in Israel, churches are facing similar calls to pay more taxes in countries including Greece, Spain, and Italy, where they are not in the minority. He states, “Figuring out the tax profile of church properties is not an attack on freedom of religion but a highly intricate financial and judicial question, which arises naturally from the increasing separation of church and state in modern secular democracies.” This article notes that even Pope Francis has supported the argument that religious buildings used as guesthouses should pay their due in taxes.
As a result of the mounting crisis, and a growing fear that the situation could cause a rift with the Christian world, the Israeli Government and the Jerusalem Municipality decided to postpone all proceedings. It was announced that a committee would be set up to negotiate with church representatives, and that while the committee works, the government will not go ahead with legislation. Netanyahu and Barkat released the following statement: “Israel is proud to be the only country in the Middle East where Christians and all religions have freedom of religion and of worship. Israel is home to a thriving Christian community, and Israel welcomes Christian friends from all over the world.” The Church of the Holy Sepulchre opened again after three days of protest.
The Jerusalem Post, February 23, 2018; Haaretz, February 23, 2018
Dr. Eilat Mazar, of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has unearthed what may be the 2,700-year-old seal impression of the Prophet Isaiah. The seal was found next to the seal of King Hezekiah, to whom Isaiah served as a close advisor. Furthermore, the seal has the Hebrew name of “Isaiah” written on it, along with three of the four Hebrew letters that spell “prophet.” Given that the seal is not entirely intact, and that the final letter is missing from “prophet,” it cannot be definitively determined that it did, indeed, belong to the Prophet Isaiah rather than a different Isaiah. The discovery of King Hezekiah’s seal in 2015, “…helped sway an age-old argument over the history of Jerusalem: Was it a major city and the capital of a powerful kingdom? Or merely a village on a hilltop with great public relations? The finding of the seal lent credence to the narrative that it had, after all, been a major city during the Iron Age.”
Haaretz, 27 February, 2018
Israeli gardener, Dekel Ben Shitrit (26), found a 700-year-old ring in the North of Israel with what might be an image of St. Nicholas on it. Ben Shitrit uploaded an image of the ring onto Facebook. His neighbor, Dr. Dror Ben-Yosef, who heads the northern heritage department in the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, saw the post and encouraged Ben Shitrit to turn the ring into the Antiquities Authority. Ben Shitrit was himself born on Christmas Day, and he notes that his girlfriend’s name is “Nicole,” like Nicholas.
The Jerusalem Post, February 23, 2018
In response to last week’s letter, written by Jack E. Friedman in response to the opinion piece entitled, “Treatment of Messianic Jews” (February 21), an anonymous letter was written by a self-professed Messianic Jew saying that Jews should be able to believe in whatever or whomever they want. Being Jewish, it is argued, is “first and foremost an ethnicity and not necessarily connected to a religion.” The letter further states that Friedman is wrong to say that Messianic Jews are all involved in missionary activity. “I am not involved in any missionary activity,” says the writer; “I happily and proudly remain a Jew and a good citizen of Israel, as do all of my Messianic Jewish friends who live in this country.” The real crime is denying Messianic Jews the right to live in their homeland, the writer stated.
Messianic Jews (Individuals)
Yediot Ashdod, 23 February, 2018; Merkaz HaInyanim, February 26, 2018
The Religious Council in Ashdod will pay compensation fees of about 350 thousand Shekels to Pnina Konforti, owner of a bakery called “Pnina Pie.” Konforti filed a claim against the Religious Council, the city rabbinate, and Yad La’Achim (who will also pay some compensation), arguing that these sullied her good name and revoked her Kosher certificate on account of her being a Messianic Jew. After the bakery opened in 2006, Yad La’Achim sent out pamphlets in the mail with a picture of Konforti, describing her as a missionary, and warning people not to buy from her. Pnina Pie customers, however, remained loyal. Konforti says she is relieved to be at the end of a tiring legal battle of six years. Yad La’Achim has threatened to appeal the decision.
The Jerusalem Post, February 26, 2018
As tens of thousands of Eritrean asylum seekers in Israel await possible deportation, African American Evangelicals are starting to take notice. The Council of Baptist Pastors of Detroit and Vicinity released a statement to the press, condemning Israel’s treatment of the asylum seekers. This article argues that Israelis themselves are angry at how the government has treated asylum seekers, noting that Israel has given legal asylum to less than 1% of Eritrean applicants (as opposed to 97% who’ve received asylum in Canada, for example). Israel has not shown the same eagerness to deport asylum seekers from non-African countries, argues this writer. The repercussions could be serious: “When we worry about the future of Evangelical support for Israel, we need to understand that 16 million African-American Evangelicals are watching Israel, eager to grab hold of something worthy of support.” Indeed, it is noted that of the 26% of Americans who self-identify as Evangelicals, 19% are African American, according to a 2017 Public Religion Research Institute survey.