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6/12/97 Netanyahu promises opposition to ‘anti-missionary’ proposal

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has assured evangelical Christians his government will defeat a proposed bill to outlaw certain methods of evangelism.
Dubbed the “anti-missionary law,” it has triggered an outpouring of opposition from inside and outside of Israel. It was introduced as a private members’ bill after the government committee that represents Netanyahu’s ruling coalition refused to support it. It passed in its first of four readings with scarcely a fourth of the legislature, the Knesset, voting.
“The government strenuously objects to this bill and will act to ensure that it does not pass,” Netanyahu said in a letter to Elwood McQuaid, executive director of the U.S.-based Friends of Israel.
“Israel deeply values your support and that of Christians throughout the United States,” Netanyahu added.
Netanyahu’s statement puts to rest the question of whether he actually intends — on this issue — to stand by internationally accepted standards of free speech and the Israeli declaration of independence. His resolve pits him against radical Jewish parties he needs in his government coalition to maintain a ruling majority.
That still leaves open the possibility that, even without his support, proponents of the restrictions could garner enough votes on the floor of the Knesset to push the bill through.
Or, as many insiders believe, Orthodox parties will use the proposal to test political waters, then later press such restrictions in the courts. Or they could even present the bill again during a future crisis of Netanyahu’s government and require passage as a condition for their staying in and saving Netanyahu’s majority coalition.
The proposal touches the heart of a greater struggle in Israel today: a religious war waged by a minority of Jews to control a largely nonreligious and secular-minded society. Another measure they have introduced would strip Reform and Conservative Jews of the status that Orthodox Jews hold within Israel.
Israeli Orthodox parties have threatened to withhold support from Netanyahu — and thus bring down his government — if that bill is not approved.
The anti-missionary law would alter Israel’s penal code to prohibit “inducement for religious conversion” and set a one-year jail term for “whoever possesses contrary to the law or prints or imports tracts or publishes things in which there is an inducement for religious conversion.”
Further, the law would authorize the government to confiscate “any tract or advertisement in which there is inducement to religious conversion.” An explanation accompanying the law states that “the state of Israel, in the framework of the existing laws, is opposed to any missionary seduction to convert religion … .”
“Missionary” means any individual who tries to persuade others to change their religious viewpoint. The bill expands an “anti-bribery law” already on the books outlawing the use of material gain to induce a person to change religions.
Human rights advocates oppose the bill because it disregards Israel’s May 14, 1948, declaration of independence. In that document, written in the years after the Holocaust drove Jews from Europe, Israel promises to “uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens without distinction of race, creed or sex” and to “guarantee full freedom of conscience (and) worship.”

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  • Marty Croll