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Messianic Jew attacked, wrongly arrested

BEER SHEVA, Israel (BP)–The arrest of a Messianic Jewish evangelist in Israel reflects the strife that often confronts Messianic Jews despite Israel’s guarantees of religious liberty and without any repercussion from law enforcement officials, the leader of a Messianic congregation told Baptist Press.

Messianic evangelist Eddie Beckford was arrested outside his business, the Chess and Bible Shop in Arad, after a mob of ultra-Orthodox Haradim Jews surrounded his van in the parking lot and beat him Feb. 25.

“In general over the years here in the south in the Negev, in Arad and in Beer Sheva, there has been some form of harassment or persecution,” Howard Bass, leader of the Nahalat Yeshua congregation in Beer Sheva, said.

Groups of ultra-Orthodox Jews seem to have a difficult time accepting the fact that some Jews would believe that Jesus is the Messiah and that they would want to evangelize other Jews, Bass said. So those anti-Messianic groups work to stop the people they consider “missionaries” through various degrees of persecution.

“In Arad, for instance, for almost three years they have been hounding the believers there at their services, in front of their homes,” Bass, an American Jew with Israeli citizenship, said.

Beckford’s arrest followed a call to police when the confrontation with the ultra-Orthodox mob broke out. The Haradim complained that Beckford attacked them, according to an e-mail from Beckford’s wife Lura.

“[The police] blame us for the disturbances the Haredim cause,” Lura Beckford wrote in a message posted at israelprayer.com. “They tell us, ‘If you weren’t here, we wouldn’t have to deal with this trouble.’

“So, they arrested Eddie and put him in leg irons and took him to jail. They completely ignored the Bedouin’s testimony that Eddie did nothing and the Haredim attacked him. He spent the night in a small filthy cell with five other men, and in the middle of the night they transferred him to another filthy cell,” Lura added.

Beckford, an American, was arraigned before a judge in Beer Sheva Feb. 28 and was offered a plea bargain of spending 45 days in jail or agreeing not to return to Arad for 45 days. He chose to stay with friends outside Arad rather than serve a prison sentence, and his wife was trying to retrieve his identification card which was confiscated by police in Arad.

“This is a culmination of a week of horror as far as the Haredim are concerned. Just this week, ‘A’ was harassed by them four different times. They blocked his car and pounded on it, etc. ‘R’ has been harassed while walking her child from school by these grown men,” Lura wrote, using initials in place of names. “She and I have been harassed several times in public areas while walking. All of us have put in complaints with the police on assault charges.

“I had the privilege of being hit by the chief rabbi of Arad. Why? Just because I believe in Y’shua as the Savior of the Jewish people and the world,” she wrote. “‘S,’ a visiting friend of ours, has been terribly harassed while giving out literature, including being beaten and spit upon. All this because we have committed the crime of being believers.”

Beckford’s arrest preceded the introduction of a bill by an Orthodox political party seeking to sentence proselytizers in Israel to one year in prison.

“Whether it’s Christians coming from abroad or Jewish converts working in Israel, they all have the same agenda — to destroy every trace and memory of the people of Israel, and they plan to do this by converting Jews,” the proposal by the Shas group said, according to ynetnews.com March 14. “These bodies are operating mainly among the Jewish population which is under physical, social and spiritual distress.”

In early February, a religious freedom lawsuit was filed on behalf of Nahalat Yeshua against the chief rabbi of Beer Sheva and Yad L’Achim, a group that is a main source of persecution toward Messianic Jews. Though it took more than a year to file, the lawsuit stems from a violent demonstration that took place at the congregation on Christmas Eve in 2005.

“In Beer Sheva eight years ago, there was a massive demonstration against our congregation on the Shabbat, on a Saturday, which prevented us from having a service,” Bass recounted to BP. “That time we didn’t take any legal action because we’re supposed to be expecting things like this on the one hand and also the amount of violence wasn’t excessive enough to where we thought we should do something.

“Just before Christmas, we had another fairly large demonstration, and this time it was much more aggressive and violent and we did feel that something ought to be done about it,” Bass said.

The case essentially is about standing up for the right for Jews in Israel to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, Bass said, though it is not meant in any way to be construed against the state of Israel or against the Jewish people as a whole.

“It is not to be used in any way to foment or promote anti-Israel or anti-Jewish actions or reactions. It is already known through the Scriptures that Israel at present is opposed to the good news of God, so we are not out to make them an enemy,” Bass emphasized. “Nor is our legal action intended to be used by any other minority or religious groups in Israel to encourage or affirm anti-Israel or anti-Jewish sentiment.”

From the defendants’ point of view, Bass said, they did nothing wrong when they demonstrated at the Messianic congregation’s service, even though they were required by law to ask permission from the police for such a large gathering.

“They’re claiming that they were simply exercising their freedom of religion in the same way that we’re claiming to be,” Bass said. “Therefore they’re guilty of nothing.”

Launching a religious freedom lawsuit of this sort is challenging in Israel, Bass said, because the Messianic Jews essentially are standing up for something that is contrary to the religion of the state.

“We understand what we’re doing is very serious, and we just have to trust the Lord that He’s going to help us through it in a way that Jesus will be honored in the manner that we handle it and in the consequences,” Bass said. “So we don’t quite know yet what that’s going to be.”

Jim Sibley, director of the Pasche Institute for Jewish Studies at Criswell College in Dallas, told Baptist Press the word needs to get out about the harassment of Messianic Jews in Israel.

“It really is intolerable, and I think a lot more attention needs to be given to it,” Sibley said. “That’s the only way that the Israeli government is going to really do anything to protect the rights of believers.”

Sibley noted that the persecution is not coming from the Israeli government.

“It’s coming from the ultra-Orthodox communities, and the problem is that the local police are not really taking action to protect believers or to prosecute those who are causing the trouble,” he said. “They’re kind of standing by and letting it happen. So the national government needs to know that the United States is growing increasingly aware of the problem and is anxious about it.”

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  • Erin Roach