Was there a whiff of brimstone and sulfur when Bibles went up in smoke last week? Certainly, it was not the finest hour for the people of the book...particularly when news of the incident coincided with an American soldier getting disciplined for using a Koran as target practice over in Iraq. Holey holy books create rancour, and the sight and odor of burning texts brings totalitarian stormtroopers and witch hunts to mind.
Messianic 'Jews for Jesus', who are closely linked with Evangelical Christian groups from America and now number up to 15,000 inside Israel, called for an official investigation after orthodox students from a yeshiva in the town of Or Yehuda allegedly dumped and burnt hundreds of copies of the New Testament. These had been distributed to Ethiopian immigrant families in the town.
At first, the action was defended by Deputy Mayor Uzi Aharon, of the Shas party, as "purging the evil among us", but he was quick to backtrack. Ultimately, he blamed "three or four" hotheaded students for a "spontaneous act" which led to an international public relations disaster. Aharon apologized by saying "sorry we hurt the feelings of others", but he shrugged off criticism of his anti-missionary zeal. To proselytize is against the law inside the Jewish State, although Christian missionaries often are tolerated when they spread the gospel to Israeli Arabs.
Tensions are on the rise. Two months ago, a parcel bomb left outside a house in Ariel wounded the son of a prominent Messianic Jew. Haredim massed outside messianic Jewish gatherings in Beersheba and Arad, and stirred up violence.
And just before Independence Day, a group of religious Zionist rabbis called for a boycott of this year's International Bible Quiz after discovering that one of the four finalists from Israel, Bat-El Levi, an 11th-grader from Jerusalem's Pisgat Ze'ev neighborhood, was a messianic Jew.
The rise in tensions is partly due...to increased fervor within haredi anti-missionary groups.
...Victor Kalisher, the son of Holocaust survivors, spoke to the Jerusalem Post about his shock and dismay at the burnings. "As Jews we were raised and taught that were books are burned, worse things can happen. That's what I think when I see the pictures of what happened in Or Yehuda. What worries me is that nobody has stood up against this. It seems there is a war against messianic Jews in Israel. Nobody cares about many, what I believe to be cults, in Israel. These cults, which are not based on the Bible, don't pose a threat to the establishment. But God forbid a Jew learns about the messiah from the [Christian] Bible," Kalisher said.
He said he did not know who paid for and distributed the New Testaments that were distributed in Or Yehuda, but that there was demand for the books from many quarters. "The Bibles are not forced on anybody and are not forced into any homes. The book has never harmed anyone, you can choose to read it or choose not to read it. If this happened to Jewish books overseas we would be screaming anti-Semitism. This sort of thing happens in some regimes around us that we don't like," he said.