Israel is a Jewish and Democratic state, and as such its laws reflect both the Jewish Rabbinic traditions, as well as the obligation to international norms regarding human rights and freedoms. The courts and law enforcement authorities uphold the right of freedom of expression and freedom of religion for minority groups in Israel. A precedent was established when judges ruled that: “The spread of opinions by way of distribution of flyers to passersby in public places deserves special recognition and protection of the court…”
Questions regarding missionary activity in Israel usually concern Christian organizations, or Messianic Jewish groups, such as Jews for Jesus. The reason is that these believers often see evangelizing Israel as a fundamental expression of their faith.
In Israel, it is legal to express one’s worldview, including religious beliefs, even if they are not accepted by the majority of the public. The exception to this rule is what is known in Israel as the “Missionary Law.” The “law” is actually composed of two separate sections of the Israeli criminal code:
- Section 174 of the Penal Code – 1977 forbids a person to entice another to change his or her religion in exchange for material benefits (such as financial support and/or donations, helping feed and clothe the poor, or in any way give charity while evangelizing.)
- Section 368 of the Penal Code forbids persuading or encouraging a minor (under the age of 18) to change his or her religion. This law prohibits conducting any ceremony for a minor to change religion without the consent of both parents.
The Israeli Declaration of Independence, signed by David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister and the nation’s founding fathers, states the following:
“Israel will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”
In 1992, the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) passed the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, which declares Israel as a “Jewish and Democratic” State. The Israeli Supreme Court ruled that basic human rights–such as the right of freedom of religion and conscience, as well as freedom of speech and expression–are protected in Israel since they are an inherent part of a person’s dignity as a human being.
Demographic statistics of the population in Israel
Israel’s population is estimated at 9,300,000 residents. Out of these, close to 7,000,000 (about 74% of the total population) are confirmed Jews. 1,966,000 (about 21.1%) are Arabs and 467,000 (5.0%) are considered Others.
Those identified as “Others” include; non-Arab Christians, Seventh-Day Adventists Bahai’s, Samaritans. Other “Others” are Karaite Jews, Messianic Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and immigrants from the former Soviet Union. They identify themselves as Jews but do not satisfy the Orthodox Rabbinical Authorities’ definition of “Jewish” which the Israeli government uses for civil procedures.
The Jewish (recognized as such by the government) population of Israel can be divided into three groups: Orthodox, Traditional, and Secular. Secular Jews make up 41.4% of the Jewish population, Traditional Jews 38.5% of the population, 20% are Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox. In Israel, the Reform and Conservative movements are estimated to make up 7.6% of the Jewish population, a significantly lower number compared to the Jewish diaspora.
Secular Jews make up a little over 40% of the Jewish population. They identify themselves as Jewish, but not in a religious way and many don’t even believe in God. Many secular Jews practice certain aspects of the religion, such as celebrating the traditional Passover evening meal with family and friends, and/or observing the day of Yom Kippur by fasting and even attending synagogue services. They may even have Friday evening/ Saturday meals with the lighting of candles and blessing the wine and bread, but would drive afterward and light a cigarette. Secular Jews are largely supporters of the Israeli Labor Party and a Secular Zionist state.
Traditional Jews make up about 30% of the Jewish population in Israel.Many of these “traditional Jews” differ from the Orthodox only by less severe observance of the Rabbinic laws. As far as political involvement, many traditional Jews join the Likud political party (the largest party headed by PM Benyamin Netanyahu) or the Sephardic (Jews from Middle East countries) religious party, Shas. they are often seen wearing knitted Kippahs (a small brimless cap.)
30% of the Jewish population identifies as Orthodox (“dati”) or “ultra-Orthodox” (“Haredi”).Politically, they join one of the major religious parties, such as Torah Judaism (Yahadut HaTorah, mainly Ashkenazi, Jews from eastern and western Europe.) Orthodox Jews also wear Kippas, not necessarily knitted.
The ultra-Orthodox (Charedi) is the smallest part of the population, representing only 12% of Jews living in Israel. The Charedim tend to live in their own communities, observing stricter Jewish law by following moral and dress codes passed down from many generations. This part of the population is seen wearing black hats and black Kippahs, and include some Hasidic (sect of ultra-orthodox Jews).
The Arab Population in Israel
Among the 17% of the Arab population in Israel (citizens,) 83% are Muslims, 9% are Arab Christians (mostly Nominal) 8% are Druze. About 10% of the ones who consider themselves Muslims are secular, about 30% are traditional – not so religious. About 50% are religious and 9% are very religious.
Enforcing the Messianic Law
There have been cases where the police detained people accused of illegal missionary activity in Israel, but no one has been charged or sentenced according to these laws. Thus, the authorities’ anti-missionary activity is largely in the form of border controls by the immigration authorities and through the Ministry of Interior’s limitations on aliyah (Jewish immigration to Israel) for missionary activists or those suspected of being involved in missionary activity in Israel.
The Israeli border control immigration officers are authorized to approve or refuse entry to Israel for foreign visitors who wish to enter the country as tourists. The border control officials have a wide range of discretion when making the crucial decision to deny entry to a potential visitor. In July 2017, the Ministry of Interior published an updated list of reasons that may cause denial of entry to Israel. Suspicion of missionary activity was also placed on this list for the first time in 2017.
It has happened that tourists have been expelled due to allegations of missionary activity. These cases usually involve participation in a public missionary campaign with a high-profile organization. This activity may attract resistance from the local public and complaints to the police. Although the allegations may be false, it is extremely difficult to stop the expulsion process once it starts.
The Ministry of Interior is particularly suspicious of Christians and Messianic Jews in relation to aliyah to Israel. It is therefore recommended to receive legal counsel prior to starting such a process. Regardless of the legally grey zone surrounding these issues, a person actively engaging in missionary activity in Israel will almost certainly be denied the right to immigrate. This is because Christian proselytizing is considered contrary to the purpose of the Law of Return.
In accordance with the Law of Return, any Jewish person (or descendant of a Jewish person up until the third generation) is entitled to obtain citizenship as a new Oleh (new immigrant) of Israel, so long as they did not convert to another religion. In general, the State of Israel considers Messianic Jews to be Christians, and so, any Jew in the Messianic stream of Judaism is deemed a convert to Christianity. Thus, aliyah becomes very difficult for a Jew who embraces faith in Yeshua (Jesus). That said, there is no legal prohibition against someone who is not Jewish according to Jewish Rabbinic Law (does not have a Jewish mother) making Aliyah if the father has a Jewish mother. This applies even if they are part of another religion, as long as they did not convert. This applies also to Messianic Jews whose mother converted to Christianity before they were born.