Israel: Jews or Apostates?

An Ethiopian Jewish family who believe in Jesus as Messiah were denied Israeli citizenship though they entered the country under Israel’s “Law of Return.” However, a VOM partner handling the case expects the family will eventually gain citizenship after the case is brought before Israel’s Supreme Court. The Law of Return entitles every person who can prove Jewish ancestry to immigrate to Israel and receive citizenship.

Under the Law of Return, Israel began a program bringing Ethiopian Jews into Israel in the late 1970s. To be eligible, every person must be able to trace their heritage through a Jewish mother or be a convert to Judaism, and they cannot be a member of another religion. Today, there are approximately 130,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel.

“Yared” and his family arrived in Israel from Ethiopia and were processed in an absorption center under the Law of Return. There, they received permanent residency, but they were never granted citizenship. The complication appears to be that Yared told an official that he practices the Jewish faith but believes Jesus is Messiah. As members of another religion, they could be excluded from citizenship.

The Ethiopian family are not the first Jews to argue that believing in Jesus should not disqualify them. In the 1980s, Gary and Shirley Beresford, a South African couple, tried to apply for Israeli citizenship. They argued that if Judaism is wide enough to accommodate different ultra-Orthodox sects, those who follow various false messiahs, and Jews who are atheists, it should be able to accept Jews who believe in Jesus. They noted that they had not converted to Christianity, but that Jesus had made them better and more observant Jews.

The Beresford case took six years of applications, petitions and hearings before Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that the couple were apostates in 1989. This ruling, known as the Beresford Precedent, bars Messianic Jews from becoming Israeli citizens.

Later, the Supreme Court granted twelve Messianic Jews the right to return and become citizens. Under this 2008 ruling, a person who does not meet the religious definition of being a Jew can qualify for citizenship on the basis of their heritage.

By filing a court case, Yared and his family hope that though they may be excluded because of their faith, that they will be able to prove their Jewish background and that they will be granted citizenship through this clause. Yared and Sena assert that they are not apostates but Jewish followers of Jesus.

In Israel, ultra-nationalist groups frequently pressure government authorities to deport non-Jews. Such groups also carry out attacks against Christians and Messianic Jews. On Jan. 17 of this year, two teenage nationalists wrote: “Death to the heathen Christians — the enemies of Israel” on the walls of a church. Members of similar groups have vandalized Christian-owned property, thrown rocks and other objects at Christians and called curses on them. Most incidents are ignored by Israeli police and government officials.

Posted: February 25, 2016


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