The Bible says the Jewish people should be a light to the nations. According to Messianic church leader Evan Thomas, this means living as Jesus lived. But those filling out an Israeli citizenship application form, face a critical question-“Do you believe in Jesus as the Messiah?” For those who answer “yes,” the form declares in red letters that you are, “not eligible for citizenship of Israel.” Such was the reality for “Judith.”
Judith is a young Jewish woman. Although she grew up in America, she knew since she was a little girl that she would one day move to the Promised Land. “I felt that it was my calling as a Jew to return to Israel,” she says. Five years ago she decided that the time had come to settle permanently in Israel, but there was just one problem-she believed in Jesus.
In 1989 a law was passed that excludes Jews who believe in Jesus from gaining citizenship. “I knew about this law, but I felt a very strong calling to go there and serve the people of Israel, not because they’re my people, but because I believe they are Gods people.”
Hearing that it was easier to become a citizen from inside the country, she moved, hoping that everything would be okay. While filling out the application forms, she encountered a question about the Jewish religious group to which she belonged. Judith entered “conservative,” thinking that it was the closest to how she felt about her faith. Her citizenship was approved and all was well-for a while.
Judith quickly found a job. She attended a Messianic congregation and served God with music, just like she did in America. She was unaware that the Israeli government was unhappy with her lifestyle until her Jewish mother also applied for citizenship. “They used my mother to stop me,” Judith says. “She was put in a room and asked about me.” A few weeks later, Judith and her mother found two letters in their mailbox: one refusing citizenship for Judith’s mother, the other reconsidering Judith’s own citizenship.
“It was quite a shock to find out that I’m not wanted here,” says Judith. “I was rejected by my own people.” Since then, Judith’s mother has been living in Israel Illegally. While they couldn’t revoke Judith’s citizenship, the government is making it very difficult for Judith’s mother to get citizenship.
“Living as an illegal in Israel isn’t the same as living as an illegal in America, but it does have consequences,” Judith explains. “For example, you don’t have health insurance from the government and you can’t get it anywhere else.” This became a problem when Judith’s mother fell and hurt herself. She didn’t want to go to the hospital, because she couldn’t pay the doctor. As her health deteriorated, she was forced to seek medical care. While her mother’s health is improving, the bills are mounting far beyond her capacity to pay.
Culturally, Messianic Jews are very similar to the larger Jewish population. The estimated 15,000 Messianic believers in Israel celebrate all Jewish holidays, serve in the army and speak Hebrew. “We didn’t become gentiles; we’re still Jews. Holding on to our Jewish roots is very important for us,” says Evan Thomas, a Messianic church leader. He feels that his belief in Jesus doesn’t make him any less Jewish and wants to show his fellow countrymen that being a Jew and being a follower of Jesus is possible.
Difficulty gaining and retaining citizenship is just one of the many problems Messianic Jews face because of their faith. Messianic Jews in Israel are often subjected to discrimination and protests, and occasionally even face violence. “The environment is hostile towards our faith,” says Evan. “In fact living like a Messianic Jew in a Jewish state is like living as a Christian in a Muslim country.” According to Evan, Jesus is the most controversial person for a Jew to follow. “You can be a Jewish Buddhist or a Jewish new age follower-no problem. But a Jewish follower of Jesus? That’s impossible.” Many Jews believe that it was the Christians, the followers of Jesus, who persecuted them and put them in concentration camps. “They say, ‘How can you follow a man whose followers were against us?'”
As a minority group, the Messianic community can do little against Jewish orthodox extremists. In spite of opposition, Messianic believers in Israel somehow continue to find ways to be a light, Evan explains. One way is to follow Jesus’ lead in helping others. Evan’s church provides a social program that helps the homeless as well as addicts. They fee that God has called them to provide this community assistance and Evan says that it also gives them protection. “If someone wants to attack us, some may say, ‘Why are you attacking those people who are helping others?'”
“We try to live out the kingdom,” adds Evan, saying that people tell him they feel attracted to the genuine lifestyle of the Messianic believers. Striving to follow Jesus faithfully in a Jewish context, the Messianic community in Israel is steadily growing. “You don’t have to manipulate people into faith. If they come to church and see the sovereignty of God, and followers who are striving to live out His words, they slowly come to faith.”
Father, today we lift up “Judith” and her mother as they seek to serve You in Israel. Provide for their needs and for the debt they have from her mother’s health care. Grant them much wisdom and discernment as they deal with citizenship issues. Thank You for the burden You have placed on their hearts and we join them and the many Messianic Jews there in praying for a powerful work of Your Spirit in grafting the Jewish people into Christ, the true vine. As Your church reaches out in compassion to those around them, open the eyes of many to see You in them and enter into saving faith. In the name of Jesus, the true vine, Amen.
Note: Name has been changed to protect identify.