When Israelis ask me, “What is a Messianic Jew?” I simply reply, “A Jew who believes in Yeshua (Jesus).” The roots of the Messianic movement are found in the first-century church in Israel. The twelve disciples and the first church in Jerusalem comprised the cradle of Messianic Judaism. Throughout history there have been small numbers of Jews who believed in Jesus who practiced their beliefs secretly or assimilated into the church and Christian world.
The contemporary Messianic movement began in the United States during the 1970s “Jesus Movement.” During this period many Americans were born again, and many Jews found Yeshua at the same time. These Jews felt a need to maintain their Jewish identity alongside their newfound faith. This new Jewish-Christian expression combined traditional Jewish liturgy with contemporary-church worship style, resulting in a growing religious movement called Messianic Judaism.
From 1948 until the 1980s the Messianic Jewish community in Israel numbered several hundred people. As newly saved international Christians began to visit and live in the land, young Israeli men and women who admired their faith came to know Yeshua. These young men and women comprise much of the Messianic leadership in the country today, including my aunt and father who were saved in 1978 and 1981 respectively.
The Messianic movement has continued to grow and numbers as high as 10,000 self-identified members. At the same time, we are only 0.2 percent of the entire population. As a small minority of Israel’s Jewish population, we have had to address the issues of assimilation and isolationism when it comes to our place in society. While we have had a presence in the land for several decades, Messianic Judaism is still considered a new movement in Israel, although it is increasingly better known by the general public. In the past, attitudes towards Messianic Judaism were often negative and fearful. The movement was referred to as a “cult,” and many feared that Messianic Jews were trying to “steal Jewish souls” by trying to convert them to Christianity. While these attitudes are still present, the past five to ten years have seen a positive change in public opinion toward our community. We are often referred to as the “Messianic Jewish movement,” and when spoken of, most people will state that they know we contribute to society, uphold the law, perform civic duties, and are all-around “good guys.”
As our place and perception in public opinion have changed, Messianic Jews’ self-perception has also changed. Whereas we previously had a minority mindset, we are increasingly more comfortable in our identity as Israelis and Jews, and are better able to promote our beliefs and values from within society.
The Messianic Jewish and believing Arab relationship had a complicated beginning. Both communities have a century-old history of conflict, represented by two different people groups. The Jewish people in Mandatory Palestine were represented by the Zionist movement that promoted the formation of a national home for the Jewish people, while the local Arab Palestinians were represented by the Arab Higher Committee and other various parties and groups that likewise had national ambitions for their own people in Palestine. Israeli and Arab societies are at odds on many fundamental issues, which makes dialogue and understanding a formidable goal, as history has proven.
That said, the Messianic Jewish, and believing Arab community do share one thing in common that should, in theory, supersede the conflict, namely, their relationship with Yeshua. Despite this very substantial common denominator, the two have not been successful in reconciling with each other. The two communities are divided within themselves. Each side has members who have built relationships with the other side, while others are unaware or disinterested in this. Unfortunately, the topic of reconciliation is not a central subject of discussion or teaching in either community.
The reasons for the lack of unity and reconciliation between our communities are numerous, but as a Messianic Jew I can only reflect on the reasons behind this for my community. The Messianic movement is diverse, and the opinions expressed here are not necessarily representative of the community as a whole. I believe there are a number of issues that prevent the Messianic community from participating in a long-term reconciliation process with their Israeli Arab and Palestinian counterparts, having to do with identity, apathy, unawareness and logistics.
The Messianic Jewish community in Israel has been at odds with the general Jewish community from its inception. In the past, Messianic Jews were often rejected by their families and society, and branded as “Christians” (a pejorative term in Israel). While Israel is often called a “melting pot” due to the different countries and cultures that its people emigrated from, Jewish-Israeli society is largely homogenous as Israeli Jews share a national-religious identity. Therefore, people straying from the path of general consensus and accepted norms are often ostracized from society. In the 1970s and 1980s, individuals who chose to follow Yeshua were often shunned by family and friends that regarded them as strangers, and a threat to Jewish identity.
Another dimension of Messianic Jewish identity stems from the immigration of Messianic Jews to Israel. Many members of the community are not native-born Israelis, having immigrated in the 1980s and 1990s. Similar to immigrants in other countries, these Messianic Jews felt the need to conform to their host-country’s cultural and ideological norms in order to become “Israeli.” In the first generation of Messianic Jews in Israel this pressure to conform and the test to the believer’s Jewish and Israeli identity proved challenging in a way that, for many, shaped their relation to Israeli society. This resulted in attempts to prove their loyalty and devotion to Israel and the Jewish people.
The issues of apathy and unawareness are often linked. Though the subjects taught and preached in the Messianic body vary greatly, most Messianic congregations do not focus on a relationship with Arab believers. Some do not want to while others are focused on what they believe are more pressing issues. The end result is the same: It is not a topic often discussed. Additionally, as political views are varied within Israeli society, I believe many leaders do not wish to deal with issues that are quite so “political” in nature.
The logistical issue has to do with the constantly-full schedule of congregational leaders. Most Messianic congregations in Israel number between 150-200 members, and in many cases, the leader is the teacher, counselor, manager, and administrator of the congregation. As a result, they lack the time to learn and receive training in other areas, such as reconciliation.
I believe the first step in the path of the Messianic Jewish and Arab believing communities towards a joint effort in reconciliation is the realization of this endeavor’s importance. It is my belief that the two communities of faith must set an example of unity for their two respective nations. The testament of salvation must be one that results in a communal expression of unity that succeeds in bringing two very different groups together, based on their joint faith.
Before we can move forward, the issues that prevent our reconciliation must be addressed. When it comes to identity, I am optimistic as the second generation of Messianic Jews in the country no longer feels a need to prove their identity. They are confident in who they are and are therefore ready to influence society in a new way. This assurance opens new possibilities for establishing bridges between our community and the believing Arab community in Israel and Palestine. For those that are apathetic and do not wish to engage in reconciliation, and for those that are simply unaware of its importance, we must emphasize the Biblical mandate of unity and fellowship in the body which takes precedence over many other issues. In fact, our reconciliation with our Arab brothers and sisters in faith would be a testimony to the Israeli, Palestinian and other Arab communities that through Yeshua we can succeed in reconciling where political and other man-made initiatives have not. The issue of logistics will be challenging, as clearing more time in a leader’s schedule may seem impossible, but if leaders are aware of the importance of reconciliation, they may be more willing to make time to address the issue.
Practically speaking, Messianic Jewish congregations will need to include the message of reconciliation in their main services and children’s curriculum. Additionally, they need to be open to holding joint-congregational meetings to provide a space to worship and fellowship together. The most important element in bringing this vision to fruition will have to be the leadership. For true change to take place, leaders of Messianic congregations will need to be informed and trained in reconciliation and actively choose to promote this in their meetings.
This goal is within our grasp. In fact, we are already seeing the first fruits of change in the Messianic movement: there are many different initiatives to bring leaders from both sides together, and many have formed meaningful relationships. There have also been inter-congregational meetings targeted at creating unity between the two communities. And finally, the educational work that Musalaha has done over the last decade has helped promote this agenda among the hundreds of Messianic Jews that have participated in their activities. If those leaders currently involved in reconciliation initiatives on both sides openly advocate its importance to their colleagues and congregations, I believe that we will move closer to achieving this goal, and unifying the currently divided body of the Messiah in the Israeli and Palestinian communities.
By Mati Shoshani
Jerusalem Institute of Justice, COO