Jerusalem attorney aids embattled Messianics

JERUSALEM (BP) -- A young Jewish woman and her mother tearfully plead for Michael Decker's help. They have arrived at the Israeli lawyer's office after an hours-long interrogation by the Israeli Ministry of the Interior.

The mother had left the United States to come to Israel under the Israeli Law of Return (called "aliyah"), which grants any Jew or family member of a Jew the right to immigrate to Israel and receive citizenship. But, Decker says, when the Interior Ministry -- which oversees citizenship and immigration in Israel -- found out she and her daughter were both Messianic Jews, it not only denied the mother citizenship but revoked her daughter's citizenship as well.

Neither woman, Decker recounts, could legally work in Israel because of their belief in Jesus as the promised Messiah, and they had already sold everything they owned in the United States.

"How can you not help someone like that?" Decker, a partner in the law offices of Yehuda Raveh & Co., says. Decker also serves as senior legal adviser to the Jerusalem Institute of Justice.

For years, Decker -- an Israeli believer -- is among a small cadre of Israeli lawyers who have battled what some may see as a puzzling phenomenon: A government that relies on the global support of evangelical Christians has an Interior Ministry that, by Decker's assessment, is fighting tooth and nail against Jews who believe in Jesus from becoming citizens.

Messianic believers face an already tough hurdle in the Law of Return itself, which was amended in 1970 with religious restrictions that exclude many of them from its immigration and citizenship guarantees. Messianics with certain family and religious histories are able to qualify under the law, but the reality, Decker contends, is different. He says the Interior Ministry does everything it can to prevent any Messianics from becoming Israeli citizens, regardless of whether they are legally entitled to do so.

Decker traces most of the trouble to a powerful Israeli religious organization called Yad L'Achim, composed of Orthodox Jews who practice the most stringent strain of Judaism. He says Yad L'Achim opposes anything it believes to be a threat to Israel's Jewish identity, including Christians, Muslims and Jews it believes are not religious enough.

"They want to make sure that every Jew remains Jewish according to their definition of Judaism," Decker states.

Decker says Messianic Jews are prime targets for Yad L'Achim, which he says harasses Messianic pastors and suspects Messianics of being missionaries out to "steal Jewish souls."

"Because, to [Yad L'Achim], the Nazis in the Holocaust killed the Jewish people physically, and Christian missionaries are stealing the Jewish soul," Decker explains. "That's why they would consider it a spiritual holocaust, even. Of course it doesn't make sense, and it's irrational, but I'm just trying to explain the way they see it."

Although ultra-Orthodox Jews are a small minority in Israel, they wield a significant amount of political power. Israel's parliamentary democracy usually requires several political parties to join together to form a coalition government, with cabinet posts given to each party to secure their support. A small ultra-Orthodox party called Shas is part of the current Israeli government, with its leader in charge of the Interior Ministry.

Decker describes the Shas-run Interior Ministry as allied with Yad L'Achim in keeping Messianic Jews out of the country.

"I'm sure that [those who run the Interior Ministry] have very strong connections with Yad L'Achim," Decker says. "Many ministers and parliament members from within the Shas party probably donate to this Yad L'Achim organization."

Decker says he has evidence indicating an illegal sharing of information between the Interior Ministry and Yad L'Achim, including a television documentary that records an Interior Ministry clerk saying she has to ask Yad L'Achim if a person is eligible to immigrate. Decker says he also holds letters from the Interior Ministry asking Yad L'Achim questions about people.

Baptist Press attempted to contact the Israeli Interior Ministry regarding allegations of religious discrimination against Messianic Jews, but as of press time, the government agency had not commented.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, says it would not be unexpected for Israel’s ultra-Orthodox to try to influence Israeli policy.

"They'll accost people on the street.... I've seen it," Land recounts. "I've witnessed it with my own eyes in Jerusalem. So to the extent that they have any influence in the government, it doesn't surprise me they would try to stop Messianic Jews from immigrating."

Even though Decker won a landmark 2008 Israeli Supreme Court case in which the court determined that Messianic Jews who meet certain family and religious criteria are indeed entitled to citizenship, he says the deck is still stacked against them.

The Interior Ministry will fight every Messianic seeking citizenship all the way to the Supreme Court, Decker states, because they know that most Messianics cannot afford the costs of the legal battle, even if they would win in the end.

Decker helps Messianic believers navigate the legal maze -- even if they cannot pay -- through his work with the Jerusalem Institute of Justice, an organization that aids the poor and victims of discrimination in Israel. His legal work includes helping not only Messianics but also others who are discriminated against, such as people with autism.

"After I became a lawyer, my phone didn't stop ringing by so many people that were suffering discrimination, and they didn't have money, most of them," he says.

The small legal staff and budget of the Jerusalem Institute of Justice can only handle a few cases a month. As its operations grow, Decker says, “we could employ more people and have a larger staff, and we definitely could have many more Jewish believers receive citizenship and become a light in this nation."

Land says what is going on at the Interior Ministry is "clearly religious discrimination." He urges Southern Baptists to contact their legislators as well as President Obama to ask that this concern be addressed to the Israeli embassy.

"But that does not mean that we're not going to continue to consider Israel a special ally and strongly support all the democratic things they are doing in Israel, and continue to protest this undemocratic thing they are doing," Land added.

Decker emphasizes that it is not the Israeli government as a whole or the Israeli people who are discriminating against Messianic Jews, but rather the Interior Ministry and some ultra-Orthodox extremists.

Like Land, he believes Christians should continue to support Israel for all its good qualities, even if they disagree with how his fellow believers in Jesus the Messiah are treated. He encourages Southern Baptists to support Messianic businesses and tour companies and to give to Israeli charities that help the afflicted.

"I do love my country," Decker affirms. "It's not the perfect country but it's the only country I have, and really the only democracy in the Middle East. I love it and I support it even with all its problems."


John Evans is a writer in Houston. To learn more about the Jerusalem Institute of Justice, visit www.jij.org.il. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).