Or Yehuda deputy mayor: I'm sorry about burning New Testaments
The burning of hundreds of New Testaments by yeshiva students in Or Yehuda last week was regrettable and unplanned, the city's deputy mayor, the man who spurred the students to act, told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.
Deputy Mayor Uzi Aharon of Shas used the opportunity of speaking to the Post, which publishes a monthly Christian Edition, to apologize to Christians worldwide, saying he hoped the incident would not inflame tensions between Jews and Christians.
Following the publication of the story on Tuesday, however, many messianic Jewish and other Christian groups expressed grave concern over the increasingly violent nature of anti-missionary activity in Israel.
Aharon had a very busy Tuesday. In the morning, Ma'ariv ran a story on how he organized to retrieve and burn hundreds of New Testaments given to Ethiopian Jews in his city by local messianic Jews. By 9 a.m. he was on an Army Radio news-talk show defending his actions, which he called "purging the evil among us."
At 10:30 he was on Channel 2's morning news show saying that Ethiopian immigrants in Or Yehuda were being encouraged to go against Judaism by messianic Jews. "We need to stop being ashamed of our Jewishness and to fight those who are breaking the law by missionizing against us," he said.
But by the early afternoon he had already been interviewed by Russian, Italian and French TV, explaining to their highly offended audiences back home how he had not meant for the Bibles to be burned, and trying to undo the damage caused by the news [and photographs] of Jews burning New Testaments.
But then he also told The Associated Press that he didn't condemn the Bible burning, calling it a "commandment."
Aharon then told the Post that he was very sorry for the book burning and that it was not planned, and that he was aware that the incident may have caused damage to relations between Christians and Jews. The deputy mayor said he had organized, together with "three or four" yeshiva students from the city's Michtav M'Eliahu Yeshiva to go to apartments in the city's Neveh Rabin neighborhood, which has many Ethiopian immigrants, and round up packages given to them several days earlier by messianic Jews. The packages contained a New Testament and several pamphlets, which Aharon said "encouraged on to go against Judaism."
The incident in Or Yehuda is the latest sign of rising tension between segments of the modern Orthodox and haredi sectors and the messianic Jewish community. Two months ago, the son of a messianic Jew was seriously wounded by a parcel bomb left outside his home in Ariel. Earlier this year, haredim demonstrated outside messianic Jewish gatherings in Beersheba and Arad, and there were instances of violence.
And just before Independence Day, a group of religious Zionist rabbis called for a boycott of this year's International Bible Quiz after discovering that one of the four finalists from Israel, Bat-El Levi, an 11th-grader from Jerusalem's Pisgat Ze'ev neighborhood, was a messianic Jew.
The rise in tensions is partly due to an increase in the number of messianic Jews in Israel over the past few years, with some estimates putting the community at 15,000, and partly due to increased fervor within haredi anti-missionary groups.
Sources familiar with the Falash Mura - whose Jewish ancestors converted to Christianity under duress in Ethiopia, and who made aliya under the understanding that they would return to Judaism - say that some continue to be Christians in Israel, and that this makes them amenable to messianic Jews. Several messianic Jews and at least one Christian group in Israel contacted by the Post on Tuesday expressed fear that if they spoke on the record, they would be attacked.
"I expect the police to investigate everyone who was involved in the book burning, including those who incited the youths to the act, even if that includes Mr. Aharon," Myers said. Myers said the book burning was tantamount to incitement to violence.
"Israelis have to understand something: Messianic Jews here have strong ties to American evangelical Christians, and there are hundreds of millions of people in the world who see the burning of the New Testament as a very serious issue. The New Testament is believed in by hundreds of millions of people. It is not in Israel's national interest to allow the burning of their holy book," Myers told the Post.
Myers is not worried about opening up a legal battle over missionary activities in Israel. "Messianic Jews distribute literature here and are very careful about it. Chabad is a much larger group that distributes material and literature," he said.
[Aharon says it is okay for Jews to give material to Jews, but not for Christians to target Jews.]