Messianic Jews Fight Public Slurs in Israel

Monday, September 26, 2005

Ultra-orthodox Jewish group petitions High Court to protest in front of private home.

by Alfred Muller

ARAD, Israel, September 26 (Compass) -- The Israeli High Court on September 12 heard a petition by ultra-orthodox Jews to hold a 700-person demonstration in front of the house of a family of Messianic Jews. In the past, the group’s smaller protests consisted of shouting obscenities and slurs at the Christians.

The ultra-orthodox group, the Gur Hassidim, had sought to reverse a decision by the Israeli police to prohibit a demonstration of 700 people in front of the home of Polly Sigulim, a Messianic Jew. Since April 2004, the Gur Hassidim have demonstrated weekly in front of the home in Arad, a village in the Negev, shouting insults. On other occasions, according to witnesses, members of the group have yelled “Jesus, the bastard.”

Sigulim, a widow who is the mother of three children and five foster children, rents a large home at the end of a street in Arad, with a parking area where the ultra-orthodox want to hold the demonstration.

“They are taking liberties that are not right,” Sigulim said of the Gur Hassidim. “To come and complain for a year and a half? That’s a long time complaining about the same thing.”

Initially Israeli police only watched and giggled as demonstrators hurled religious and personal insults at the family during demonstrations by hundreds of ultra-orthodox Jews. Police had claimed that, based on the constitutional freedom of expression, they could not forbid smaller demonstrations in front of the houses of Sigulim and other Messianic Jewish believers and Christians. The subsequent ban came after dangerous escalations in harassment.

At the September 12 hearing, High Court President Aharon Barak suggested a compromise of a demonstration limited to 250 people once a year in front of Sigulim’s house. He instructed the lawyers of the police and the Hassidim to discuss his idea, but they reached no agreement. Unable to mediate an agreement, the High Court is expected to issue a ruling soon.

All of Sigulim’s foster children are from Jewish Messianic or Christian families. Some years ago an Israeli Jewish girl, regularly visiting the family, asked one of the foster children for a New Testament. After reading it twice, she became a believer in Jesus.

“It was not a matter of Yakim [her pastor] or me preaching to her,” Sigulim recalls. “She wanted what the other kids have.” Because she was a minor, the congregation did not allow her to participate in its activities. When she turned 18, she wanted to be baptized. Four months later, in April 2004, 250 ultra-orthodox Jews held a big demonstration in front of Sigulim’s house.

This demonstration left those present with “very hard feelings and impressions,” said Yakim Figueras, pastor of the Hebrew-speaking congregation of Christians and Messianic Jews in Arad to which Sigulim belongs. “There were hard words said against the believers. We were called worse than Israel’s worst enemies through big loudspeakers.”

Since then, scores of small demonstrations have taken place near Sigulim’s house, Figueras said. During the court session the police lawyer, Figueras, Sigulim and her neighbor have tried to convince the three High Court judges that they are being harassed and intimidated on a daily basis, even though the neighbor adheres to no particular faith. Barak, however, did not want to connect the harassment to the question of whether to hold another large demonstration in front of Sigulim’s house.

Though police previously refused to stop group protests in deference to free speech, they ultimately refused the Gur Hassidim permission to stage the large event because demonstrations in front of private homes are forbidden. Police had suggested that the ultra-orthodox Jews should demonstrate in another part of the street, where there are no private homes.

Waiting on the Lord

Figueras said the lawyer for Gur Hassidim claimed that the demonstration in April 2004 was very calm. The lawyer also claimed that Sigulim should be treated as a public figure, rather than a private person, as he said “she admits to having meetings in the house.”

Sigulim had a Christian home group meeting at her place from 1999 to 2004. By the time of the large demonstration in April of last year, she said, the meetings had already stopped.

Even the smaller demonstrations have been damaging, Figueras said. “The demonstrations are intimidating,” he said. “If they come to my house every day or every week to show people that here lives a dangerous missionary, than that is intimidating to my children. They do not do it quietly. They shout, scream, and give flyers with lies about us.”

Figueras said his congregation had declined to take the protestors to court, even though a police official had advised him of an Israeli privacy protection law against intimidation. “We brought it before the Lord,” he said. “This is a decision of the congregation. Maybe we’d change our mind. We asked the Lord to help us, and we wanted to see what He would do in this whole matter. Then the case appeared in High Court with a police lawyer defending us.”

Figueras was disappointed in the attitude of Barak, the High Court president. “I expected much more from him.”

Sigulim also left the High Court building disappointed. “We did not get the verdict we were hoping for,” she said. “I felt that our democratic rights were not being considered. What about the right of privacy, to do in our home what we want to do as long as it is not illegal and to believe what we want to believe?”

On the other hand, she said, the ordeal has caused her and other families to become bolder and stronger in their faith. “It has been a spiritual strengthening for everybody, including the youngest.”

Gutted Chess Club

Demonstrators did no damage in or near the home of Sigulim. Eddie and Lura Beckford, however, had severe problems. One and a half years ago, they began a chess club in a run-down shopping center in Arad. Every day, 30 to 50 mainly Russian immigrants come to play chess and dominoes outside what’s left of the facility after the Gur Hassidim gutted the place in August 2004, according to Eddie Beckford.

“This is giving them a quality of life,” he said. “This gives them a place where they are loved and welcomed. I provide pencils, papers and tables to play on.”

The Beckfords are openly Christian, Messianic Jews, he said. They provide Bibles and Christian books in various languages, as well as free English lessons. They feed the poor and run a used-clothing ministry.

“People come and cannot thank us enough for what we are doing for them,” he said.

The missionary activities of the Beckfords, however, led to angry responses from the ultra-orthodox Jews. “They put glue in the lock,” he said. “They pulled off a sign in front of our building.”

His wife Lura added: “They harass people every time when we put clothing outside. They come and say: do not take clothes from the missionaries. You are selling your soul.”

One morning when the shop had just opened, the protesters came and spilled water and coffee, broke 11 chairs and ruined books. A month later, late at night on August 4, 2004, they broke the windows, poured in gasoline and set the place on fire. “The walls, electricity, lights, air conditioning, cabinet, a DVD player and video camera burned,” Lura recalled. “The estimated damage is $10,600.”

Rebecca Frei, another Jewish believer in Jesus, also works at the chess club. She is from a Hasidic family and attends the congregation of Figueras.

“They go after me and my daughter, who is 5 years old now, for almost the last two years,” she said of the Gur Hassidim. “They surround us in the street wherever we go. They gather and surround us near her school and start yelling and screaming. They are calling my daughter names and saying things that cause her distress. She first was waking up at night having nightmares.”

Members of the ultra-orthodox group also come to the family’s apartment building and put things in their mailbox, she said. “They try to send people to me and call me to come back and become an orthodox Jew,” she said. “They do it in a way to frighten me or to scare me.”

Last Saturday, September 17, the police broke up a demonstration at the chess club of around 150 ultra-orthodox Jews. Shouting and cursing, they tried to prevent a bus filled with people from the chess club from leaving on an outing. The mob became so unruly that police ordered Christians off the bus and back into the chess club facility. But the demonstrators kept kicking the chess club door so that it hit whoever tried to enter.

Figueras said about a dozen officers eventually arrived to protect the Christians. The ultra-orthodox Jewish groups dispersed after police threatened them with arrest.

Copyright 2005 Compass Direct