Recent success by controversial religious group Jehovah's Witnesses to bring in local Israelis has anti-missionary activists accusing the group of using devious recruitment methods. The Witnesses, as they are known, have had a presence here since the state's founding but say their active missionary work - an obligation for members - has gained traction in recent years, bringing in several hundred additional members. They now number an estimated 2,500 in Israel.
Missionary work is not illegal here, though the law forbids proselytizing to minors or proselytizing with promises of financial or material gain. Still, missionary attempts rile up many Israeli Jews. Last week, a teenager from Ariel whose family is part of the city's small Messianic Jewish community was seriously injured after a bomb, disguised as a Purim package, went off in his apartment. The incident marks what some onlookers are calling an escalation in tension between religious groups that proselytize and the ultra-Orthodox Jews who actively oppose them. Meir Cohen, coordinator of the anti-missionary department at Yad L'Achim, says his ultra-Orthodox organization receives about a dozen calls a day from people complaining about Jehovah's Witnesses who come to their door.
Accusing the Witnesses of targeting society's weaker elements, including new immigrants, the poor and the handicapped, critics blast what they call the group's devious recruitment methods. "They've mapped out all of Israeli society and then target segments that don't get attention elsewhere," said Cohen. "They introduce themselves, they smile, they are nice and they are successful. They cynically abuse people in distress and like other cults in Israel are growing." Cohen asserted they've actively proselytized in group homes for the deaf-mute, adding, "Jehovah's Witnesses, messianic Jews, Scientologists all thrive here because there is no public awareness to counter them."
"They target the less educated people and not the university professors," said Ruth Cohen, a former member who returned to Judaism in 2002 (see box). "In Tel Aviv, they go building to building, but in Jerusalem, they are more careful because they are terrified of the ultra-Orthodox. They target Russians, foreign workers and Arabs - but not Muslims, because that is considered too dangerous."
David Namer, head of the group's non-profit organization, countered in a recent interview that most of its members are Israeli and that their movement cuts across ethnic and socioeconomic lines - rejecting claims of honing in on the weak. "We go to Ramat Aviv," added spokesperson Eran Katri, referring to the affluent north Tel Aviv neighborhood. Both representatives denied charges their movement is a cult.
The movement - called "the Chabad of the Christian world" by Cohen - has a national office off the Nachalat Binyamin pedestrian mall in Tel Aviv, but claims to have a presence in most major cities, including Haifa, Beer Sheva, Jerusalem and Ashdod.
The work of Jehovah's Witnesses is hardly new to Israelis who have spent significant time abroad. In the U.S., home to the movement's international headquarters, they have about one million active members who go door to door to spread their message. Here, small numbers make their evangelizing less noticeable. Methods, however, are similar: believers canvass neighborhoods, stand on street corners and approach strangers on places like the Tel Aviv beach promenade. "We believe that sharing our faith is an obligation," Katri said. "We spread a message and if someone becomes a Jehovah's Witness, it is his choice." According to Jehovah's Witnesses officials, some 1,300 active members in Israel engage in spreading the message. "We are seeing an increase in the numbers of people who come to us," said Namer. "But relatively speaking, we are still quite small."
The group, which is active in some 230 countries, is known for their refusal to take blood infusions as well as for their persecution during World War II by the Nazis. Claiming to have nearly 7,000,000 practicing members, they are especially controversial for the way they treat those who leave the flock. A Jehovah's Witness who behaves in a way that the community deems immoral is completely excommunicated, or "disfellowshipped," in the parlance of the congregation - an experience Ruth Cohen had to live through.
Jehovah's Witnesses do not consider themselves part of Christianity - which they see as idolatrous - despite their belief in Jesus as the messiah. They also do not accept the Trinity or use the cross as a religious symbol. Members of the group dress modestly and meet some three times a week at their local "Kingdom Halls" to worship, study, pray and sing. They say they are firm adherents of the Bible. Namer referenced verses from Genesis and Leviticus during the interview to prove a point.
"To be a Witness doesn't just mean to be a believer," explained Penina Taylor, director of the Jerusalem offices of Jews for Judaism, an international anti-missionary group. "Their raison d'etre is to share their faith." Ruth Cohen, who was a member for 30 years, believes that "Jews don't realize how serious the threat is and how much money and effort is being put into missionizing here."
Namer, for his part, rejects criticism of the group. "It's a shame that [these people] don't respect other people's beliefs," he said.