‘Anti-Missionary Bill Undermines Freedom of Expression’April 01, 2008
A legal opinion prepared by the Justice Ministry determines that missionary activity is “legitimate” and that efforts to persuade Jews to abandon their religion “warrant protection in a democratic society as part of freedom of expression.”
The legal opinion was drafted for Justice Minister Prof. Daniel Friedman in response to a bill, presented by Shas MK Yaakov Margi at the urging of Yad L’Achim, to bolster existing laws against missionary activity. The bill calls for a prison sentence of six months for anyone who “seeks to convince another, through a direct appeal, to give up his religion.” It also calls for a six-month mandatory sentence for “anyone who conducts a ceremony to convert a person from his religion or engages in some other activity that leads someone to convert, when the decision to convert came as a result of brainwashing or persuasion.”
The Justice Ministry’s legal opinion, written by attorney Ravid Dekel, asserts that, “the more widespread and threatening the phenomenon of missionary activity becomes, the less suitable is criminal law the means to combat it. It appears that education and information campaigns are more worthy and efficient.”
In a particularly infuriating statement, Dekel adds: “The attempt to convince a person and even to encourage him to convert out of his religion, as is the attempt to convince him to change other beliefs and outlooks, is legitimate and worthy of being protected in a democratic society as part of freedom of expression.”
In response, Yad L’Achim’s founding chairman, Harav Shalom Dov Lifschitz, issued a strongly worded letter to the justice minister, saying that the attorney who drafted the opinion erred in his understanding of the problem.
“Just as the Knesset saw fit to draft laws against the enemies of our people in areas related to the well-being, security and future of the Jewish people in the state of Israel, so too lawmakers must draft legislation against the enemies of our people, the missionaries, who want to destroy the remnant and memory of the Jewish people and convert them to Christianity,” he wrote.
“There is no doubt that if the security forces came upon people who incited to violence against the state, they would use the law to act against them and not be concerned about impinging on their freedom of expression. In our view, this must be the attitude missionaries who seek the spiritual destruction of Jews and thus to harm the soul of the Jewish nation.”
Yad L’Achim officials reacted with scorn to the recommendation that missionary activity can most effectively be combated through education and information campaigns. “It’s true that education and information campaigns help, but state schools provide very little education about Judaism and make it very difficult for Yad L’Achim to gain access to schools to explain about the very real threat of missionaries.”
Moreover, added Rabbi Lifschitz in his letter, “In a country with people of different religions, which has sites that are holy to all religions, it is impossible to cope via educational and information campaigns alone. There must be the backing of the law to prevent struggles between the various religions. Therefore, Yad L’Achim proposes that the law against converting people from other religions be applied equally to all religions. In this way, no member of any religion can seek to influence the member of another religion to convert. In our view, a law drafted in this spirit is not discriminatory.”
Rav Lifschitz concluded his letter to Prof. Friedman with a personal appeal: “As the Jewish justice minister of a Jewish state, please anchor in the appropriate law protection of Jews from the influence of missionaries.”
To his letter, Rav Lifschitz attached a countermissionary bill that was tabled six years ago by none other than the anti-chareidi Yosef (Tommy) Lapid, who also understood that missionaries were a tragedy for Israel and sought to block their destructive activities via law.
Meanwhile, Rav Lifschitz renewed his calls to religious MKs to put legislation against missionaries at the top of their priorities. “The sin of shemad is so severe that we are commanded to give up our lives rather than to transgress it. How is it possible, then, to allow the continuation of shemad, when previous generations would fast at hearing news of a Jew who had converted, and here they are converting thousands of Jews and no one says a word.”