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By Gerald McDermott
November 2, 2022

Israel has returned its most divisive but most popular politician to its highest office. Voters decided that Benjamin Netanyahu, with all his personality defects that caused this to be the fifth national election in three years, was less dangerous to national security than his chief rival, popular writer and talk show host Yair Lapid.

Lapid recently told the United Nations in English what he never uttered in Hebrew back in Israel, that Israel should work toward a two-state solution of its conflict with Palestinians. A majority of voters decided this was one step too far. Even the Left in Israel has come to realize that Palestinian leadership has rejected this solution and that every past Israeli attempt to trade land for peace has brought only more terror against Israeli civilians.

As one Israeli political scientist has put it, Israelis realize that politics is the art of the possible, not a court for morality. Netanyahu's rivals never brought up his ongoing corruption imbroglio because it was old news that divides voters down the middle, with the Right considering it elitist persecution of one of their own.

What is the current state of Israel? Both its society and politics? And what about its messianic Jewish community?

My wife and I just returned from nearly two weeks there. It was my nineteenth trip. I asked these questions of Jews and Palestinians from north to south. Here is what I found.

The Election

There are surprising similarities to the United States. Like America, Israel is deeply divided over its politics. Like America, this month's election was thought to be a referendum on one politician who has recently served in its top post. Like America, the division partly falls out on religious lines. As in America, elites in the media, universities, courts and even military leadership tend to the political Left, while workers outside those institutions tend toward the Right. As in America, voters are frightened by spiraling violence and threats of war.

Despite these similarities, the differences with America get really interesting. This is a Middle Eastern country determined by cultural tribes that overlook policy consistency. For example, Netanyahu's party Likud (a Hebrew word for "consolidation") draws significantly from North African Jews called Sephardi. It supports both the free market and labor unions--so capitalist and socialist principles simultaneously. The Ultra-Orthodox parties might seem to unite on the Right, but they too are divided between their Ashkenazi (from Eastern Europe) and Sephardic factions.

There are many issues that have driven Israelis, especially religious Jews, to the Right. They resent recent decisions by Lapid's government to give coastal water rights to Hezbollah, the Lebanese party directed by Tehran that directs 100,000 missiles at Israel. They complain that this violated the Israeli constitution when it bypassed the Knesset because of strong-arming from the Biden administration. Religious parties protest the government's celebration of Gay Pride days and promotion of abortion. They are angry over vast sums of money given to an Islamist party that supports Hamas (Gaza's leadership party that is committed to the destruction of Israel) and large tracts of land illegally appropriated by Bedouins and Palestinians in the Negev desert and Samaria (the West Bank) but tolerated by the Lapid government that forcibly closed Jewish settlements there. These religious parties are treated as intolerant bigots by the secular media.

Lapid's party (Yesh Atid or "There is a future") is made up largely of the prosperous but overworked IT workers in Tel Aviv, mostly drawn from the Ashkenazi. They are fed up with the Ultra-Orthodox Jews who don't let their young people serve in the IDF (Israel Defense Force) or learn basic math and history at their yeshivas (religious schools). They resent the massive tax burden that they shoulder to pay for the IDF and Israel's national health service which serves unproductive Haredi (ultra-orthodox) men and Arab women.

They also fear Itamar Ben-Gvir's influence in a Netanyahu government. Gvir has called for the expulsion of Arab citizens not loyal to Israel.

New Openness

Messianic Jews in Israel told me that Israeli society is becoming more open to their influence because, among other things, of the humanitarian service some Messianic Jews perform. For example, the HaTikva Project
https://www.amazon.com/Jesus-Believing-Israelis-Exploring-Messianic-Fellowships-ebook/dp/B09RQVPMQ1/ supplies food and friendship to poor elderly, operates non-profit dental clinics for the needy, and trains adoptive and foster parents to care for children removed from their homes because of family trauma.

There is a new openness to the gospel in Israel, especially among the hundreds of thousands of secular Jews coming from the old Soviet Union. A Messianic soldier fresh out of IDF boot camp told his congregation that he was invited by his officer to share his story as a believer with a meeting of seventy other soldiers. They welcomed his story. There are many similar stories from up and down the land.

The numbers of Arab Christians are shrinking all over the Middle East except in one nation--Israel. Arab Christian churches and fellowships are growing in the Galilee and Judea. They are shrinking only in the West Bank and Gaza where their Muslim cousins harass and sometimes attack them.

Messianic Jews

Messianic Jews David Serner and Alexander Goldberg recently released a new book that summarizes a 2020 study of the Messianic movement in Israel. Serner and Goldberg report huge growth: there are three times as many Messianic fellowships (273 total) and three times more Messianic Jews (15,300 total) than just twenty years ago. Most of the growth has come from Russian and Ethiopian immigrants. You can read it here:

Messianic Jewish faith and observance in Israel are a mix of Jewish and evangelical features. Nearly three-fourths of the fellowships incorporate charismatic elements. Generally, Israeli Messianic fellowships are Jewish but neither classically Christian nor fully committed to Mosaic law. Typically in their worship they recite the Shema, use the Aaronic blessing at dismissal, read and comment on the Torah portion from the Parashat HaShavuah, use traditional prayer shawls, and celebrate Jewish holidays.

Most refrain from celebrating Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. They also tend to distance themselves from "Christianity" and "Church" in their speech and writing because of the long history of the Christian Church's persecution of Jews, even Messianic Jews. They use the words kehilla (congregation) rather than "church," "Messianic" instead of "Christian," "Yeshua" in place of "Jesus," and "Messiah" rather than "Christ."

Nearly all believe in a "double restoration" of Israel, that in the future Israel will be restored both spiritually and physically on a renewed earth. Most also are convinced that the present state of Israel is a fulfillment of biblical prophecy, if not the last state before the end of the world.

More than one fifth of the fellowships report that they have suffered severe persecution from ultra-orthodox Jews.

All in all, Israel is a vibrant, exciting country. Christian tourists often lament that most Israeli Jews do not go to synagogue, but they miss the fact that the nation stops on Yom Kippur, with even so-called secular Jews fasting. They are unaware that the vast majority of Jews do something different at their Shabbat meal on Friday night. Religion in Israel is passionate and existential, more so than in the United States. Perhaps that is because Israelis face enemies all around, and know that death could be near. Knowledge of a coming End tends to make all of us get more serious about life.

Gerald McDermott is the author and editor of three books on Israel, including Israel Matters: Why Christians Must Think Differently about the People and the Land (Brazos).

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