Israel is heading toward an international religious crisis and the loss of untold millions in tourism following increased police actions against Christians.
So warned millennium experts and Christian and Jewish leaders in the wake of Israel’s midnight raid, arrest and deportation this week of a group of 21 Christians, mostly Americans, who had been living without incident near the Mount of Olives anticipating the “return” of Jesus and the beginning of the End of Days.
Sources also told The Jewish Week the police roundup sheds light on an internal policy battle among several Israeli police agencies charged with protecting Israel from doomsday fanatics, with the millennium only two months away. Some favor an aggressive approach, while others advocate a more measured response.
On Tuesday, Israeli police ordered the deportation of members of the House of Prayer group, accusing them of unspecified charges of threatening public safety, despite showing no evidence to the public .
A senior Israeli police official this week told The Washington Post: “I wouldn’t say any of these people were actually dangerous. Probably they were not. But these days if there is even the potential for something, you don’t wait.”
Richard Landes, director of the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University, called the roundup “deeply disturbing.” He said Israel’s actions “feed those who believe that secular Israelis are the antichrist” — the mythic devil creature whom many Christians believe will trigger Armageddon.
“They [Israeli police] are creating martyrs and could inspire the most reactionary elements,” warned Brenda Brasher, an expert on millennial groups at Mount Union College in Ohio, who advises Israel on the millennium. “It’s outrageous.”
The latest incident comes a week after a group of 25 Irish and Romanian Christian pilgrims who were refused entry into the Jewish state were allegedly roughed up by Israeli police. The Irish ambassador to Israel, Brendan Scannell, expressed concern over the episode.
Last January, Israel arrested and deported 14 Americans who belonged to a Denver-based Christian cult accused of plotting a mass killing on the streets of Jerusalem.
Israel’s aggressive stance apparently is based on the state’s growing fear of violence from an influx of apocalyptic Christians who believe they must take extreme actions to bring about the Second Coming of Jesus.
But the House of Prayer incident has alarmed experts, who say Israel is taking the wrong action at the wrong time.
“This is not just economically counterproductive but it’s politically, internationally and morally counterproductive,” said Richard Cizik, a spokesman for the National Association of Evangelicals, a coalition of 50 Christian groups based in Washington.
Cizik said that for his membership, Israel’s actions compare unfavorably with China’s persecution of Christians.
Marvin Wilson, a prominent Evangelical academic and longtime supporter of Israel, said: “If this is a case of overzealousness on the part of Israel to shut down pilgrims with the least bit of suspicion, this will cause an enormous backlash in the Christian community .”
Wilson, a professor of biblical studies at Gordon College who has led more than two dozen pilgrimages to Israel, also said that Israel “doesn’t know what it’s doing” in distinguishing between peaceful Christian pilgrims and potentially dangerous fanatics.
It is a theme echoed by other experts such as Rabbi David Rosen, the head of the Anti-Defamation League’s Israel office.
“I’m very worried and disturbed by this,” Rabbi Rosen said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “The serious suspicion is there is a lack of proper research and inquiry into exactly whom they are dealing with and a failure to make essential distinctions between [Christian] denominations — and even between apocalyptic and millennialists, [meaning] those who are no threat.
But Rabbi James Rudin, an expert on Christians and cults, defended Israel’s actions.
“If on the run-up to the year 2000 a lot of these groups are either threatening or committing millennial madness, I’m going to err on the side of Israel’s security forces,” he said when asked about Monday’s incident.
“One untoward incident or the blowing-up of a Muslim holy site, or somebody burning themselves with oil or gas, there will be an even greater backlash against Israel,” Rabbi Rudin said. He also noted that the House of Prayer members had been in Israel illegally because their visas had expired.
Meanwhile, Israeli authorities said publicly Tuesday that the FBI is helping Israel identify dangerous Christian extremist groups, following a meeting in Washington between U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and Israel Internal Security Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami.
Ben-Ami refrained from going into detail. “It’s not a good idea to talk too much about millennial dangers because we’ll end up scaring tourists away,” he said.
But other observers said it was important to find out how and why police are choosing to arrest Christian groups.
For example, Landes, who has been advising Israeli law enforcement since the summer of 1998, said he “would never have counseled such action” as that taken by Israeli police, including middle-of-the-night strip searches by police in body armor.
“This is not only offensive, it is actually counterproductive. It’s classic pre-Waco behavior,” he said, referring to the FBI showdown with a Texas cult resulting in the death of dozens of cult members in 1993.
In Israel there are several law enforcement agencies charged with the millennium threat: the Ministry of Internal Security, the Ministry for Jerusalem and the Year 2000 Celebration, the General Security Services, or Shin Bet, the state’s domestic intelligence agency, and a special Millennial Task Force.
Rabbi Rosen said he was concerned that the GSS was not qualified to deal with the complex religious issues involved here and was treating the situation like any other terrorist threat — a response that does not work.
He hoped that the publicity would wake up law enforcement to the problems as the change in calendar quickly draws nearer.“I hope a constructive educational process comes out of this distress.”
- Shlomo Ben Ami
- David Rosen
- Eric J. Greenberg
- James Rudin
- Israeli police
- The Irish ambassador to Israel
- Mount Union College in Ohio
- Boston University
- Brendan Scannell
- Brenda Brasher
- Richard Landes
- Israel Internal
- The Washington Post
- Israel News
- Staff Writer