CBNNews.com - JERUSALEM, Israel - In the latest in a growing number of incidents against Israeli Messianic Jewish believers -- Jews who believe that Yeshua (Jesus, in Hebrew) is the Messiah -- a group of ultra-Orthodox youth set fire to New Testaments collected from the town's residents.
The Bible burning, which took place in Or Yehuda, a town of about 28,000 located between Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion Airport, was first reported in the Israeli daily Maariv.
According to the article, Or Yehuda's Deputy Mayor Uzi Aharon drove through the streets, asking residents over a loudspeaker to turn over New Testaments in their possession to yeshiva (religious seminary) students.
After collecting hundreds of Bibles the next day, the students threw them in a pile next to the neighborhood synagogue and set them on fire.
Though the newspaper caught the deputy mayor on film at the bonfire, he said he came to stop the students when he saw what they were doing.
"I asked that they prepare everything in a parking lot and I planned to come with a pick up and take the substances [New Testaments] in the pickup," he said. "When I got there, to my disappointment, a bunch of young guys spontaneously started a fire and burned some of the materials that were collected," he said.
Aharon said "missionaries" were to blame.
"The missionaries passed out a kit, which included the New Testament and two additional booklets in a new, well-to-do neighborhood in Or Yehuda," the deputy mayor said. "The whole essence of these pamphlets was incitement against the Jews," he said.
Jews Appalled at the Incident
Reaction to the Bible burning was swift.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spokesman called it "a despicable act."
The Anti-Defamation League said burning anyone's Bible is "…a violation of basic Jewish principles and values."
The American Jewish Committee said "no provocation can justify such outrageous behavior."
Victor Kalisher, director of the Jerusalem Bible Society, which printed some of the New Testaments that were destroyed, called it "shocking."
"To see that such books are being burnt, it is shocking," Kalisher told CBN News. "As a Jew, as a son of a Holocaust survivor, when I see something like that, it only tells me that much dangerous things will probably follow," he said.
"The burning of Christian holy books in Or Yehuda is especially worrisome in light of the continued harassment of Messianic Jews in the country," stated an editorial in Haaretz, a prominent Israeli newspaper.
But attacks against Israeli Messianic Jews are on the increase.
A Near-Death Experience
On March 20, during the Purim holiday, Ami Ortiz, the youngest son of a Messianic pastor's family opened a booby-trapped holiday gift box delivered to their home, triggering a powerful bomb that nearly killed him and destroyed most of the contents of their apartment.
Though he's made miraculous strides in his recovery, this 15-year-old Israeli believer still faces a long stretch of surgeries and physical therapy.
Police suspect that anti-missionaries were behind the bombing. But after more than two months, no arrests have been made, and the family's attorney claims police are not pursuing the investigation.
The police sought a court order to prevent Israel's Channel 1 from broadcasting a story on the attack, which criticized their handling of the case, but the court denied the petition and the program aired last Friday evening.
"By God's grace, it was broadcast all over the country," David Ortiz, Ami's father told CBN News. "People were able to see it on the Internet. It was shown on satellite TV in the States and in other places, and Israelis were able to see for the first time what actually took place in my house," he said.
Other Incidents around the Country
There have been increasing numbers of incidents against Messianic believers, in places like the northern coastal city of Acco, Kiryat Gat, Jerusalem, and Beersheba.
The small Messianic fellowship in the southern desert city of Arad, less than 30 miles east of Beersheba, has experienced one of the most intense oppositions. Members of the Gur Hasidim, an ultra-Orthodox sect, frequently demonstrate in front of the homes of Jewish believers and at their fellowship when it meets on Shabbat (the Sabbath).
Yad L'Achim (hand to the brothers), an anti-missionary organization, works at galvanizing Israelis against the country's Messianic Jews.
"We're expressing protest against the fact that these people came here, people who came to this country in a problematic way, with social problems," said Yad L'Achim activist Alex Artovski.
"And they take people from the people of Israel and make them missionaries who belong to the cult Messianic Jews," he said.
But some Israelis find Yad L'Achim's demonstrations deeply disturbing.
"The Haredim are bothering them day and night and this bothers me very much because I am from a family of Holocaust survivors and my grandmother and grandfather in Poland were shouted at -- 'Jews get out,'" said Zohar Galant.
"Like this they are shouting at them now that they will get out. I, as a Jew, am embarrassed by these people who are engaging in these demonstrations and hurting innocent people," Galant said.
Jerusalem Bible Society Director Victor Kalisher has another concern -- that Israeli society will tolerate attacks against Messianic Jews.
"If the leaders of religious groups, people of leadership, people who should be a role models, are described as people who initiate and support burning of books with students dancing around it, the next day we can have people hurt, we can have windows broken, we can have a burnt shop. We cannot ignore it, we cannot think that well it's an isolated incident," he said. "It is not."