Following worldwide uproar, the deputy mayor who organized the Orthodox Jewish students responsible for the burning of hundreds of New Testaments has publicly apologized to Christians worldwide for the intolerant act and for any hurt feelings it might have produced.
The burning of the New Testaments last Thursday by yeshiva students was regrettable and unplanned, said Deputy Mayor Uzi Aharon of the central Israeli town Or Yehuda to The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.
Aharon had initially defiantly defended the students' action when news broke out about the Bible burning. He had described their action to various media outlets as "purging the evil among us," fighting those that break the law by trying to convert Jews, and following the "commandment."
But by the time he spoke to The Jerusalem Post, which publishes a monthly Christian edition, he changed his tone and said he was very sorry for the book burning, that it was unplanned, and that he was unaware the event may have caused damage to Christian-Jewish relations.
"I wasn't even on the scene when the boys rounded up all the Bibles and brought them all to one place [near the synagogue in Neveh Rabin]," Aharon claimed to the Post. "They started burning them before I got there. Once I arrived the most I could do was pull a Bible out of the fire. I put it in nylon and its now in my car. I am really sorry for the book burning, but I did not organize it, it was a spontaneous thing by the yeshiva boys," Aharon said.
He added, "We respect all religions as we expect others to respect ours. I am very sorry that the New Testament was burned, we mean it no harm and I'm sorry that we hurt the feelings of others."
However, the Or Yehuda deputy mayor also declared that Israel cannot allow messianic Jews to "come into our homes and incite against our religion, and turn our children away from Judaism. That is against the law."
Aharon, a strong anti-missionary activist, admits he had initially organized "three or four" yeshiva students from the town's Michtav M'Eliahu Yeshiva to go to apartments in a part of town with many Ethiopian Jews to collect packages recently given to them by local messianic Jews, according to the Post. The packages contained a New Testament and pamphlets, which Aharon claims encouraged going against Judaism.
The New Testament burning is the latest incident revealing escalating tension between Orthodox Jews and messianic Jews as well as any Christian trying to share the Gospel with Jews in Israel.
Bible Society in Israel director Victor Kalisher, whose organization printed the Bibles burned in Or Yehuda, responded to the incident:
"What worries me is that nobody has stood up against this," said Kalisher, the son of Holocaust survivors, to the Post. "It seems there is a war against messianic Jews in Israel."
Kalisher argues that Bibles are not forced on anybody or into any homes, contrary to what many Orthodox Jews claim about Christian evangelism.
"The book has never harmed anyone, you can choose to read it or choose not to read it," he said. "If this happened to Jewish books overseas we would be screaming anti-Semitism."
He acknowledged the increased tension between the two communities, noting bombs that have been sent to messianic Jews, "and now books have been burned."
"This cannot be allowed to happen here," said the messianic Jew.
Calev Myers, a lawyer representing messianic Jews in Israel, not only condemned the Or Yehuda incident, but he called it an "illegal act" and part of growing institutionalized discrimination against messianic Jews in Israel.
The lawyer is waiting to see if Or Yehuda police will open an investigation into the New Testament burning incident, but if the do not, he said he will file a petition.
"I expect the police to investigate everyone who was involved in the book burning, including those who incited the youths to the act, even if that includes Mr. Aharon," Myers said.
"Israelis have to understand something: Messianic Jews here have strong ties to American evangelical Christians, and there are hundreds of millions of people in the world who see the burning of the New Testament as a very serious issue. The New Testament is believed in by hundreds of millions of people. It is not in Israel's national interest to allow the burning of their holy book," Myers said.
On a larger scale, various groups throughout Israel have increasingly tried to prevent Christians from sharing their faith with Jews.
In September, Israeli rabbis had urged Jews to boycott a massive Christian tourism event to avoid attempts to convert them to Christianity. Earlier that same year, Israel's interior ministry officials said an evangelical pastor and his wife – who had lived in Israel for nearly 20 years – had to leave the country within two weeks because their application for permanent residency was rejected. Officials said the decision resulted from suspicion that the two were involved in missionary work, which Israel bans.
Another incident occurred in July, when the country's cable television company pulled the plug on a major Christian TV Network, which has programs offering biblical teachings from the New Testament as well as infomercials that targets a Jewish audience with the message of Jesus.
The International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, which has in the past resisted criticism of Israel, has called the burning of the Christian Holy Book "unacceptable" and "offensive to most Christians."