Public pressure delays deportation off amilies.

Two Messianic Jewish families who have been given a reprieve from deportation by the Israeli government are hoping public pressure will allow them to stay permanently.

“To start deporting Jews who believe in Jesus would not be popular,” says Gary Beresford. “But we are willing to go to prison rather than leave.”

The families, including one from the United States, have convinced government officials to extend deadlines. The Knesset extended a deportation order by three months following a week of demonstrations outside the Israeli parliament in late February. Since late May, the Beresfords have been in no-man’s land—still living in Israel but without any legal claim as the Knesset prepares to debate a bill determining their residency rights. “We want a permanent status,” says Shirley Beresford. “Right now we’re in limbo, unable to get a work permit.”

The Beresfords, who are British citizens, first applied for Israeli citizenship in 1986. The Israeli High Court twice has ruled on their request for citizenship, first determining the Beresfords do not qualify as Jews under the country’s 1950 Law of Return, which defines a Jew as “a person born to a Jewish mother or converted to Judaism.” A 1970 amendment added “and who is not a member of another religion.” According to Beresford, the High Court originally ruled that because his family attended a Messianic congregation in Jerusalem that confessed Jesus as the Messiah he did not qualify as a Jew under the law. Beresford, 41, says he agreed to stop attending the congregation after the first ruling in order to remain in the country, but the court later disqualified him merely because he believed in Jesus.

Ground swell of support

The Beresfords and two American couples, Sidney and Linda Speakman and Ari and Riki Kendall, all were told by the Ministry of Interior in December that their tourist visas would expire in February. That is when the government began to hear from sympathizers.

“There definitely is a ground swell in the country from the non-Messianic Jews,” says Keri Rosen, project coordinator for the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America near Philadelphia. Rosen says a bill introduced in the Knesset would allow the Messianic Jews, as well as Ethiopian Jews viewed by the Interior Ministry to have converted to Christianity, to stay in Israel. The legislation would allow anyone whose living parent, child, or sibling is an Israeli citizen to receive permanent residence status as a non-Jew. A clause would permit a person with a child in the Israeli army to remain. The Beresfords’ two sons have served in the Israeli army, and Shirley Beresford’s mother is an Israeli citizen.

The families say their desire to live in Israel is based on deep-rooted religious convictions. Kendall, a 38-year-old California native, says he moved to Israel five years ago in obedience to God. The Kendalls returned to the United States in April because of the growing pressure. Although the Kendalls want to return to Israel in the future, the government may block their entrance.

“We believe Jews are to return to the land of Israel,” says the 48-year-old Speakman, who also moved there five years ago. His tourist visa expires June 30. “I intend to keep fighting. If I have to file another court case I will do that. We’re not packing our bags.”

Although Beresford and Kendall had Jewish parents, Speakman was raised by a Christian mother and therefore argues that he is entitled to citizenship as a non-Jew under the Law of Return. But, in an ironic legal twist, the Ministry of Interior has been denying the family citizenship—because his wife had Jewish parents.

“The court’s upholding the Ministry of Interior interpretation of the law sets a dangerous precedent on our status as Jews in the land,” says Menachem Benhayim, secretary for Israel of the International Messianic Jewish (Hebrew Christian) Alliance, based in London. “Many of us feel this is another step in delegitimatizing us Jewish believers in Jesus as Jews.”

The Messianic Jew debate is far from new. For instance, in 1979, after three years of legal wrangling, the Israeli High Court ruled that Eileen Dorflinger did not qualify as a Jew, even though both her parents were Jewish. Dorflinger, then a 36-year-old from Connecticut, maintained that she was a Jew who had come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah. The High Court, in rejecting her claim, said her baptism at a church in Connecticut proved she had converted to Christianity.

A matter of interpretation

However, Robert I. Winer, chairman of the International Relations Committee of the Messianic Jewish Alliance, points out that ultimately Dorflinger, and earlier Oswald Rufeisen, known as Father Daniel, both became permanent residents of Israel. “The Minister of Interior has broad discretionary powers to grant citizenship or residency,” Winer says. “We’re hoping that happens again.”

“The court uses different standards each time,” says David Stern, author of The Messianic Jewish Manifesto. In the original case against the Beresfords, Stern says, the court used “bad theologizing” and seemed “very selective in examining evidence to arrive at a preordained conclusion.” Stern, who lives in Jerusalem, says the government has a compelling interest in allowing the families to stay.

“Deporting Jews would cause worldwide attention,” says Stern. “There would be an anti-Semitic backlash.”

By John W. Kennedy.

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