3 families of Messianic Jews told to leave Israel

February 11, 1993|By New York Times News Service

JERUSALEM -- Gary and Shirley Beresford were married in an Orthodox synagogue in South Africa, and consider themselves observant Jews and ardent Zionists.

He wears a skullcap, and she covers her hair. They keep the Sabbath and follow Jewish dietary laws. Her two sons from a previous marriage, who had emigrated to Israel before she did in 1986 from Zimbabwe, were Israeli army paratroopers. Decades ago, some of her relatives helped found a kibbutz in Galilee.

But the Beresfords also believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, the long-awaited Redeemer of the Jews, and that conviction is about to bring their sojourn in Israel to an end.

In a variant of the never-ending debate over who is a Jew, Israel's High Court holds that the Beresfords, however much they consider themselves Jews, embrace another religion and are therefore not eligible for citizenship under the 1950 Law of Return, which gives every Jew the right to immigrate here.

Along with two other families that similarly describe themselves as Messianic Jews, they have been told by the Interior Ministry that the temporary visas permitting them to stay will expire Sunday. Having failed under the Law of Return, the families tried to obtain permanent residency under the separate Law of Entry, which deals with special cases involving non-Jews. But the ministry said no to that as well.

And so, the three families have been told to start packing their bags.

Mr. Beresford says he is not about to leave voluntarily. He asks why it is impermissible to believe that the Messiah came 2,000 years ago in the person of Jesus, yet one can remain a good Jew believing, as many Lubavitcher Hasidim do, that the Messiah has just arrived in the person of their spiritual leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

"I have not accepted the Christian theology that surrounds Jesus," said Mr. Beresford, 42. "I accept that he is the Messiah, but I don't accept the package that surrounds it."

Riki Kendall, an American who must also leave, asserts that Messianic Jews have been singled out for harsh treatment by the Interior Ministry, which is controlled by Shas, an assiduously Orthodox political party. "They particularly have a vendetta against a Jew who believes this way -- it's just too much for them," said Mrs. Kendall, 37, who came here from Idaho in 1988 with her husband, Ari, and their four children.

But ministry officials insist that their own convictions have nothing to do with it. The courts, they say, have declared Messianic Jews to be non-Jews, and Israel was not created as a come-one, come-all haven except for Jews.

"We reject hundreds of cases of people who do not qualify under the Law of Return and then ask for special residency permits," said David Efrati, director of the ministry's Office of Population Administration. "If I were to accept the Beresford case, it would be discrimination because we reject all those others."

In Israel, "who is a Jew" disputes more commonly focus on whether the state should recognize non-Orthodox conversions to Judaism. Related questions have arisen recently about whether to bring in thousands of Ethiopian Christians descended from Jews who had converted generations ago.

Nonetheless, the Messianic Jews have drawn some newspaper attention here. Partly, it reflects sympathy for them; it also reflects a measure of unease with their beliefs and possible missionary activity, concerns felt even by Israelis who say these people should be allowed to stay.

The cause of the families -- the Beresfords, Kendalls and Sidney and Linda Speakman, who arrived in 1988 from Portland, Ore. -- has been taken up by several members of Parliament who argue that the government should be generous.

"We are not arguing this on a theological basis, but out of humanitarian concerns," said Benny Temkin, of the leftist Meretz bloc. "There are three families here with children, and they want to stay."

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