(Jerusalem, Israel) — UPDATED: Please pray for Michael Ben Ari. He’s a member of the Israeli parliament (Knesset) who this week was given the gift of a Hebrew New Testament study Bible by the Israeli Bible Society but chose to rip it to shreds and throw it into the garbage and do so in front of the press. It was a reprehensible act and a childish temper tantrum and the controversy over what he did and why he did it has made headlines here in Israel and around the world. The good news is several leading Israeli officials condemned Ben Ari’s action and called for him to apologize. Personally, I’d like to see Prime Minister Netanyahu make a strong statement condemning Ben Ari’s action, as well.
At the end of this column, I post some of my thoughts about why I believe this controversy is important.
But first, here are the latest details: “MK Michael Ben Ari (National Union), a member of the Israeli parliament tore up a copy of the New Testament and threw it in the trash, an act that was apparently caught on camera,” reported Ynet News. “Ben Ari and several other Knesset members received by mail on Monday a copy of the New Testament, sent by the Bible Society in Israel, an organization that distributes religious books. In the letter sent with the book, director of the Christian organization Victor Kalisher wrote that the new edition ‘sheds light on the Holy Scriptures and helps understand them….We hope the book will help you and illuminate your way.’….However, while most MK’s chose to ignore the book or return it to its sender, the rightist lawmaker chose to term the book a ‘provocation,’ tore it up into shreds and then threw it out. ‘This abominable book (the New Testament) galvanized the murder of millions of Jews during the Inquisition and during [other] instances,’ Ben Ari said adding that ‘Sending the book to MK’s is a provocation. There is no doubt that this book and all it represents belongs in the garbage can of history.’”
“The religious and ultra-Orthodox Knesset members should honor those who want to read the book, Kalisher said,” noted the Times of Israel, “adding ‘it could help them expand their own knowledge.’ Kalisher also denied the notion of missionary activity, saying his organization studied and spread the holy scriptures, providing people with knowledge and study tools. There was no intention to ‘hurt the feelings of Knesset members,’ he said. ‘It’s a Jewish book, written by Jews. To better understand Judaism you need to study the New Testament.’
MK Ben Ari’s deplorable behavior was denounced by other Knesset members, including the Speaker of the Knesset Reuven Rivlin. Rivlin condemned Ben-Ari’s act and said all religious books should be respected. “Holy scriptures are important to their believers,” Rivlin said. According to the Times of Israel, Rivlin asked “what would the Jewish reaction be if a parliament member from another country burned the Torah.” Democracy, he said, includes the freedom of expression, “but not the freedom of offending believers of other faiths. Freedom of religion is a cornerstone of this country.”
Israel’s official government spokesman, Mark Regev, also condemned Ben Ari’s act. ”We totally deplore this behavior and condemn it outright,” said Regev. “This action stands in complete contrast to our values and our traditions. Israel is a tolerant society, but we have zero tolerance for this despicable and hateful act.” A source close to the Prime Minister told me Mr. Regev’s comments reflect Mr. Netanyahu’s views.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), to their credit, also called on MK Ben Ari to apologize for his behavior. Here is the statement the ADL released: ”The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) was horrified by reports that a member of the Israeli parliament tore up a copy of the New Testament and posed for photographs with the destroyed bible. ADL called on Knesset Member Michael Ben Ari to publicly apologize for tearing up a copy of the New Testament he had received after a publisher sent copies to all members of the Israeli Knesset. ‘As Jews, we expect others to treat our holy books with respect and understanding,” said Abraham H. Foxman, ADL National Director. ‘We should likewise show respect for the holy books of other faiths. A member of parliament and a representative of the State of Israel should know better than to show such profound disrespect for another faith. His actions run counter to Jewish values and the standards of Israel’s democratic society.’ In a letter to Mr. Ben Ari, the League said he needs to apologize for his disrespectful act. ‘We understand that copies of the New Testament were sent to all members of Knesset,” the League wrote to Mr. Ben Ari. ‘In statements to the media, the publisher has asserted that the intention was not to proselytize, but rather to inform MKs of the wealth of religious texts produced in Israel. However, if your belief was that this distribution constituted proselytizing, we believe a more proper outlet for your concern would be to call on the appropriate authorities to investigate if the manner in which this text was distributed constituted a violation of Israeli law.’”
I agree with the ADL and am encouraged by their statement.
That said, I would encourage all of the Members of the Israeli Knesset to read and carefully study this Hebrew edition of the New Testament and to proactively study the life of Yeshua (Jesus) of Nazareth. Indeed, my prayer is that all Israelis would read and study the New Testament and decide this question: Is Yeshua the Jewish Messiah foretold by the Hebrew prophets, or not? This is the most important question in all of human history, and the most important and urgent of questions that must be answered by each and every Jew and Gentile. Indeed, our eternal destiny depends on how we answer this question and what actions we take based on our answer.
I am very sorry that MK Ben Ari did what he did. But I am grateful for the wisdom of Speaker Rivlin who saw in this controversy the importance of denouncing Ben Ari’s reprehensible actions and show solidarity with the Christian world by showing respect for the New Testament. I’m grateful for Mark Regev doing the same. I’m grateful for Abe Foxman and others doing the same. And I’m grateful that out of something bad that was done, some good might results — perhaps more people will wonder why Ben Ari is making such a big fuss over the New Testament and choose to read it for themselves.