By Sam Sokol
The Jewish Agency (the Agency) is currently conducting an internal probe into the activities of an evangelical organization whose volunteers it had contracted to perform construction, maintenance and landscaping work at one of its facilities in the Galilee.
In a letter to members of the organization’s Board of Governors obtained by eJewishPhilanthropy, Agency Secretary General Josh Schwarcz accused the Canada-based Return Ministries of undisclosed “numerous violations” following complaints by Beyneynu, a self-described “non-profit organization that monitors missionary activity in Israel.”
The Agency began examining the activities of Return Ministries and its local subsidiary, the Aliyah Return Centre, after Beyneynu sent a mass email to [the Jewish Agency’s] entire board earlier this month accusing the subsidiary of having “partnered with Messianic Christian groups who pose a direct threat to Jewish communities worldwide” by “misappropriat[ing] Jewish traditions, symbols, and icons to bring vulnerable Jews to the Christian faith.”
The Aliyah Return Centre is run by Chaim Malespin, a member of the messianic movement. In addition to supplying volunteers to work at the Agency’s Bikat Kinarot campus, which provides programs for new immigrants and lone soldiers, the group also runs its own activities aimed, including “corporate prayer, devotions, weekly Shabbat dinner, and prayer night watch.” On its website, it claims to have “helped thousands of Jewish immigrants and Israelis in need, settle and grow roots in the land of Israel, alongside the Israeli Ministry of Absorption and the Jewish Agency.”
In a video sent to members of the board, Beyneynu claimed that Malespin’s group was intentionally proselytizing Jews in its “Vertical Prayer Center,” a prayer space inside a building the group uses to house its volunteers at Bikat Kinarot.
In a sermon posted to the Aliyah Return Centre’s YouTube channel last month, Malespin explicitly referenced Romans 11:11, a verse which claims that Jews have “stumbled” so that “salvation” should come “unto the Gentiles, for to provoke them [the Jews] to jealousy.”
Contacted by eJewishPhilanthropy, Malespin denied allegations that he is engaged in missionary work. Malespin called Beyneynu’s claims “falsifications”and complained of “slanderous articles” in the Israeli and Jewish media. He also said that the verse he cited was “Christian Zionist speak” and referred to making people “jealous of zealous for the land,” which “is the same thing as what Ben Gurion or Herzl did.”
“There is no hidden agenda,” Malespinhe insisted, accusing his critics of “tearing apart the connection between Christian Zionists and Jewish Zionists.”
Rabbi Tovia Singer, an anti-missionary activist and signatory to the Beyneynu letter, disagreed, claiming in a telephone interview that “here you have an absorption center not only run by Evangelicals, it’s a director is a prominent messianic Jew.”
The Jewish Agency strenuously denied these claims, sending a cease and desist letter to Beyneynu asserting that Beyneynu’sits missive was misleading and slanderous and that in sending its mass mailing to Agency staff and board members unsolicited, the group was “violating the law,” although it did not note a specific statute being transgressed. Beyneynu denied doing anything wrong or illegal.
In a statement, The Jewish Agency explained that its relations with Return Ministries took place within a “very clear framework” and that their agreement “clearly stipulates that neither they nor their volunteers are to have any relationship with the campus participants at Kinarot. The Jewish Agency also says Return Ministries is strictly prohibited from engaging in any missionary activity which is prohibited by law and is against the values of The Jewish Agency.” The Aliyah Return Center “has no involvement whatsoever in any Jewish Agency programming,” the Agency continued, adding that “as Return Ministries brings Christian Zionist volunteers to Kinarot, we allowed them to build a place for them to stay. As these are religious people, we also allowed them a space for their prayer. This facility is separate from The Jewish Agency’s area.”
And while the Agency accused Beyneynu of sharing videos which were “heavily edited and contain many false statements,” it also said that “they do raise grave questions and concerns for us regarding our relationship with Return Ministries.”
“We are in conversation with Return Ministries and have begun examining the allegations. We intend to take firm action if they are found to be correct.”
eJewishPhilanthropy understands that some at the Agency believe that the Aliyah Return Centre has been intentionally exaggerating its activities and that, when the contract between the two bodies was signed, some Agency personnel expressed concerns regarding how their relationship could come to be perceived.
Responding to apparent concern among members of the Board, Schwarcz sent out a letter on December 6 stating that the Agency had “engaged in an extensive examination process led by the Chairman of the Executive, Isaac Herzog and the Director General, Amira Ahronoviz” which resulted in the issuance of “a very strong formal letter of complaint sent to Return Ministries” containing reference to “numerous violations of our contractual agreement.”
“The Jewish Agency will make no compromise on any missionary involvement with our organization. Any allegations to this effect are being examined and we will take very firm action if they are found to be correct,” Ahronoviz told eJewishPhilanthropy on Tuesday.
“As we’ve seen time and again throughout the past 91 years, The Jewish Agency takes its responsibility to the Jewish people in utmost seriousness and spares no effort in fulfilling our mission of connecting Jews to each other and to Israel. This is what we do at Bikat Kinarot, with much heart and dedication, for the olim, lone soldiers and regional community leaders The Jewish Agency serves at this facility.”
Reacting to the controversy, Charles Kaufman, president of B’nai B’rith International and a member of the Agency board, told eJewishPhilanthropy that “for such alleged actions to occur in Eretz Yisroel reflects badly on our Christian Zionist friends. Jews help humanity, people of all faiths, as acts of chesed [loving kindness], not to convert them. Proselytizing must be removed from the equation. Such doctrine has left behind a hideous trail of history. It is simply the foundation of antisemitism. I’m pleased the Agency is investigating the matter.”