Published January 13, 2015
Safety pins and screws are still lodged in 15-year-old Ami Ortiz's body three months after he opened a booby-trapped gift basket sent to his family. The explosion severed two toes, damaged his hearing and harmed a promising basketball career.
Police say they are still searching for the assailants. But to the Ortiz family the motive of the attackers is clear: The Ortizes are Jews who believe that Jesus was the Messiah.
Israel's tiny community of Messianic Jews, a mixed group of 10,000 people who include the California-based Jews for Jesus, complains of threats, harassment and police indifference.
The March 20 bombing was the worst incident so far. In October, a mysterious fire damaged a Jerusalem church used by Messianic Jews, and last month ultra-Orthodox Jews torched a stack of Christian holy books distributed by missionaries.
Israel's Foreign Ministry and two chief rabbis were quick to condemn the burning, but the Ortiz family says vigorous police action is needed.
"I believe that it will happen again, if not to us, then to other Messianic believers," said Ami's mother, Leah Ortiz, a 54-year-old native of South Orange, N.J.
Proselytizing is strongly discouraged in Israel, a state that was established for a people that suffered centuries of persecution for not accepting Jesus and has little tolerance for missionary work.
At the same time, Israel has warm relations with U.S. evangelical groups, which strongly support its cause, but these generally refrain from proselytizing inside Israel. Even the Mormon church, which has mission work at its core worldwide, agreed when it opened a campus in Jerusalem to refrain from missionary activity.
"Historically the core of Christianity ... was 'convert or die,' so it was seen and is still seen as an assault on Jewish existence itself," said Rabbi David Rosen, who oversees interfaith affairs for the American Jewish Committee. "When you are called to join another religion, you are being called on to betray your people."
Messianic Jews consider themselves Jewish, observing the holy days and reciting many of the same prayers. The Ortiz family lights candles on the Jewish Sabbath, shuns pork and eats matzoth on Passover.
Ami Ortiz, interviewed at the Tel Aviv hospital where he is being treated, comes across as no different from any Jewish Israeli his age. He's a sabra, or native-born Israeli, who speaks English with a Hebrew accent, has an older brother in an elite Israeli army unit and was hoping to join the youth squad of Maccabi Tel Aviv, a league-topping basketball team.
But his religion also holds that one can embrace Jesus — Ami calls him by his Hebrew name, Yeshua — as the Messiah and remain Jewish. Orthodox Jews, on the other hand, believe that the Messiah has yet to come, that he will do so only when he chooses, and that any attempt to pre-empt his coming is a grievous sin.
Rabbi Sholom Dov Lifschitz, head of the ultra-Orthodox Yad Leahim organization that campaigns against missionary activity in Israel, says Messianic Jews give him "great pain."
"They are provoking ... it's a miracle that worse things don't happen," he said.
Messianic activists appear to have had some success among couples with one non-Jewish spouse, as well as immigrants from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union who have loose ties to Judaism.
Or Yehuda, a town in central Israel with many immigrants as well as ultra-Orthodox Jews including a deputy mayor, Uri Aharon, was the scene of the May 15 book-burning.
Ami Dahan, a local police official, says hundreds of Christian religious books were burned on May 15 in an empty lot in town. He said Deputy Mayor Uzi Aharon, has been questioned on suspicion that he instructed youths to collect the books from homes where they had been distributed and told them to burn them.
Aharon denies ordering the burning. He says the books were collected from a neighborhood of mostly Ethiopian immigrants who are easily persuaded by missionaries.
"There are three missionaries who live and work in the town, and every Saturday they take people to worship and try to brainwash them," Aharon said.
Many Messianic Jews say they recognize the sensitivities involved and do not distribute religious material or conduct high-profile campaigns. But Aharon noted a recent "Jews for Jesus" campaign with signs on buses that equated two similar Hebrew words — "Jesus" and "salvation." Public outrage quickly forced the bus company to remove the signs.
Lawyer Dan Yakir of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel says the law allows missionaries to preach provided they don't offer gifts or money or go after minors.
"It is their right according to freedom of religion to maintain their religious lifestyle and disseminate their beliefs, including through literature," he said.
But the obstacles are evident, raised not just from religious activists but by the state.
Calev Myers, a lawyer who represents Messianic Jews, said he has fought 200 legal cases in the past two years. Most involve authorities' attempts to close down houses of worship, revoke the citizenship of believers or refuse to register their children as Israelis. In one case, Israel has accused a German religion student of missionary activity and has tried — so far unsuccessfully — to deport her.
In incidents of violence, police are reluctant to press charges, Myers said.
The book-burning caused shock among U.S. evangelicals.
Dave Parsons, spokesman of the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, which represents evangelical Christian communities, said the test would be how vigorously authorities pursued the case.
"We believe there is a link to a series of incidents here in the land that involve harassment, intimidation and physical violence," he said.
The Ortiz family moved from the United States to Israel in 1985, qualifying as immigrants under Israel's Law of Return because Leah, the mother, is Jewish. In 1989 they moved into Ariel, a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, and established a small Messianic group which now numbers 60, most of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union, according to David Ortiz, the pastor and Ami's father.
He said that he built the community through conversations with friends and neighbors, but did not actually go door-to-door distributing religious material to strangers in the traditional sense of missionary work. David Ortiz says he has also proselytized in the Palestinian areas — prompting Islamic leaders there to warn against contact with him. Ortiz said he had "no problem" if Messianic Jews discuss their religious views with others and persuade them to believe in Jesus.
When the family began holding study sessions, a rabbi warned Ortiz not to speak about Jesus outside the home.
In 2005, fliers were distributed in Ariel warning that there were believers of Jesus in the community. One day, two men wearing the black skullcaps of Orthodox Jews knocked on the door and photographed Ortiz when he answered. Recently the photo turned up on a flier with the family's address.
When the basket was left at the door Ami wasn't surprised, since it was Purim, a holiday when Jews exchange gifts.
"I opened it up and I heard it and then I was on the floor and I didn't hear anything, I didn't see anything," the lanky boy recalls.
Ami was in critical condition, with severe gashes in his legs and feet and one that just missed his jugular vein. His tryout for the Maccabi team was canceled.
His family initially suspected Palestinians; Ariel is in the heart of the West Bank and surrounded by Palestinian towns and villages and, like most Jewish settlements, has been the target of Palestinian attacks. But police immediately told him the bomb was more sophisticated than those made by Palestinians since it contained plastic explosives.
"Nobody ever suspected that a Jewish group would do such a thing, that they would put a bomb in somebody else's house," David Ortiz said.
Police have since told the family that Palestinians were not behind the bombing. The family has footage from a security camera of a man delivering the package, according to a person close to the family who spoke on condition of anonymity because police say disclosing details could harm the investigation.
Police spokesman Danny Poleg would not discuss the case, saying only that no arrests have been made.
Meanwhile, the Messianic Jewish believers are taking no chances. These days they worship under the protection of an armed guard.