The deputy attorney general urges extreme caution on legislation banning missionaries on the grounds that it conflicts with the right of freedom of expression. Furthermore, notes the official, R. Gottlieb, the impact of missionary brainwashing on Jews in Israel, which has a Jewish majority, is "negligible."
Gottlieb was responding to a letter that Yad L'Achim Chairman Rabbi Sholom Dov Lifshitz sent to Justice Minister Daniel Friedman, asking him to lend his support to a bill that would block missionary activity in Israel.
The proposed amendment to the Missionary Law, tabled by MKs Rabbi Meir Porush (United Torah Judaism) and Rabbi Yaakov Margi (Shas), would outlaw all attempts to convert anyone to their religion. Currently, the law bans missionary activity only when material benefit has been granted the potential convert to get him to change religions. Because of the difficulty of proving a direct connection between material benefits and a decision to convert, prosecutions under that law have been almost nonexistent.
Gottlieb opposes legislation to toughen antimissionary laws because "by its nature, such legislation limits freedom of speech." She adds that "the principled position of the Justice Ministry is to relate with extreme caution to criminalize such behavior in light of the importance, whose value cannot be minimized, of freedom of expression in a democratic state."
The letter also claims that the problem of Jews converting out of their religion is negligible. "The main motivation behind this bill is suspicion of efforts to convert Jews to other religions," Gottlieb writes. "We mustn't forget that we are taking about the State of Israel, which has a Jewish majority, and the suspicion that 'what is left of the Jewish people will be eroded,' in the words of Rav Lifshitz, is negligible, if at all."
In response, Rabbi Lifshitz wrote the justice minister the following: "What we are saying is that the goal of the missionaries [is to erode what is left of the Jewish people]. Against this nefarious goal we must act, even if its achievements have been 'negligible,' as you put it. When it comes to losing Jewish souls we can't apply such terms as negligible or widespread. The responsibility for the loss of every Jew is upon us all. Moreover, the missionaries themselves report on no less than 15,000 Jews that have been converted as a result of their activities."
The letter includes a direct appeal to the justice minister, who, according to Shas leader Rabbi Eli Yishai, is a major force in blocking the legislation. "If there were a danger of death hanging over citizens, would you then also relate with equanimity in the face of such a threat? The intolerable ease with which you and your staff turn your backs on the danger of conversion hovering over innocent Jews is frightening and infuriating.
"We are speaking of the State of Israel, the state of the Jews. Is it conceivable that, precisely here, we will take lightly repeated attempts to convert Jews out of their religion? In the face of the threat to lure Jews, will we make do with legal debates, without taking any action?"
Yad L'Achim last week insisted that there is nothing antidemocratic or anti other religions about the legislation. It cited the last paragraph from the bill, drafted by its chief legal counsel, Yoram Sheftel: "There is nothing in this law to harm the way of life of the faithful of any religion in Israel. What's more, this legislation gives legal backing to every believer in every religion, and prevents harassment from any element seeking to violate his basic democratic right to stick to his beliefs. Therefore the law does not contradict any Basic Laws, and is even in consonance with Basic Law: Respect of Person and His Freedom, including, especially, the rights of Israel to remain a Jewish and democratic country."