Israel’s High Court of Justice (Supreme Court) ruled in favor of a Messianic congregation this week, granting Tiferet Yeshua (the Glory of Jesus) congregation tax benefits – but the victory goes much further than finances.
It’s been a long haul. According to the congregation’s former pastor and current elder, Ron Cantor, the group applied for the status in 2013 and has been battling since then.
Israelis get a 35% tax refund on donations to public institutions. But unlike the U.S., the tax-deductible status of an organization must be approved by the Finance Committee in the Knesset.
Last October, Moshe Gafni, who was then Finance Committee head and is also an anti-missionary (one who opposes Messianic Jews) and ultra-Orthodox member of the Knesset, rejected the tax-deductible donation status for Tiferet Yeshua. He even had the support of the opposition, led by Israel’s new Foreign Minister Yair Lapid.
“Sadly, it seems the one thing that our government can agree on is to deny basic rights to Messianic Jewish Israelis,” Cantor said.
This week the High Court rejected Gafni’s argument as illegal.
"The decision of the Finance Committee was based on an incorrect assumption that they had the authority to take into consideration that a non-profit is engaged in 'controversial' activity…the committee overreached in its authority. Personal emotions or deep disagreements [are] not enough either, especially as long as the activity is legal…This is especially important for organizations engaged in religious services, which is already controversial as it is, and the importance of freedom of religion and of conscience,” the Court said in its ruling.
“The criteria of 'controversy' enables decisions based upon extraneous considerations, prejudice, inequality, and arbitrariness." another judge added.
Gafni responded to the High Court decision by saying that the Finance Committee had set a procedure not to give tax-exempt status “to missionary organizations who are against the law, and members from both the coalition and opposition confirmed it.”
He said the High Court shouldn’t complain in the future when “when there will be battles about reducing their authority.”
The ruling comes just a year after the government pressured the local cable TV company to drop a Messianic program called Shelanu.
The Council for Cable and Satellite Broadcasting suspended HOT Cable’s license to broadcast Shelanu TV, GOD TV’s Hebrew-speaking channel, over allegations that it is preaching the gospel to Israelis.
Even though evangelism is legal in Israel, Council chairman Asher Biton accused HOT Cable at the time of misrepresenting Shelanu TV’s content and intentions on the licensing application.
“The channel is aimed at Jews with Christian content, in contrast to the original broadcast request, which stated it was designated for Christians,” Biton said then.
“We knew this was a violation of our civil liberties and were prepared to go to court,” Cantor said. “Based on this week’s decision, we would have clearly won.”
But Cantor, who is the president of Shelanu TV, said they came out ahead.
“The good news is that we resurfaced online within three hours and are now reaching far more people (tens of thousands of Israelis!) using social media and our website than we ever could have with an obscure cable channel,” Cantor said.
With Israel’s new government, sworn in earlier this week, Gafni is no longer head of the Finance Committee and instead sits in the opposition. And even though the Messianics are fighting for their rights, Cantor says, they “love and pray for” the ultra-Orthodox.
“After going through what we went through last year with Shelanu TV, I’m so encouraged to see my government take a stand for democracy and freedom, against those who would seek to limit the speech and religious practices of their own citizenry,” Cantor said.
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