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ISRAEL : Messianic Jews at Center of Political Debate : Their belief in Jesus of Nazareth bars them from citizenship. But new legislation may help them.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Shirley Beresford is cleaning her porcelain of the winter dust, vacuuming and re-vacuuming the last cookie crumbs from crevices in the sofas and washing the final traces of flour, macaroni and cake mix from her kitchen cupboards. Everything in her house, she declares, will be “absolutely, absolutely kosher for Passover.”

Shirley and Gary Beresford are Orthodox Jews, strict in their observance of the commandments of the Torah, ardent in their Zionism. They keep the Sabbath, follow Jewish dietary laws and fast on Yom Kippur. He wears a skullcap and prays regularly at the Mevasseret Zion synagogue. Several of her relatives perished in the Holocaust, while others helped found a kibbutz here.

All seems quite Jewish, traditionally so, with the Beresfords--except that they believe Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, the long-awaited redeemer promised the Jews.

“We are Jews,” Gary Beresford said. “We were born Jews, we were raised Jews, we were married as Jews, we live as Jews and we pray as Jews. But we believe, and with all our hearts, that Yeshua (Hebrew for Jesus) is the Messiah.”

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In Israel, that belief, shared by the Beresfords with others who call themselves Messianic Jews, poses major legal, religious and, ultimately, political problems, both for them and the government, in another twist in the sensitive debate here over the issue of “Who is a Jew?”

After nearly six years of applications, petitions and hearings, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that their beliefs make the Beresfords and two immigrant couples from the United States apostates and bar them from citizenship to which all Jews are entitled under the country’s 1950 Law of Return.

Now, anti-Christian groups are campaigning for the Beresfords’ deportation. They “have overstayed their welcome, and the last thing our country needs is more resident missionaries who preach Christianity while masquerading as Jews,” one group declared in a newspaper advertisement. Another ad appealed, “Cut this cancer out of our midst.”

Pressure is also building on Rabbi Arye Deri, the interior minister, and his Shas Party, from their constituency in Israel’s haredi community of strictly observant Orthodox Jews to take forceful action to discourage other Messianic Jews from moving here.

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The Beresfords, who came from Zimbabwe, and the two American families have the promise of help from new legislation that would grant permanent residence on the basis of family reunion to parents or children of Israeli citizens or of Israeli residents who served in the military here. Two Beresford sons are Israeli citizens, as is Shirley Beresford’s mother, though she too is a Messianic Jew. Their visas have been extended until May 21 to allow passage of the law.

“We are not even getting into the question of their Jewishness, but of allowing them to remain with their families,” said Benny Temkin, a member of the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, from the left-wing Meretz Party. “This is not only their problem, but a problem for other immigrants.”

Yet, in a country where religion defines nationality and underpins the political system, even such a small shift has consequences, moving Israel a bit further toward religious pluralism and, say critics, secularization.

“If Judaism is wide enough to accommodate the different ultra-Orthodox Hasidic sects, the anti-Zionists, both the Habad and Reform movements, the various false messiahs and Jews who are atheists, it should have no problem with us,” Gary Beresford said.

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“The point is that we have not converted to Christianity, we have not been baptized as Christians, we have not joined any Christian church or denomination. We are Jews who believe that Yeshua was indeed the Messiah, and through this we have become better and more observant Jews. . . .”

The Beresfords see themselves and other Messianic Jews, said to number about 2,000 families in 35 congregations in Israel, as the start of a “Jewish Reformation” that will gradually bring Israelis and Jews worldwide to a spiritual renewal based on acceptance of Jesus.


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