This week, 80 Jewish newspapers around the country--including the Jewish Exponent, where I serve as editor--have egg on their faces. An advertisement about a film that purports to tell the story of a rabbi and his family appeared in these papers, but the ad turned out to be a false front for a Christian-missionary video aimed at inducing Jews to abandon Judaism.

Those of us involved in this fiasco are, to put it mildly, outraged at the deceptive advertising practiced by the producer of the film, Morris Cerullo, a San Diego-based Christian missionary. Cerullo, working through a suburban Philadelphia advertising agency called Walter Bennet Communications, used the New York City-based Joseph Jacobs national advertising firm to place the ad in 80 different Jewish newspapers.

The ad, which promoted local television airings of the missionary film, seemed innocuous enough, showing a picture of a Jew wearing a kipah at the Western Wall. But, to our disgust, we now know that the film is a cinematic polemic whose purpose is to put out the message that normative Judaism and a belief in the Christian messiah--that is to say, in Christianity itself--can go hand in hand. That position is incompatible with the view of every recognized denomination of Judaism.

Why are Jews so upset by this kind of missionary activity? Part of it stems from our history. For 2,000 years Jews have been subjected to pressure--both psychological and physical--to abandon our own faith and embrace Christianity. In Medieval Europe, Jews were often forced to sit in churches and listen to missionary sermons, which were liberally laced with threats. Over the centuries, untold numbers of Jews paid with their lives for keeping faith with the Torah and their Jewish heritage. Jews who did convert did not merely change religions, they abandoned the Jewish community, and often were in the forefront of Christian persecution of the Jewish community.

In our day, fortunately this sort of persecution is unknown. In its place has come a new tactic. Instead of asking Jews to throw away their Jewish identity, some Christian denominations say that they can keep their Jewish identity while believing in Jesus. Jewish trappings--including the wearing of tallitot (prayer shawls) and the reading of Torah--are common among some who have accepted this formula. Such groups target Jews with little knowledge of Judaism.

Some of these so-called "Messianic" Jews want to be part of the Jewish community and are hurt when they are rejected--as they are by Jewish denominations and organizations across the ideological and religious spectrum. The one--and perhaps only thing--that unites American Jews these days is their common belief that anyone who believes in the Christian messiah/deity is not a Jew. The "messianics" point out that Jewish believers in Jesus were considered part of the Jewish community in the first century C.E. They are right, but in the 1,900 years that have passed, the notion of Christianity as a sect or denomination of Judaism has been rejected by both Jews and Christians.

It is a free country, and those who wish to accept such a belief are free to do so. The organized Jewish world means such persons no ill. But when organizations purporting to represent Judaism actively proselytize American Jews, their purpose is clear: to attack the Jewish community and destroy it.

Missionary activity aimed specifically at Jews--as the "Jews for Jesus" or "Messianic" groups generally are--is itself deceptive practice that the overwhelming majority of Jews reject with contempt. And the policy of almost all American Jewish newspapers is to reject such advertisements, as is their legal right.

In the case of the ad for "The Rabbi," the Jewish newspaper world was mortified that we allowed, albeit unwittingly, this deceptive ad to run in our pages. The missionary successfully manipulated a familiar source--the Joseph Jacobs firm--that Jewish newspapers are used to dealing with and trust implicitly.

Of course, if missionary efforts ever succeed, it needs to also be pointed out that we will have no one to blame but ourselves. It is the Jewish community's job to make sure that our youth and adults are sufficiently educated in Jewish history, religion, and ethics so that they will be immune to the missionary's call to abandon their heritage and their faith.

A Different Message
It is worth pointing out that this deceptive ad ran in the same week that Pope John Paul II completed his historic trip to the land of Israel. That trip did much to advance the cause of interfaith understanding between Catholics and Jews. It must also be pointed out that missionary activity aimed at Jews is contrary to the pope's message. By recognizing the legitimacy of Judaism--as well as of the State of Israel--the pope made it clear that such attacks on Judaism are unsanctioned.

Where once the papacy was the source of campaigns of forced conversions of Jews, the Roman Catholic Church, under the leadership of John Paul II, has become a bastion of respect for Judaism and opposition to anti-Semitism. The pope's moving visits to Yad Vashem and the Western Wall made it clear to even the most skeptical of Jewish observers that a sad chapter of history has been closed and a more hopeful one has begun. While the pope's visit was marred by the unrelenting hostility of Palestinian Muslim clerics, who used the event to highlight their hatred for Jews and Zionism--as well as their infatuation with Holocaust denial--it was still a shining moment in Jewish history.

Thus, as angry as many of us may be at the efforts of two-faced hucksters like Cerullo and his accomplices, there is also a happier and far more important story of interfaith relations to discuss.

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