Messianic Jews have won another battle for recognition in Israel. This time a special judicial tribunal has determined that a Messianic congregation in Jerusalem should receive the same full tax exemption as a synagogue.
The battle began back in 2010, when ultra-Orthodox Members of Knesset Moshe Gafni of United Torah Judaism and Nisim Zeev of the Shas party passed a law providing Jewish synagogues relief from all municipal taxes. Lawyers from the Jerusalem Institute of Justice (JIJ) then petitioned the court to also provide a Messianic fellowship in the capital with the same status. And they won.
The ruling is significant in that it allows for full tax relief for all space used by the Messianic congregation, including the meeting hall, a drug rehabilitation center, children and youth activity rooms, pastors' offices, and space for secondhand clothing distribution.
According to JIJ, since the case began in 2010, congregations applying now for the discount will be paid back retroactively for all municipal taxes incurred over the last three years. The Jerusalem Institute for Justice is encouraging all Messianic Congregations paying municipal taxes on their facilities to apply for the tax break. The new ruling promises a major windfall of tens of thousands of shekels each year now available for Messianic congregations in Israel.
As with any new law its implementation needs to be worked out on the ground, and already there is opposition.
Secular Israelis fed up with corruption and scandals involving rabbis and religious organizations over the past years are not happy that synagogues don't need to pay their share of municipal taxes. Many feel that religious Jews are already an unnecessary burden on Israel's struggling welfare system.
Apparently, the popular new secular government party "Yesh Atid" (There is a Future), lead by Finance Minister and former television personality Yair Lapid, has put a proposal on the floor of the Knesset to cancel the tax break for synagogues.
Lapid had garnered support from many Messianics in Israel's last election, particularly amongst the younger Israeli believers who were attracted to his fresh ideas on economic equality.
Now the Messianics find themselves, perhaps for the first time in their short and turbulent history, partnered together with the Orthodox Jewish parties enjoying the new tax break. As one of the lawyers from JIJ said, "Finally, the Messianics have a common interest with the Orthodox political parties."
According to the JIJ lawyer, it is very unlikely that anti-Missionary groups will try to overrule the new law in order to prevent court recognition of Messianic congregations, as they themselves enjoy the same tax benefits.
When authorities visited the Messianic congregation in question, they took notice of "drums and a sound system in the hall." Did such equipment belong in a non-profit religious organization?
In his testimony before the court, the spiritual leader of the congregation was able to explain: "The gatherings in our meeting hall are for the purpose of prayer and Torah study. We use musical instruments and a sound system for praise. We believe that according to the Book of Psalms we are to worship God with all kinds of musical instruments, including drums and cymbals."
In its decision to grant the Messianics full tax relief retroactively for the past three years, the Supreme Court's Appeals Committee referred to the congregation specifically as "a non-profit Messianic Jewish organization that provides a sanctuary for prayer for all of her members." The Messianic congregation was clearly not considered a church by the court, nor, for that matter, would they call it a synagogue.