Meeting the Challenge of the Oldest Territory on Earth
“THE kingdom of the heavens has drawn near.” To the 370 proclaimers of the “good news” in the modern State of Israel, declaring that message has special import. Why? Because it was here that the Kingdom message was first declared by Jesus Christ some 2,000 years ago. (Matthew 4:17; 24:14) That makes Israel the oldest territory on earth in which the good news is being preached.
Right from the start, however, this has been a challenging territory. Although many showed interest in Jesus’ message, few went further than that. (John 6:2, 66) Today, the challenge lies in the diversity in religion, culture, and political views.
On one hand, there are the 2.2 million Arabs. Among them are nominal Christians, practicing or nonpracticing Muslims, members of the Druze faith, and professed atheists. They are also aligned in different ways politically, some favoring the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
On the other hand, there are the 3.5 million Jewish Israelis, also divided in many ways. Some have immigrated from Morocco, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria. Others have come from Europe and Russia. Still others are from India, the Americas, Ethiopia, South Africa, and elsewhere. They live in communities having their own culture and traditions as well as their unique interpretation of Judaism and how to practice it.
There is, for example, a chief rabbi for the Ashkenazi (European) Jews and one for the Sephardic (Middle Eastern) Jews. While the majority display keen interest in political issues, there are deeply religious Jews who do not even recognize the existence of the State of Israel and refuse to pay taxes. Then there are the Holocaust survivors, many of whom are still tormented by their past ordeal, each with his own heartrending experience to tell. Increasingly, too, more are professing to be atheists, holding to a wide range of personal philosophies. The single thread holding the Jewish population together is its survival as a people and political entity.
Meeting the Challenge
After a break of over 1,800 years, the Kingdom-preaching work was resumed here on a small scale in 1913. At that time, a young man interested in the Bible started to sow Kingdom seed in Ramallah, about ten miles [16 km] north of Jerusalem. From there the good news spread to the Arabic residents of Beit-Jala and Haifa. Shortly after World War II, two Witness sisters of Jewish background got the work restarted in the Tel Aviv/Jaffa area. Today, there are six congregations and two groups of Jehovah’s Witnesses serving in Haifa, Tel Aviv, Bethlehem, Ramallah, Lod, and in the Beer-Sheba area.
As was the case 19 centuries ago, the house-to-house ministry is still the most effective way of finding those interested in the good news. (Luke 8:1; compare Acts 5:42.) In fact, compared to some other lands, it is a pleasure to witness in this manner here. Generally, the people are curious about our message and invite the Kingdom publishers in for a discussion. This curiosity often leads to the placement of our magazines and other Bible literature. Frequently, such publications are passed on from neighbor to neighbor, resulting in some individuals’ learning Bible truth.
This same curiosity, however, often becomes a threat to the fragile seed of truth in the hearts of new ones. (Matthew 13:20, 21) Neighbors, friends, and especially religious leaders do their utmost to pressure, ridicule, intimidate, and in some cases physically abuse those who show interest in the Kingdom message. As a result, some have lost employment, while others have been completely cut off by friends and family. Those who stand firm and become Jehovah’s Witnesses must endure the fires of opposition.—Compare John 9:22.
Opposition also comes in other ways. Witnesses of Jewish background have been attacked by a mob. The branch office and Kingdom Hall in Tel Aviv and the Kingdom Hall in Haifa have been targets of arsonists. Now there is great pressure on both Arabic and Jewish Witnesses to take sides in the political dispute over the establishment of a Palestinian state. Maintaining a neutral position in such matters, the brothers tactfully explain that no human agency is able to solve the problems of ailing mankind. Rather, in imitation of their Leader, Jesus Christ, the Witnesses point to God’s Kingdom as the only solution.—John 17:16; 18:36.
Kingdom Fruitage Produced
Despite the challenges in this oldest witnessing territory, those “hearing the word and getting the sense of it” do bring forth Kingdom fruitage in this field. (Matthew 13:23) “There are people who are thirsty for the truth, lovers of righteousness who are literally searching for it,” observed an experienced full-time minister. “They are not influenced by opinions or pressures from others. When the opportunity to learn the truth strikes, they quickly seize it.” Many experiences bear out this point.
Brought up in a convent in Greece, Benvenida was deeply impressed with what the Bible says about “the form of worship that is clean and undefiled,” namely, “to look after orphans and widows in their tribulation, and to keep oneself without spot from the world.” (James 1:27) As a young Jewish girl, she experienced nothing but “catastrophe after catastrophe,” as she put it. She endured the hardship of Nazi occupation and a civil war, in which she lost her husband. But her hope of finding honest and unhypocritical people never diminished.
After immigrating to Israel in 1949, Benvenida pursued a career as a midwife until her retirement in 1974. “During all that time,” she said, “I kept asking myself: ‘Where are those good and honest people that the Bible describes? Where is there justice in this world?’” She took up Judaism, attending a synagogue and keeping the Sabbath and holidays. But the gossiping and bickering among the members of her local congregation made her hunger all the more for “the form of worship that is clean and undefiled.”
Finally, in 1985, on one of Benvenida’s annual visits to a health spa in Greece, a Witness woman receiving treatment there struck up a conversation with her. A long discussion ensued. That same night, Benvenida attended her first meeting at the local Kingdom Hall and was deeply impressed by the warmth and sincerity of the brothers and sisters.
Benvenida continued her study when she returned to Israel, and about a year and a half later, she was baptized in symbol of her dedication to the God of truth, Jehovah. “Finally,” she said, “after all these years and at the age of 70, I found the modest and humble people the Bible speaks about, those who treat me like a person. Now, each day that I live is a day of joy and purpose!”
Moshe was another truth seeker just waiting to ‘hear the fine shepherd’s voice.’ (Compare John 10:14-16.) Though Moshe was always fond of the Scriptures, it was from a copy of the “New Testament” his brother was about to discard that he learned about Jesus Christ, and he was deeply impressed. Sometime later, Moshe joined a workmate in her Bible study with a Witness and attended a discourse given by a visiting speaker. “This is what I always wanted to hear!” he exclaimed after that first meeting.
After an initial setback, Moshe’s progress was rapid. Within six months, he was baptized. However, his progress brought on opposition from his family, especially his wife. This came to a head when he, as the eldest son in the family, refused to take part in the ceremonial prayers at his father’s funeral. Additionally, friends and relatives told his wife that she had better ‘do something quick’ before he signed over everything to the congregation. “I allayed her fears by offering to put the apartment in her name,” Moshe commented. And by properly scheduling his time, he was able to maintain a happy balance between his family and congregational responsibilities.
Not all relatives oppose the truth, however. Nehai shared what she had learned from the Bible with her husband, Hanna, who was then very active in politics. Soon, both of them came to realize that God’s Kingdom is the only hope for oppressed humankind. So they became dedicated servants of Jehovah and started witnessing among the Arabic families in Haifa and the surrounding villages. Particularly did they witness among their own extended family, some 252 people in all.
Has this been a challenge? Yes, for besides having to drive an hour and a half each way to the Arabic villages to make the calls, much patience and endurance were needed. “Sometimes different ones tell you that they don’t want to hear anymore. When that happens, you will have to stop talking. Later, perhaps you can tactfully ease into the subject again. It is like being kicked out the front door and climbing back in through the window,” Hanna remarked. All of this has paid off. Thus far, 24 of his 36 close relatives have expressed serious interest in the Scriptures, and 13 of them are studying the Bible with Hanna or other Witnesses. To date, five of his close relatives as well as his own children have dedicated their lives to Jehovah, and three others are progressing toward that point.
New Peaks in the Oldest Territory
Heartwarming experiences like these are on the increase here in Israel, and the prospects for growth are most encouraging. In 1988 the number of Kingdom proclaimers reached a peak of 370. The average number of Bible studies conducted each month in the homes of interested people has jumped from 89 in 1979 to 301 in 1988—a 240-percent increase!
All of this brings great joy to Jehovah’s Witnesses in this ancient land. We look forward to even greater blessings from our God, Jehovah, as we press on with the disciple-making work in the oldest territory on earth.
[Pictures on page 26, 27]
Above: Garden Tomb, Jerusalem
Opposite: Market and street scenes in Israel
Bottom: Branch office in Tel Aviv