The Crisis in Israeli Democracy (and Christian Zionism)

Dear Kineti readers, 

Below you'll find a guest post from Aaron Hecht, a Messianic believer from Israel who has written extensively for Kehila News. Aaron and I developed an unlikely friendship several years ago after he and I discussed our differing views of Torah observance for Yeshua's disciples.

His post today is on the months-long judicial crisis in Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's proposed judicial reforms would curtail the power of Israeli judicial system while expanding the power Knesset and rabbinical court. For over a month, tens of thousands of Israelis have demonstrated against the reforms, labelling them a power grab and a threat to Israeli democracy.

Aaron's post also touches on Christian Zionism and Zionist groups who have injected themselves into the debate.  

Not everything Aaron says I endorse, and that's OK. It's healthy to hear voices outside one's own echo chamber. Enjoy, dear readers!

Thousands of Israelis protesting the proposed judicial reforms of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Israel is in the midst of a serious crisis.

As I am sitting here writing this in my modest Jerusalem apartment, I can hear the sounds of angry (and frightened) people just a few blocks away, chanting slogans as they march through the streets of our capital city to make known that they do not approve of measures currently being pushed through the Knesset by the governing coalition. The protests I can hear out my window are part of a much larger protest movement, the largest by far in all of Israel's modern history, against actions being taken by the government.

You may already be fairly familiar with the issues surrounding what is being called by those within the governing coalition who support it "Judicial Reform" and by those in the opposition who oppose it "the death knell of Israeli democracy."

Both of these labels are deeply dishonest, as is most of the rhetoric being thrown around by both sides in the debate surrounding the particulars of different measures that are being proposed. This dishonesty is at the heart of the crisis, and it's what's making it so difficult to find a solution.

I offer the following thoughts as my own personal attempt at a solution to this crisis. I don't imagine it'll do much good, but here it is, for what it's worth.

Let's start with some truth because that's the only way to solve a problem caused by lies and deceit.

Truth number one is that the judiciary in Israel is long overdue for reforms. There are many serious problems with the judiciary and it is absolutely true that it has issued rulings in the past several years which overturned laws passed by the Knesset which were completely legitimate expressions of the will of the Israeli people. The Israeli Supreme Court has assumed powers that were completely outside its mandate.

Those who decry the "assault on democracy" that they say these proposed laws represent should take a moment to reflect on the damage that has already been done to democracy in recent years by the court's inappropriate behavior.

That leads us to truth number two, that some of the measures being proposed to undo the abuse of power that the courts are unquestionably guilty of are quite constructive and necessary. Others are catastrophically absurd overcorrections that will lead to a situation that is even worse than what we have now.

In particular, the "override clause" which is being so strongly insisted upon by some parties in the coalition, which will allow a ruling of the Israeli Supreme Court to be dismissed by a simple majority vote in the Knesset is a really bad joke. There might as well not be a Supreme Court if the parliament has the power to ignore it.

If you don't have a Supreme Court which has the authority to declare a law passed by the legislature to be out of line with the previously agreed upon "Basic Laws" or "Constitution" or whatever the foundational principles of that government are, then that is not a democracy. Full stop!

The leaders of the parties in the coalition who are pressing the hardest for this "override clause" are themselves attorneys who went to law school where they learned all about this stuff, so they know exactly what they're doing. But they are deceitfully pretending like there's nothing at all out of the ordinary in the changes they're trying to make and the opposition and the protesters are being hysterical drama queens and "anarchists."

These absurdly childish ad hominem attacks should cause any thinking person to question the moral integrity of the people making them.

That leads to truth number three, which is that the governing coalition does not have a mandate from the voters to make these changes to the Basic Laws of the country. They endlessly repeat the claim that "the people voted for Judicial Reform and they're going to get it" but they know that's not true. They know, as does everyone, that in order to make a change this big, a large majority is necessary. Having a coalition made up of 64 out of 120 Knesset seats is not nearly enough to make a change this consequential to the DNA of a country.

Something else everyone knows but which few are willing to say out loud is that most of the people who voted for the parties that make up the current governing coalition in the last election had no idea that anything like what's happening now would result from their vote.

It's purely anecdotal, but I have several friends who voted for right-wing parties which make up the current coalition in the recent elections because they wanted Netanyahu to return as Prime Minister. These people are now out in the streets protesting because the actions those who they voted for have taken are nothing like what they expected. Most of them say they want a new election as soon as possible so they can vote for someone else. (Keep this in mind, it's very important for what comes later in the blog.)

That leads to another truth, not really on our list, but highly relevant nonetheless, and that is that Israeli democracy has been very dysfunctional for a very long time for all kinds of reasons. One of the primary reasons is that the voting public has very little knowledge and understanding about how the government works, much less the highly complex and nuanced issues the government deals with.

The teenagers I talk to about this say they've never learned much in all their years in school about Israeli history, the economy, the Court system, the military, or any other issues that might be helpful for them to decide who to vote for when they're old enough. This tracks with what I've heard from many older people, some who vote in every election for the same party, some who vote occasionally, and some who rarely if ever vote. What they all have in common is that they have very little understanding of any of the relevant issues.

Those who vote for the same party in every election usually do so because it's the party their parents voted for, or which their rabbi told them to vote for. They rarely have more than the vaguest ideas about what the party stands for or what plans their party has for the power they're asking voters to give them. They just know that "people like me vote for this party" and that's the whole story.

Most of the major political parties like this situation just fine and don't even bother to publish a platform on their websites. Reporters who ask leaders questions about what their plans are in this or that area usually don't receive serious answers or even empty campaign promises. In fact, many Israeli politicians don't even bother to talk to the press. Netanyahu almost never gives media interviews, and when he speaks at press conferences, he ignores the questions that are asked of him and talks about the things he wants to talk about.

The major parties rarely if ever make any effort to attract voters from other parties who are not already inclined to vote for them, they just concentrate all their efforts on getting those who are usually their supporters to show up at the polls. The favorite tools for doing this are fear and loathing of the other parties.

For instance, a few years ago, the election slogan of the Likud Party was "it's either us or them."

That's it. Nothing about why anyone should want "us" rather than "them" just a reminder to everyone that it was "either us or them."

What all of this adds up to is the simple and undeniable truth that Israeli democracy has been highly dysfunctional for a long time. The five elections we've had in the past four years is both a cause and a symptom of that dysfunction. But the primary cause, as I said at the beginning, is deceit.

Everyone, on all sides, is being dishonest about their own positions, the positions of their opponents, and the situation in general. In such a dystopian "post-truth" environment, there's every reason to expect things to go from bad to worse.

Crisis in Christian Zionism

That leads me to the next point that needs to be addressed in this blog, and that is the effect, and the connection, between this terrible crisis in Israel, and the crisis it has sparked in the Christian Zionist movement.

Most Israelis who are even aware of the existence of Christian Zionists think that it's a relatively new phenomenon, but that's not true at all. Christian Zionist organizations were active in Jerusalem for over a century before the modern State of Israel came into existence. In fact, the movement which would come to be known as "Christian Zionism" has its roots in the Protestant Reformation which occurred in the late 16th century in Europe and quickly spread to North America. For many years it was called the "Restorationist Movement" because these Protestant Christians wanted to help "restore" the Jews to their ancestral homeland. This desire came from a reading of the Scriptures (remember the Protestant Reformation happened in large part because European Catholics could, for the first time in centuries, read the Bible in their own native languages) and that motivation continues to be a factor in relations between Israelis and Christians to this day.

In any case, starting all the way back in the 16th century, the Christian Zionist movement has played a major role in the development of the Jewish community in this country leading up to the establishment of the modern State of Israel in 1948 and afterward. The Jews of Israel do not like to acknowledge any of this history, but that's a topic for another blog.

What needs to be said here in this blog is that the current crisis in Israel, which even President Isaac Herzog said has the potential to lead to a civil war, has led to what must be the deepest crisis in Christian Zionist history as well.

The obvious question everyone has is, what should Christian Zionists do in this situation? What can they do? They obviously want to support Israel, but the question is which Israelis can they support since Israelis are so bitterly divided on these issues.

Several years ago, I wrote a blog in which I tracked some of the internal Jewish/Israeli schisms we're seeing explode today and I advised Christian supporters of Israel not to try and get in the middle of these internal Jewish/Israeli discussions. I don't know how many people saw that blog, but the fact is, although most Christian Zionist organizations have taken a cautious and/or neutral stance, some have jumped into the current discussion with both feet.

One group in particular which is very closely allied with the National Religious/Modern Orthodox settler groups in Judea and Samaria has given a full-throated endorsement of the current governing coalition's agenda, including its scornful dismissal of the hundreds of thousands of Israelis marching in the streets to protest against that agenda. This Christian Zionist group has, sadly but not surprisingly, initiated a mindless repetition and amplification of the false narratives the coalition keeps peddling. They have even taken the step of denouncing some of the leaders of Israel's Believer community who have spoken out against the coalition's agenda.

Guys (you know who you are), I have a nickel's worth of free advice for you.

First, you are completely out of order. You are guests in this country, not citizens. You have no business shooting your mouths off about the internal political battles being fought here, much less telling your supporters to disregard the testimony of Israeli Believers who are citizens of this country and have been appointed by God to represent His Kingdom in this country.

You frame your shilling for the Religious Zionist Party (RZP) as "reporting" the real truth from your perspective "on the ground" etc. but that's less than even a half-truth and you know it.

Second, you should be aware that there will be another election in Israel sooner or later and your pals in the RZP might disappear as quickly as they rose to prominence. There have been several such "one-election wonders" over the years, and most of them had more of a natural base of voters than RZP does. The opposition parties which might very easily return to a majority in the Knesset one day (and for that matter, some of the Likud MKs who are already showing deep discomfort with their RZP allies) will surely remember who was on their side and who was against them in this current situation.

Everything you've built up over the past 15 years you've been working your tails off out there in Judea and Samaria could be taken away from you faster than you can even imagine. This too is something that has happened in the past to Christian Zionist organizations who backed the wrong horse in a political contest in this country.

There's an old saying "mess around and find out."

If you guys don't want to find out, you better stop messing around, although it's probably already too late.

In any case, I would ask anyone who is reading this blog to include urgent prayers for the Body of Messiah in Israel in your daily devotions. We're a small and in many ways very vulnerable group. That's not a request for pity, but it is a request for support, both prayer support and whatever practical support you can offer. God is on the move in Israel, and of that there can be no doubt, that the Body of Messiah here is going to be playing a pivotal role in whatever comes next, one way or another.

You're invited to Proclaim: music festival for Yeshua's disciples

Shalom folks,

If you love to worship God and do so with other Messianic believers, you need to check out Proclaim

This is a summertime music festival I help put on every year, and it's just an awesome place to be. 3 days of camping, Messianic music artists, worship, dancing, campfires, food, family games, and more. Real community there, tons of youth and adults alike. Awesome place for families. I've made new friends at Proclaim. I've connected with old ones. 

Each year it's gotten better, too. More people showing up. (I think last year we had 400 or so.) More Messianic artists. Last year we had Ted Pearce, Troy Mitchell, and a dozen others artists. This year we'll have our dear friend and Israeli musician Baht Rivka Whitten, and a dozen others but well-known and upcoming young artists.

Check out our video below:

The event takes place in June, and we just opened registration today: get your tickets here

(In fact, I've been working on the new website,, for the last few months. We just made it public today. Let me know what you think, even if you can't make it to the event.)

Hope to see you there, dear Kineti readers!

How sure are we that Jesus' real name is Yeshua? (And not Yeshu?)

I had an interesting conversation this week with some Jewish folks over Twitter. It started with an open-ended question: Almost immediately I thought of Jesus. No Jewish families name their kids "Jesus!" 😊 I knew that reply would come up. And sure enough:

But that's a bit oversimplified, isn't it? "Jesus" isn't Jesus' real name. His parents and contemporaries would have called him by his real name. And there were no hard "J" sounds in 1st century Hebrew or Aramaic. His real name couldn't have been "Jesus" - the language didn't support it!

I replied,

This has been my long held understanding. Someone pushed back:

Here, Chanan asserts with great snark that Jesus' real name was Yeshu ישו. Is he right?

For sure, Jews today call him Yeshu. And Israelis in general do as well. Most Israelis call him Yeshu ("YEH-shu), though Messianic Jews everywhere call him Yeshua (yeh-SHU-ah). Not long ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was giving a speech in Hebrew about Jewish and Christian friendship in Israel. During the speech, he referred to Jesus as Yeshu.

Does it matter? Not in significant ways. But it's worth finding out the truth.

Revisiting how the name was given, look at Matthew 1, the very first chapter of the Gospels:

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

It's that last line we should pay attention to. It's a sentence that doesn't make much sense in English. Call his name "Jesus" because he will save his people from their sins? In English, that doesn't follow; what does this name have to do with saving people?

But in Hebrew this makes a bit more sense. 

Summarizing Ernest Kline's A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language:

The name [Jesus] is related to the Biblical Hebrew form Yehoshua`(יְהוֹשֻׁעַ‎), which is a theophoric name first mentioned in the Bible in Exodus 17:9 referring to one of Moses' companions and his successor as leader of the Israelites. This name is usually considered to be a compound of two parts: יהו‎ Yeho, a theophoric reference to YHWH, the distinctive personal name of the God of Israel, plus a form derived from the Hebrew triconsonantal root y-š-ʕ or י-ש-ע "to liberate, save". There have been various proposals as to how the literal etymological meaning of the name should be translated, including:

  • YHWH saves
  • YHWH is salvation
  • ...etc
So the Scripture becomes, "You should call his name [YHVH saves] because he will save his people from their sins."

That makes good sense. Salvation and saving people are closely related. In the Hebrew Bible, when the psalmist cries out for salvation from his enemies, he's asking God to literally save him from death. 

In the New Testament, the meaning of salvation is expanded to include participation in the Messianic era, the Kingdom of Heaven. The people who follow Jesus as God's messiah will be raised from the dead. They're saved from death. Salvation, saving people, the name "Yeshua." It all clicks together.

What about "Yeshu"?

So where does this "Yeshu" come from? From two possible sources: the Talmud and language evolution.

The Babylonian Talmud, finalized a few hundred years after Yeshua's life, contains a disturbing reference to a figure named "Yeshu". It's believed by many to be referring to Jesus. In the story, a man uses necromancy to summon the spirit of a dead man, Yeshu, who is being punished for his crimes in hell. Many scholars think this "Yeshu" figure is intended to be Jesus of Nazareth. The passage may have been written as an anti-Christian polemic response to the Church of the 400s, which was fully engulfed in anti-Jewish polemics. The Church's anti-Semitism may have spurred the final editors of the Babylonian Talmud to include such a story to warn religious Jews against following Jesus of Nazareth as the Jewish messiah.

Others have noted "Yeshu" may be a derogatory acronym in the Talmud. Y S U corresponding to the Hebrew letters י-ש-ו (yud, shin, vav) as an acronym for ימח שמו וזכרו(נו): Yimakh shemo v'zichrono / may his name and his memory be erased. And there is some evidence to support this. In one passage in the Babylonian Talmud, Yeshu is written with special punctuation marks to indicate it's an acronym. But there are other places in the Talmud where Yeshu is written without the punctuation marks, so it's uncertain.

Another possible source for "Yeshu" is language evolution. The name "Yeshua" ends in a double vowel sound: "ooh-ah". This diphthong may have been shortened to a single vowel sound as Hebrew and Aramaic evolved, shortening Yeshua to Yeshu.  Some language scholars have suggested certain dialects of Hebrew and Aramaic dropped the sound of the final letter ע‎ (ayin), which had no counterpart in Koine Greek. For example, Biblical scholar Hugh Schonfield argues in The History of Jewish Christianity that northern dialects of Hebrew and Aramaic dropped the final ayin sound in their pronunciation of Yeshua, resulting in Yeshu. 

And it's not uncommon for language to evolve like this. Even in the Hebrew-speaking world today, there are multiple strains of Hebrew. For example, one strain pronounces the word "sabbath" as the Hebrew word "shabbat" שבת, but another pronounces it as "shabbas". And that's because the two strains diverged in pronunciation of an ending Hebrew letter ת: one strain uses pronounces it with a "t" sound, another with an "s" sound.

My unimportant layperson opinion: It's reasonable to imagine an early Christian community comprised of Greek and Hebrew/Aramaic speakers simplifying terms that cross languages. And by the time the Babylonian Talmud was finalized, Jewish anti-Christian works assigned a derogatory acronym to this already-establish pronunciation of "Yeshu."

James Ossuary

One artifact from the historical record, the James Ossuary, suggests Jesus' name was originally Yeshua ישוע, not Yeshu ישו.

Experts agree this bone box is from 20-70 AD. However, experts are conflicted about the authenticity of the inscription on the box. The Aramaic inscription reads: 

יעקוב בר יוסף אחוי דישוע

Ya'akov bar Yoseph achui d'Yeshua

Jacob (James) son of Joseph, brother of Yeshua

A picture of the James Ossuary with the inscription on the side.

A better view of the inscription, courtesy this paper on the authenticity of the James Ossuary inscription. The paper argues that both the ossuary and its inscription are authentic to the 1st century.

A magnified closeup of the inscription on the James Ossuary. The final ע ayin in ישוע (Yeshua) is clearly visible on the left.

If authentic, this inscription would suggest the person whose bones were in the box was remarkable because his brother was a man named Yeshua. We know that James, the half-brother of Yeshua, was actually called Ya'akov or Jacob. This means this ossuary may have held the bones of James the Just, brother of Jesus.

More relevant to our investigation here, it strengthens the case of Jesus' original name being Yeshua rather than Yeshu.

How did we get the name "Jesus"?

This question is less controversial. It's widely agreed by language scholars, Bible scholars, and historians that his original name went through several language transliterations and evolution to get to "Jesus".

In short:

  1. Hebrew/Aramaic: ישוע. This was likely the name given to Jesus of Nazareth at his birth. It makes the passage in the Gospels, "You shall call his name Yeshua because he will save his people from his sins", actually make sense, as the name in Hebrew means "YHWH saves".
  2. Koine Greek Ἰησοῦς (Iēsous). As Christianity spreads outside of Judea, Greek is the vehicle for widespread understanding of the Gospel. In translating the Hebrew ישוע to Greek, translators translate the name letter-by-letter, filling in close approximations where necessary. Greek had no ש (Hebrew letter shin) "sh" sound, so they translated it with the Greek letter σ sigma. They add an final sigma ς as well for a masculine, singular ending.
  3. Middle English: Iesu. From 1000-1400 AD, English speakers took the Greek Iesous and the Latin IESVS into the English Iesu, a rather straightforward hop. By the 15th and 16th century, English began to distinguish the "J" sound from "I". (Remnants of this old name still exist, e.g. the hymn Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring.)
  4. Modern English: Jesus. The first King James Bible, published in 1611, still had "Iesus". But by the end of that century, the English "J" entered common use. Iesus becomes Jesus.
The original 1611 King James (Iames?) Bible, with "I" instead of "J". Left page, top right, renders James as "Iames".

Hebrew Roots hallucinations of the name

It's worth addressing two other claims I've heard in relation to the name of Jesus inside Hebrew Roots Christianity: Zeus and "Yahshua."

Zeus: A fringe theory in the Hebrew Roots world claims the name "Jesus" is supposedly a form of the Greek "Zeus". This is simply not supported by evidence. The Greek term for Zeus doesn't sound like the later English Jesus, and there is no historical or textual evidence supporting the name "Jesus" deriving from the Greek word for Zeus. It's just paganoia run amok, untouched by reality. 😄 

Yahshua: The name "Yahshua" and its variants are not supported by the evidence. To my knowledge, there is no written record of that name anywhere in antiquity. It's an attempt by Hebrew Roots Christians to insert the divine name of God into the Messiah's name, but without understanding of Hebrew language rules. As discussed above, Yeshua ישוע already means "YHWH is salvation." There is no need to inject the divine name into it, it's already there.


Did we answer the question in the post? How sure are we that Jesus' real name is Yeshua?

The evidence favors Jesus' original name to be either Yeshua or its longer form Yehoshua. Language evolution and polemics are probably responsible for "Yeshu". If I had to put a percentage on it, I'd say I'm 85% certain that Jesus' original name was Yeshua, not Yeshu.

Yeshua/Yehoshua fits best with a name given to mean "saving people from their sins." 

It seems to fit better with the transliteration into Greek. (Any New Testament Greek students reading? I'd love to hear your opinion.)

Yeshu was likely a shortened version of Yeshua/Yehoshua, driven by dialects of Hebrew/Aramaic that lost pronunciation of the ending ע ayin, shortening the diphthong "ooh-ah" to "ooh". It may have been especially driven by Christian communities containing both Aramaic and Greek speakers, where Greek didn't support the precise vocal sounds that Hebrew and Aramaic have.

Yeshu may have been driven by Jewish anti-Christian polemical works. A derogatory acronym was ascribed to ישו (YSU), which may have been a common Aramaic pronunciation of the original name by the 4th century. It gets written in the Babylonian Talmud during its finalization stage during the 400-500s AD. This in turn influences modern Judaism and Israelis today to use "Yeshu" to refer to Jesus.

It's possible we're wrong, and that Yeshu was the original. (It's even possible, as certain Church fathers asserted, that the Greek name Iesous was the original!) But this seems unlikely given the textual, linguistic, historical, and archeological evidence.

Does it matter?

With regards to faith, it doesn't really matter! I'm quite certain that God knows whom we speak of when we call his son by Jesus, Jesu, Yeshua, Yeshu, Yehoshua. (Or even the made-up, not-actually-Hebrew name "Yahshua".)

With regards to truth and accuracy, I suppose it matters to some extent. It is interesting and perhaps useful to know the real name of the most influential Jew who ever lived, whom we revere as the Messiah and Son of God. Yes, that's worth knowing, even if it doesn't ultimately matter in daily faith practice.