There is perhaps no more cherished theme among men than renewal, the hope that someday, whether by triumph of the human spirit, or Holy Spirit, each of us might rise above his or her failings and become a better person.

A New Spirit, a motion picture recently released in Israel based on the life of Israeli sabra and Messianic evangelist, Jacob Damkani, dramatizes a remarkable example of that process: how Damkani, once lost, found himself and his life’s work upon discovering the Jewish Messiah.

But like most everything in Israel, even redemption can spark controversy. A recent review of A New Spirit appearing in Israel’s Channel Seven’s online news charged that the film presents “the point of view of traditional Christianity that Judaism is an ignorant, violent and uncompassionate religion filled with lust for power while Christianity is a religion of love and compassion.”

A New Spirit’s universally appealing theme of supernatural salvation — the reason one might innocently guess that almost everyone would like it — is, in and of itself, neither secular nor religious. It is what Joseph Campbell, author of the classic, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, describes as the monomyth:If one were unfamiliar with religious conflict in Israel it might be difficult to understand how a reviewer might conclude that A New Spirit is about either Christianity or Orthodox Judaism. The film’s depictions of events are not generalizations about belief systems but dramatizations of Damkani’s personal journey.

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

A New Spirit is Campbell’s hero’s story. Damkani’s common day was his former life as a confused, directionless young man and sometimes gangster. His region of supernatural wonder and the fabulous forces he encountered were the Tanach and the glory of God. Once hopelessly on the run in the United States, Damkani literally returned from a mysterious adventure to bestow boons — a personal message of the Jewish Messiah — upon his fellow Israelis.

The film’s storyline is no different than that of Homer’s Odyssey, George Lucas’s Star Wars or thousands of other “hero stories” man has embraced since he first began to tell tales. And while it’s been said that everyone loves a hero, not everyone loves A New Spirit or its hero despite its uplifting message.

The reasons why this is so are complex; that is, they are religious and political.

“When we say ‘Christian’ we think of another religion,” Damkani said in an interview with journalist, Leslie Criss, while in the U.S. to promote the film. “But the idea that Jesus came to establish a new religion is far from the truth. Jesus never intended to bring a new religion and the church has to understand that [he] is the natural continuation of God’s promises made to Israel… I didn’t become a Christian if that means following a new religion. If it means a follower of Messiah, then okay, I’m a Christian.”

In Israel, the word “Christian” is charged with more meaning than it may, at first, appear. In 1992, Israel’s High Court of Justice ruled that a Messianic Jewish couple living in the U.S. were ineligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return because they had converted to a new religion. Officially, Jews who believe that Yeshua (Jesus) is the Jewish Messiah are considered Christians, not Jews.

In August of 2017, the Rabbinical Court of Tel Aviv cited the high court’s 1992 opinion when it forbade Messianic Jews living in Israel — Jews in every way according to halacha — to be married as Jews in Israel because, again, it held that all those who believe in Yeshua are not Jews, but Christians.

Given A New Spirit’s messianic message and Israel’s long history of opposition, the film’s appearance in Israeli theaters is nothing short of remarkable. Damkani is a well-known man in the land. As the founder of Trumpet of Salvation to Israel, a non-profit organization whose vision includes proclaiming “the Gospel in its Jewish context” and making “disciples, real followers of the God of Israel through studying his Word,” he has accrued many friends and enemies during a ministry now approaching forty years in duration.

One of Messianic Judaism’s most vocal opponents in Israel is Yad L’Achim, an Orthodox organization established in Israel in 1950 “to help new immigrants adjust to [life in Israel] and to help them find a suitable religious framework… Over the years, its attention has turned to more complex problems, including how to counter the missionary threat… Fighting the missionaries… has long been one of Yad L’Achim’s top priorities.” (For an example, see “My Coffee Talks with Anti-Missionaries from Yad L’Achim,” by Hannah Weiss.)

Jacob Damkani

But opposition to Messianic Judaism in Israel seems to be coming under scrutiny thanks to the courage of passionate men and women like Damkani. For example:

  • In March of 2011 in Israel Today, Ryan Jones wrote an article entitled, “Israel media stands up for Messianic Jews, noting in one example that, “in addition to wondering why Yad L’Achim has such influence over the Ministry of the Interior, Channel One questioned why it is such a problem for Jews to believe in Yeshua.” He concludes, “The message was clear: Messianic Jews are not a threat to Israel or the spirit of the Jewish nation, but Yad L’Achim just might be.”
  • In February of 2017, the Israeli National Museum in Jerusalem not only produced the exhibition, “Behold the Man: Jesus in Israeli Art,” it was well-received.
  • In November of 2017, a Jerusalem Post editorial entitled Righteous Aliya took exception to the Israeli Population and Immigration Authority’s summary rejection of psychologist Rebecca Floer’s application for Israeli citizenship. Fleur, a Swedish daughter of a Holocaust survivor, stood accused of having “ties to a Messianic organization.” Upon her appeal of the authority’s ruling, “her tourist visa [was] revoked and [she was] ordered to leave the country.” The editorial cited the Authority’s statement to the Post regarding their decision to deport Fleur as “an egregious denial of the facts.”

“Israel does not yet have the capacity, desire or courage to distinguish between who Yeshua really is and what the Church has made of him,” Damkani told Kehila News. “The joy and light of salvation hit me when I became able to distinguish who Yeshua really is in the light of the prophets of Israel. But too many Israelis refuse to examine the prophets.

“Secular Israel is filled with courageous men and women who accomplish miraculous things in times of war but, when it comes to spiritual matters, they lack confidence in themselves and get their understanding from the religious,” Damkani continued.

Channel Seven’s review of A New Spirit concluded by implying that all those in Israel with a testimony of renewal, whether Jew or Gentile, are missionaries, branding the film as possessing “perhaps the same anti-Jewish missionary spirit that the Church has taken against Judaism since time immemorial.”

A New Spirit is an inspiring film based on the extraordinary life of one of Israel’s evangelical pioneers. Whether it presents an anti-Jewish message, as some of its critics claim, or provides further revelation of the blessings in belief in the Jewish Messiah, Yeshua, should be left to its audience to decide.

Cliff Keller