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American evangelicals open a new antiabortion front — in Israel

Miriam Genz, a counselor at the antiabortion Be'ad Chaim association in Jerusalem, prepares bags of aid to be given to pregnant women. [Corinna Kern for The Washington Post]

In a country with one of the world’s most liberal abortion policies, groups funded by conservative American evangelicals are targeting women with a message familiar in the United States but novel to most Israelis: Abortion is “murder.”

The idea resonated with Shir Palla Shitrit, 21, when she first contacted the “pregnancy crisis center” run by Be’ad Chaim — Hebrew for “pro-life.” In an office decorated with fetus diagrams, framed biblical passages and a ceramic sculpture of a breastfeeding mother, counselors offered her a year’s worth of material support and a place in a growing grass-roots community.

“They’re like my family,” said Palla Shitrit, next to a pile of donated diapers, winter baby clothes, and her monthly supermarket gift card, worth about $100.

“My life was very unstable. I didn’t have money, and I thought I would be the worst mother,” she said, whispering as her 10-month-old, Tohar, fell asleep in her arms. “Now I know that this is what gives life meaning.”

Shir Palla Shitrit, 21, who has been receiving support from Be'ad Chaim since deciding against an abortion. [Corinna Kern for The Washington Post]

Israel legalized abortion in 1977, four years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. Israeli Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz further eased access to abortion this year, saying the overturning of Roe had set back women’s rights “by a hundred years.”

But “pregnancy crisis centers” backed by conservative American evangelicals are becoming more prominent here, aiming to change the conversation around abortion and lay the groundwork for a political movement. Be’ad Chaim, a multimillion-dollar operation that has rapidly expanded in recent years, supplies women with carefully selected, or entirely distorted, facts to make the case against abortion. Pamphlets in Hebrew, English, Russian and Arabic show babies being stabbed in the heart or radiated to death, writhing in pain.

Public antiabortion campaigns — a highway billboard showing a grainy ultrasound, with the caption “This is not a fetus, it’s a girl named Nofar”; a bus ad featuring a baby girl sleeping with her doll, with the text: “One day, she’ll be a famous singer” — are a growing phenomenon in a country where abortion has never been a controversial issue, said Noya Rimalt, co-director of the Forum for Gender Law and Policy at the University of Haifa.

She said Be’ad Chaim and another group, Efrat, as well as more loosely organized antiabortion activists, “are using narratives, the images of the screaming unborn child, that are a direct import from the U.S.”

“I’ve been around for quite a long time and I don’t remember those images,” said Rimalt. “This is clearly a reaction to the U.S., where these groups are getting more money, feeling more confident.”

Palla Shitrit chooses clothes for her 10-month-old son, Tohar, at the Be'ad Chaim offices in Jerusalem. [Corinna Kern for The Washington Post]

The pregnancy centers use the language of women’s empowerment, casting Israeli men — doctors, husbands, fathers — as oppressors who pressure women to give up their babies.

“When a woman is in a crisis pregnancy, people aren’t usually listening to what she wants,” said Sandy Shoshani, an American Israeli who is the national director of Be’ad Chaim. Speaking by phone while en route to a meeting with Swiss donors at the Dead Sea, she said her network spanned the world, with Americans in the majority.

She said she is hoping to convince Israelis “that abortion hurts them, it’s not in their best interest.”

But for most in Israel, access to abortion is a rare point of consensus, even in an age of intense political polarization. According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, 98 percent of women who request the procedure are able to get one.

Billie Schneider, an immigrant from New York, had an abortion in Tel Aviv two years ago. She said she was “shocked at how easy the whole thing is” in Israel. [Corinna Kern for The Washington Post]

Billie Schneider, 26, an immigrant from New York who had an abortion in Tel Aviv two years ago, said she was “shocked at how easy the whole thing is.” Under Israel’s universal health-care system, she received the state-funded procedure within days of finding out she was pregnant.

But antiabortion advocates feel that momentum is on their side, buoyed by post-Roe state bans in the United States and the results of the Nov. 1 elections here, which delivered a decisive victory to former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has repeatedly hailed conservative evangelicals as Israel’s “best friends.”

Horowitz’s left-wing Meretz party dropped out of the parliament entirely, unable to muster enough votes to cross the required threshold. Leftists and moderates fear that the far-right Religious Zionism, now the third-largest parliamentary bloc, will introduce once-fringe ideas — such as opposition to abortion — into the mainstream.

A screen at the Jerusalem center of the antiabortion group Efrat indicates the number of babies born to mothers counseled by its members. [Corinna Kern for The Washington Post]

Bezalel Smotrich, Religious Zionism’s leader, has tweeted that Israel’s current abortion policy “promotes a license to kill fetuses.” He vowed: “We will not forget and we will not forgive, and above all, we will do everything … to repair the serious damages.”

Miriam Genz, a counselor at Be’ad Chaim, and one of 200 employees in the Jerusalem office, hopes abortion will be made illegal in Israel one day.

For now, she said, the group relies on word of mouth, and members like Palla Shitrit, who often posts a link to the Be’ad Chaim website on social media and in WhatsApp groups for expectant moms.

“I don’t think there is any justified reason to perform an abortion,” said Genz. “It should be seen in the same way as when a person kills another person.”

Miriam Genz, 28, at Be'ad Chaim in Jerusalem, where she became a counselor after receiving support herself. [Corinna Kern for The Washington Post]

Genz, 28, first received support from the organization after becoming pregnant at age 16, while living in a hostel, and estranged from her family in Jerusalem’s largest ultra-Orthodox neighborhood. She said she hopes the next government can bring “more consciousness that this is not just a medical procedure, not about just a bunch of cells. It’s something that women regret for the rest of their lives.”

That view contradicts much of halacha, or Jewish law, which prioritizes the physical and mental health of the woman. For the first 40 days after conception, the fetus is considered “merely water,” according to one Babylonian rabbi cited in the Talmud, the expansive text that has shaped Jewish law, culture and scholarship for centuries. According to both halacha and Israeli law, a fetus becomes a “soul” only after it is born.

In recent decades, conservative evangelicals have struggled to reconcile their opposition to abortion with their “passion for Israel,” said David Parsons, the American spokesman of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, an evangelical organization that has deep ties to Netanyahu and has hosted several events with Be’ad Chaim.

But Helen Lowery, a donor to Be’ad Chaim and a minister in Houston, said U.S. evangelicals “are starting to break more ground” in Israel. Through an initiative called “Operation Moses,” Lowery and members of her church have “sponsored” several babies, donating $1,800 per baby for the first year, she said.

Lowery spoke to The Post from her hotel in Jerusalem during a volunteering trip with other conservative Christians. Among the stops on her itinerary was Be’ad Chaim’s “Gardens of Life,” a four-acre plot of land in the nearby town of Latrun, where visitors plant trees in commemoration of “unborn babies.”

There, Lowery said, she met and prayed with Shoshani.

“We just had a victory in our Supreme Court, in overturning Roe v. Wade, and that happened through raising awareness,” said Lowery. “If we go back to the Torah, to the word of God, and allow that to govern both countries, the U.S. and Israel, we’ll be able to promote life even further.”

Albert Donigian, a gardener for Be'ad Chaim, prepares to plant a tree at the group's “Gardens of Life” in Latrun. Trees are planted in commemoration of “unborn babies.” [Corinna Kern for The Washington Post]


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