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Controversy Flares Over Orlando's Holy Land Theme Park Which Critics Charge Is An Effort To Convert Jews

Allan Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
May-June 2001

In February, the Holy Land Experience theme park, the world's largest model of the ancient city of Jerusalem, opened in Orlando, Florida. Billed as a "living biblical museum" by its creator, Marvin Rosenthal, a Jew who became a Baptist minister, it has come under fire as some rabbis and Jewish groups have questioned Rosenthal's motives. Some have accused him of wanting to convert Jews to Christianity, of promoting a form of soul-snatching.  

Irv Rubin of the militant Los Angeles based Jewish Defense League, who protested on the park's first day, stated:  

"I think it's a horrible example of an outrageous attack on my religion. It's deceptive. He takes themes from Judaism — Jewish prayers, venerated Jewish objects — and tries to pass them off as Christian...This is not a Jewish-understanding experience. This has as its one goal to proselytize the Jews." (The Washington Post, Feb. 20, 2001)  

William Rothschild, assistant regional director of the Anti- Defamation League's Palm Beach office says: "I think the word that comes to mind immediately is `deceit.' The organization is entitled to build a theme park, but our problem is the way it's being presented. It's part of Rosenthal's ministry to entice as many Jews as he can, to expose them to a mixture of Jewish and Christian values. We're concerned about it. We feel that what they're presenting is the philosophy that you can be both — and if you're not both, you're not complete — and that invalidates Judaism." (Washington Jewish Week, March 8, 2001)  

For his part, Rosenthal points out that fewer than 1 percent of the park's visitors have been Jewish. He says that he has led more than 75 teaching tours of Israel and often thought, "Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could bring a little of that to America." He denies any hidden intentions and says, "If you were to ask me, would we be pleased if Jewish people came, and Jewish people examined the claims of Christ, you bet — we would be thrilled. We are a Bible-teaching ministry that believes Jesus is the son of God and he died for all men. But to suggest that we are targeting Jewish people, or stealing Jewish souls, is simply a fallacious statement.  

Writing in Time Magazine (Feb. 19, 2001), columnist Michael Kinsley declares: "Rosenthal may be foolish, but what is he doing that is so terrible? You may not agree that your soul needs saving, but why is he wrong to try as long as he isn't prying away your soul against your will? As an ethnically Jewish nonbeliever, I find this fuss over conversion utterly baffling...But an insult? In a way, it is insulting to Jews that Fundamentalist Christians don't try harder to convert us. Oh sure, they're friendly enough now. But wait until Judgment Day. Then it will be, `Sorry, we seem to have lost your reservation.' And from this perspective, the Jewish policy of actively discouraging converts to Judaism starts to seem like `theological arrogance' indeed. At the same time, when you object to noncoercive conversion, it starts to look like the opposite of arrogance: theological insecurity. What are you afraid of? The decision will be made by you or by God, and in either case, there is no ground for complaint."  

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