The relation of Arab Christians to Israel is a complex issue. And the most important thing to understand about it is that any regional church has to adopt a standard Anti-Israel line to avoid accusations of treason. That strategy worked somewhat in the old days, but in the Islamist wake of the Arab Spring where countries like Egypt and Syria are falling to Islamist rule, that strategy is running into its limits and Arab Christians in Israel, like Druze, are talking about their own interests.
“We want young Christians to become totally integrated into Israeli society, which also entails shouldering their fair share of the burden of national service. Our future as a Christian minority is intertwined with that of the State of Israel. We want to give more to society and to contribute our share just like others do,” says Gavriel Nadaf, a 39-year-old Arab Christian priest who is being persecuted by the Arab Israeli establishment. Nonetheless, the cold, hard numbers say that the majority is behind him.
There have been recent attempts to silence him. We spoke with him earlier this week before he was forbidden from speaking to the media. There are only a brave few Jews who dare back him, but the priest is defiant. “We want to connect with Jewish society in Israel,” he said. “We feel secure in Israel. We see ourselves as citizens with equal rights as well as equal responsibilities and obligations. Most of the young Christians here view Israel as their country. This is the decisive period. If your youths see that Israel is fostering the Christians’ engagement with Israeli society, then the world will spread forth. But if the state turns its back on us, the inciters will win.”
The collapse of the pan-Arab worldview is also palpable among the Arabs of Israel. An increasing number of youths are opting to eschew the dictates of the Israeli Arab leaders who boycott the state, refuse army service, and rebel against the establishment. Instead, they are volunteering for civil service near their towns. In a few cases, they perform national and even military service. They do so despite the angry reactions of the majority of those in their immediate environment, including family and friends.
The members of the Greek Orthodox church in Israel — the constituency that we tend to refer to as “Arab Christians” — are keenly sensitive to the collapse of pan-Arabism. There are over 130,000 Greek Orthodox Christians living in Israel, most of them in Haifa, Nazareth, and the Galilee. Some are scattered in the Jerusalem metropolitan area.
In recent years, particularly since the 2010 upheavals began in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, there has been an increase in the number of Christian Arabs who seek to enlist in the Israel Defense Force. Much of this is due to the work done by the “Forum for the Enlistment of the Christian Community,” which was founded by a group of Christian conscripts who concluded their military service.
These guys were subjected to harassment and scorn from the larger Arab society due to their decision to serve in the IDF. Now they are advocating for the creation of a more fitting, appropriate enlistment track for more young Christians who wish to be drafted and who see themselves as loyal citizens of the state and an inseparable part of its society with the attendant rights and obligations.
The most prominent member of the forum is the persecuted Nazareth priest. After he was ordained by the Greek Orthodox Church, he then served as a judge in the religious court. He was also a spokesperson for the Greek patriarch in Israel and a priest in churches across Israel, including Haifa, Acre, and Nazareth.
Amongst young Christians who are in favor of conscription, Nadaf’s presence is considered crucial to the cause given his status in the community. For years, he has encouraged young Arab Christians to enlist in the army. The forum on which he serves also includes Christian soldiers and commanders in the reserves as well as Christian businessmen who support full integration with Jewish society. These business leaders contribute funds to pro-enlistment campaigns that have thus far been successful in encouraging a greater number of young Christian men and women to enlist.
Nadaf takes great pride in the fact that Christian women as well as men enlist in the army. In the IDF, there are currently two Christian Arab women who hold an officer’s rank. Among the men, there is a large number of officers.
“We support the integration of community members into Israeli society alongside an equal sharing of obligations and duties,” he said. “Israel is a multi-cultural mosaic. It’s not made up just of Jews and Arabs. We want to engage with Jewish society in Israel. We feel secure in the state of Israel and we see ourselves as citizens of the state with all the attendant rights as well as obligations.”
Arab Christians in Israel may be the new Druze. Druze in Israel and in Syria were able to segment their loyalties by country. Arab Christians in Israel and the Golan Druze have both had to reevaluate the situation in the region after the Arab Spring.
This isn’t unprecedented. The Israeli War of Independence involved a number of Arab clans deciding to align themselves with the reborn Jewish State for entirely practical reasons.
Arab Christians in Israel face a region full of dangers and few remaining countries willing to give them any rights above the Dhimmi level. Pan-Arabism has failed. The Israeli model however provides collective security for minorities against the region’s Sunni Muslim majority.
“While the subject of IDF enlistment began to gain more attention recently, it’s a good thing that it did because now everybody is talking about this,” he said. “Unfortunately, there was always a sense that Christians couldn’t express their opinions in public. It was as if Christians weren’t allowed to talk, but this is changing now.”