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Christian ‘awakening’ – yet again

Articles on Christians in Israel from 1) Wall Street Journal, 2) Mondoweiss, 3) Times of Israel. Plus notes and links

A Christian Arab soldier receiving a certificate of appreciation from Father Gabriel Naddaf during a recent event in Nazareth. Photo from IDF Spokesperson’s Unit.

Israel’s Christian Awakening

A controversial new movement wants to co-operate more closely With the Jewish state

By Adi Schwartz, Wall Street Journal
December 27, 2013

As Christmas neared, an 85-foot-high tree presided over the little square in front of the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. Kindergarten children with Santa Claus hats entered the church and listened to their teacher explain in Arabic the Greek inscriptions on the walls, while a group of Russian pilgrims knelt on their knees and whispered in prayer. In Nazareth’s old city, merchants sold the usual array of Christmas wares.

This year, however, the familiar rhythms of Christmas season in the Holy Land have been disturbed by a new development: the rise of an independent voice for Israel’s Christian community, which is increasingly trying to assert its separate identity. For decades, Arab Christians were considered part of Israel’s sizable Palestinian minority, which comprises both Muslims and Christians and makes up about a fifth of the country’s citizens, according to the Israeli government.

But now, an informal grass-roots movement, prompted in part by the persecution of Christians elsewhere in the region since the Arab Spring, wants to co-operate more closely with Israeli Jewish society—which could mean a historic change in attitude toward the Jewish state. “Israel is my country, and I want to defend it,” says Henry Zaher, an 18-year-old Christian from the village of Reineh who was visiting Nazareth. “The Jewish state is good for us.”

The Christian share of Israel’s population has decreased over the years—from 2.5% in 1950 to 1.6% today, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics—because of migration and a low birthrate. Of Israel’s 8 million citizens, about 130,000 are Arabic-speaking Christians (mostly Greek Catholic and Greek Orthodox), and 1.3 million are Arab Muslims.

In some ways, Christians in Israel more closely resemble their Jewish neighbors than their Muslim ones, says Amnon Ramon, a lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a specialist on Christians in Israel at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. In a recent book, he reports that Israeli Christians’ median age is 30, compared with 31 for Israeli Jews and only 19 for Israeli Muslims. Israeli Christian women marry later than Israeli Muslims, have significantly fewer children and participate more in the workforce. Unemployment is lower among Israeli Christians than among Muslims, and life expectancy is higher. Perhaps most strikingly, Israeli Christians actually surpass Israeli Jews in educational achievement.

As a minority within a minority, Christians in Israel have historically been in a bind. Fear of being considered traitors often drove them to proclaim their full support for the Palestinian cause. Muslim Israeli leaders say that all Palestinians are siblings and deny any Christian-Muslim rift. But in mixed Muslim-Christian cities such as Nazareth, many Christians say they feel outnumbered and insecure.

“There is a lot of fear among Christians from Muslim reprisals,” says Dr. Ramon. “In the presence of a Muslim student in one of my classes, a Christian student will never say the same things he would say were the Muslim student not there.”

“Many Christians think like me, but they keep silent,” says the Rev. Gabriel Naddaf, who backs greater Christian integration into the Jewish state. “They are simply too afraid.” In his home in Nazareth, overlooking the fertile hills of the Galilee, the 40-year-old former spokesman of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem is tall and charismatic, dressed in a spotless black cassock. “Israel is my country,” he says. “We enjoy the Israeli democracy and have to respect it and fight for it.”

That is the idea behind the new Forum for Drafting the Christian Community, which aims to increase the number of Christians joining the Israel Defense Forces. It is an extremely delicate issue: Israeli Arabs are generally exempt from military duty, because the state doesn’t expect them to fight their brethren among the Palestinians or in neighboring Arab countries. Israeli Palestinians, who usually don’t want to enlist, say they often face discrimination in employment and other areas because they don’t serve.

“We were dragged into a conflict that wasn’t ours,” says Father Naddaf. “Israel takes care of us, and if not Israel, who will defend us? We love this country, and we see the army as a first step in becoming more integrated with the state.”

According to Shadi Khaloul, a forum spokesperson, the total number of Christians serving in the Israeli military has more than quadrupled since 2012, from 35 to nearly 150. This may seem a drop in the ocean, but it was enough to enrage many Palestinian Israelis. Father Naddaf says that his car’s tires were punctured and that he received death threats, worrying him enough that he got bodyguards. Hanin Zoabi, an Arab-Muslim member of the Israeli parliament, wrote Father Naddaf a public letter calling him a collaborator and accusing him of putting young Christians “in danger.” “Arab Palestinians, regardless of their religion, should not join the Israeli army,” Ms. Zoabi told me. “We are a national group, not a religious one. Any attempt to enlist Christians is part of a strategy of divide-and-rule.”

Many Arab Christians don’t see it that way. “We are not mercenaries,” says Mr. Khaloul, who served as a captain in an IDF paratrooper brigade. “We want to defend this country together with the Jews. We see what is happening these days to Christians around us—in Iraq, Syria and Egypt.”

Since the Arab revolutions began in Tunisia in 2011, many Christians in the region have felt isolated and jittery. Coptic churches have been attacked in Egypt, and at least 26 Iraqis leaving a Catholic church in Baghdad on Christmas Day were killed by a car bomb. Islamists continue to threaten to enforce Shariah law wherever they gain control.

The Christian awakening in Israel goes beyond joining the IDF. Some Israeli Christian leaders now demand that their history and heritage be taught in state schools. “Children in Arab schools in Israel learn only Arab-Muslim history,” says a report prepared by Mr. Khaloul and submitted to Israel’s Ministry of Education, “and this causes the obliteration of Christian identity.”

Some Israeli Christians even recently established a new political party, headed by Bishara Shlayan, a stocky, blue-eyed former captain in the Israeli navy who told me that he once beat up an Irish sailor in Londonderry who called him an “[expletive] Jew.” The new party is puckishly called B’nai Brith (“Children of the Covenant”), and Shlayan says it will have Jewish as well as Christian members. Nazareth’s mayor, Ramez Jaraisy, recently told the Times of Israel that Shlayan was a “collaborator” with the Israeli authorities.

“The current Arab political establishment only brought us hate and rifts,” says Mr. Shlayan. “The Arab-Muslim parties didn’t take care of us. We are not brothers with the Muslims; brothers take care of each other.” Mr. Shlayan, who advocates better education, housing and employment for Israeli Christians, says he also dreams of turning Nazareth into an even busier tourist spot by erecting the world’s biggest statue of Jesus.

Should this Christian awakening succeed, it would be yet another notable shift in the balance of power among religious groups in the Middle East.

Mr. Schwartz is a former staff writer and senior editor for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

Debunking Israel’s imagined ‘Christian awakening’

By Dr. Reem Khamis-Dakwar, Mondoweiss
January 02, 2014

Last week, the Wall Street Journal published a piece entitled “Israel’s Christians Awakening,” by Adi Schwartz, arguing that Palestinian Christians in Israel are undergoing a change, separating their identity from the Palestinian minority and enlisting in the Israeli army as a sign of close cooperation with the Israeli Jewish society.

This piece was published just a few days after Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent a special video message to Palestinian Christians citizens of Israel. His message served a twofold purpose: it was both another attempt to present Israel as the protector of Christian minorities (ostensibly in contrast to neighboring countries), and an opportunity to encourage Palestinian Christians citizens of Israel to serve in the Israeli military. The latter is a longstanding tactic that has been used to de-Arabize Palestinian communities, a continuation of Israel’s divide and rule strategy and a hallmark of Israel’s founding fathers.

Netanyahu’s message comes at a time of gathering momentum in the efforts to boycott Israeli institutions for their complicity in aiding and abetting Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights. But the treatment of Palestinian Christians is particularly crucial to Israel’s image as a “Jewish and democratic state” and its relationship with the Western countries that continue to support it notwithstanding its abusive policies. It is this context that provides a clearer reading of Adi Schwartz’s comments in the WSJ.

I was raised in a Palestinian Catholic family in Nazareth in northern Israel. My parents’ lives revolved around family, work, and church. Although I have lived in the US for many years now, I visit my family every summer and am deeply connected with my roots. As part of this community, I can tell you that Palestinian Christians in Israel are aware of their belonging to the Palestinian people in every aspect of their lives. They live and function within a state that is defined for others, since it is by definition a Jewish state, and policymakers are wholly focused on serving those others. The voices reported in the WSJ’s article, then, are discordant with this reality, sounding like a cacophony prompted by the Israeli government.

Israel is defined as a Jewish State, which means Jews have exclusive and special rights that are not given to non-Jews. These rights include promotion of Zionist values and history, the disproportionate and beneficial allocation of resources to Jews, and other institutional privileges that have direct impact on social structures including immigration, land rights, and education. Palestinians are treated as second-class citizens and lack a sense of belonging. They acutely feel a need for protection at all times within the state of Israel, whether they are Christians or not. Cabinet ministers and political groups explicitly advocate the transfer of Palestinians citizens and even population swap in order to maintain Israel’s Jewish majority.

Discriminatory laws and initiatives are passed to prevent Palestinians from connecting to our history, culture, and religion. The infamous anti-Nakba law prohibits state funding to organizations that commemorate the dispossession and expulsion of over 700,000 Palestinians from 1947-1949. Segregation is endorsed in approximately 700 agricultural and community towns in Israel on the basis of “social unsuitability,” preventing Christian and Muslim Palestinians from living among the Jewish populations. Arab communities in the Naqab and the Galilee are subject to Judaization plans, non-violent Arab demonstrations against these policies are routinely dispersed with egregious and unnecessary force.

These discriminatory practices extend to everyday routines. At this time of year, it is not permitted to display a Christmas tree in the Israeli Knesset, reportedly because such an act would be considered “offensive”. Legal action has even been taken to allow the display of Christmas trees in some public places, such as Haifa University. Access to higher education is made easier for Jewish students than Palestinians. Housing subsidies are extended to Jewish settlers who want to live in illegal West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements. These conditions often make Palestinians desperate to leave the country in search of equality, education, housing, and the freedom to celebrate the holidays associated with their religion.

Today, it may be true that there is some ‘Christian awakening’ in Nazareth, but this is not and could not be the awakening described in Schwartz’s article. It is an awakening regarding the Israeli government’s attempts to recruit Palestinian Christians to serve in the Israeli military as part of their divide and rule policy. The reported alignment of Palestinian Christians with the Israeli identity and their attempt to disconnect from the Palestinian minority is questionable, at best. Palestinian Christians are aware that serving in the Israeli army contradicts their national interests and even their Christian values and beliefs and would bring them no greater rights, privileges or protections. Members of the Arab Druze community have been serving in the military since the 1950s and yet have not achieved equality; even those serving as officers in the Israeli Air Force are subject to unusual screening, as seen during a security exercise at the nuclear reactor in Dimona.

Thousands of Palestinians, Christian and Muslim alike, are struggling daily against oppression and are determined to seek unconditional full rights for all Israeli citizens. Against this backdrop, it is foolhardy to claim an “awakening” based on reports of only around 150 Christian Palestinian recruits. Make no mistake: Palestinian Christians know that joining the Israeli military or enrolling in the newly offered alternative national service will not end discrimination, but will only lead to further alienation and fragmentation. Those few Palestinian Christians choosing to join the army only highlight the tough choices faced by Palestinians in Israel in order to survive in the face of institutionalized discrimination. Do they join an occupying military to fight against fellow Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank in order to later be eligible for state benefits, or do they reject such bribes, demand unconditional full equality for themselves, and stand in solidarity with Palestinians living under Israeli occupation who are seeking freedom? Overwhelmingly, Palestinian citizens of Israel – both Christian and Muslim – are choosing Palestinian freedom and equality.

Today, my father, like many other Palestinian citizens, struggles within Israel to secure equal rights from the state that, following the Nakba of 1948, forced him into an orphanage as a child (and his mother and brother into Lebanon as refugees). I live with my father’s personal suffering and loss, with the hope that the common future for us all, Palestinians and Israelis, regardless of religious belonging, will be based on values of equality, justice, and mutual respect and not on a spurious call to arms.

Editor’s Note: This Op-Ed was originally sent to the Wall Street Journal who declined to publish it.

Anet Haskia, an Arab IDF member, and family. Photo by Anet Haskia.

Despite threats, threefold rise in Christian IDF enlistment

Overall number of Arab Christians opting to serve in army remains small, but Galilee cleric aims to change that

By Mitch Ginsburg, military correspondent,Times of Israel
December 25, 2013

IDF figures for 2013 show a significant increase in the small number of Arab Christian Israeli citizens opting to serve in the military, a course that has long been taboo outside the Druze and Bedouin communities of Israel.

“Since last June, within the space of half a year, 84 Christians have joined the military,” the army wrote on its official site earlier this week. That figure, while small, represents a threefold increase from past averages.

There are 161,000 Christians living in Israel. Nearly 80 percent of them are of Arab origin, with the remainder largely hailing from the former Soviet states. For years, the majority group — which has included an Israel Prize-winning author and a Supreme Court justice as well as an unswervingly anti-Zionist member of Knesset – has maintained a European birth rate and the top position on Israel’s scholastic achievement charts. But it has often identified, first, as Arabs and Palestinians – nearly all live in majority Muslim towns and villages – and only after as Israelis, certainly in all matters pertaining to compulsory military service.

Father Gabriel Naddaf, addressing a gathering of Christian Arab soldiers earlier this week, called, not for the first time, for a radical shift. “As a Christian spiritual teacher living in the Middle East, I understand that human rights are not to be taken for granted,” the IDF website quoted him as saying. “I believe in shared life between Jews and Christians in this state and a shared fate between the Christian minority and the Jewish state. I believe that we have the capability to contribute to the state and I call on the children of the Christian congregations — enlist in the IDF, help protect the state.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who sent a recorded message to the gathering in Nazareth — the largest of the Christian population centers in Israel — said that the goal of the initiative is “clear and blessed” and stressed that “there is no need to underscore the importance of your actions… I salute you and support you.”

The prime minister acknowledged the challenges facing the initiative. “I know it is not an easy mission but we will stand beside you and support you unstintingly. I am committed to ousting the threat and the violence that you face.”

Naddaf, who lives in the central Galilee town of Yafia, said he has faced an escalating regime of threats. “The violence and incitement against Christians seeking to assimilate into society, knows no bounds,” he reportedly said. “The incitement has borne fruit — what began as a blood-soaked towel at the door of my home reached new heights two weeks ago when my 17-year-old son was attacked.”

The meeting of the Israeli Christian Recruitment Forum, the first in which nearly all currently serving soldiers were in attendance, drew politicians and mid- to high-level IDF officers. Maj. Ihab Shalian, the founder of the enlistment forum, told the IDF news site that “the rise in enlistment is there but up till now there was a lot of fear — on one hand on account of uncertainty, and on the other, fear from our surroundings.”

That, however, has changed, he said. “Most of the sons of the congregation want to be a part of the state and I believe that now that the fear barrier has been broken — we’ll only progress from here.”

Notes and links
See also Israel recruits its Christian citizens for war against ‘the barbarians’, three articles including a report that a new Christian spirit had arisen last July – also announced by Fr. Gabriel Nadaff.

Israeli-Arab Christians Split from Israeli-Arab Muslims to Form New Party, July2013, JNS news agency  announces formation of Habrit Hahadashah (The New Alliance) and quotes:

“The entire thing started from the fact that I wanted to get my nephew into the army and there were difficulties, they really didn’t want him to integrate. Today he is a major in a combat unit,” Bashara Shlayan, founder of the new Arab Christian party, told Israel Hayom.

Shlayan added, “We also invited priests from the church to a conference we held in Nazareth Illit. One of them is the Church patriarch, Father Gabriel Nadaf [who has drawn the ire of Arab MKs recently for encouraging Christian Arab youth to join the IDF], who preferred [our way] and said we were right.”

Shlayan said many Israeli-Arab Christians simply want to be recognized as loyal citizens.

“They [Israeli-Arab leaders] think being against Israel is Arab nationalism, that it is the manly thing. But if you oppose this way of thinking, you are a traitor. This is what needs to be changed. It’s stupidity. So I demand that we, the Christians, be recognized as loyal citizens of the state,” Shlayan said.

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