There’s a movement afoot to encourage Israeli Christian Arabs to serve in the Israeli army. The movement is led by a group called The Forum for Drafting the Christian Community. It includes Christian army officers, soldiers, and businessmen.
At the helm of this forum stands Father Gabriel Nadaf, a Greek Orthodox priest in the town of Yafia near Nazareth. For his efforts, though, Father Nadaf is under fierce fire from elements of Israel’s Christian Arab community and its Arab community in general.
Arabs are exempt from army service in Israel except for the small, non-Muslim, Arabic-speaking Druze and Circassian communities. Some Bedouin Muslims also volunteer to serve. Israel’s Christian Arab community numbers about 130,000, or about 10 percent of the larger Arab community that is mostly Muslim. For decades, Israel’s Christian Arabs more or less subscribed to the Muslim Arabs’ ambivalent-to-hostile attitude toward Israel as a state.
But those were the days of pan-Arabism, an ideology that sought to unite the Middle East’s diverse Arab communities under a common, secular, Arabic-speaking banner. Eventually pan-Arabism succumbed to today’s Islamic trend — and one result has been severe persecution of Christians throughout the Middle East and their massive flight from Muslim-majority countries.
That leaves Israel’s Christian Arab community as the only one in the region that is actually growing. Father Nadaf, in recent statements to Israeli media (see reports here and here), shows an appreciation of the reality:
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 feel secure in Israel…. Most of the young Christians here view Israel as their country.
The efforts of Father Nadaf and his forum are bearing fruit. In recent months 90 Christian Arab high school graduates have enlisted to serve in the Israeli army — a small number, but a threefold increase over 2010.
Father Nadaf says:
In the Christian community, there is a large pool of potential conscripts. Most of the community members see themselves as Israelis. We are part of this society in every sense of the word…. This is a genuine feeling. They want to contribute and they want to receive. This is what the young Christians want, and I’m talking about most of them.
There is, though, a much darker side to the reality.
Most of the Christian Arab soldiers, reports The Times of Israel, remove their uniform before coming home on leave. Official Israeli Arab bodies and Israeli Arab members of the Knesset fiercely oppose either military or civilian service. Hanan Zoabi, a Muslim woman member of the Knesset who can only be called an anti-Israel activist, accuses Father Nadaf of “endangering Christian youth, separating them from their people and turning them into their people’s enemy, thereby helping their true enemies.”
Notices, signs, and posters all over the Nazareth area condemn Father Nadaf, too, and bodyguards surround him whenever he enters his church in Yafia. He was banned from Nazareth’s Church of the Annunciation, and may lose his position in Yafia. The tires of his car have been punctured, a rag with bloodstains laid at his doorstep. His family receives regular death threats and are cursed when they walk the streets.
On June 25, Father Nadaf went to an hours-long disciplinary meeting with the Greek Orthodox patriarch in Jerusalem. Although he was not —as many had hoped—stripped of his priesthood, he was forbidden to give further interviews to the media.
As he said in one of the last of those interviews:
How can we seek a better future if the pain of the past continues to dominate us, and we cannot overcome it? If hatred controls us and our hearts? Christianity opposes this.
Israel’s raison d’être is to be a Jewish state, but it was never meant to be exclusively Jewish. Zionist visionaries and founders like Theodor Herzl, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and David Ben-Gurion always assumed it would include an Arab population with full rights. Israel’s Declaration of Independence says that the state of Israel,
will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions….
Equal rights, but not equal obligations. In a concession to Middle Eastern reality where a range of affiliations — religious, sectarian, ethnic, tribal, clan-based — often outweigh national loyalty, Israeli Arabs (except the Druze and Circassians) were exempted from military service. The consensus in the Israeli Jewish community was that they could not realistically be expected to fight Muslim Arab or Christian Arab brethren as part of the Jewish state’s army.
That was over six decades ago. Last month a newly released poll found 54.7 percent of Israeli Arabs saying they’d prefer to live in Israel than in any other country. Yet, at the same time, 58.6 percent were favorably disposed toward a third intifada by the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and 58.2 percent toward an intifada by the Israeli Arabs themselves.
In other words, the appreciation for Israel as a place to live is there — along with an ongoing hostility that, especially considering the brutality of the Second Intifada (2000-2005), is not encouraging.
But given the ferocity of Middle Eastern antagonisms — now erupting in deadly intra-Arab strife in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, and elsewhere — such results are not surprising to most Jewish Israelis today. Nor would they have been to the founding generation 65 years ago.
Is there a basis, then, for Father Nadaf’s optimism? Are his statements about a “large pool of conscripts” among Christian Arabs who see themselves as “part of [Israel] in every sense of the word” accurate in light of the fury his efforts have evoked?
There would be no way to know without, perhaps, a specific polling of Israel’s Christian Arab community. The issue isn’t vital for Israel, either, since the Christian Arab community is small and the Israeli army already has a good stock of manpower.
But the issue is important in terms of Father Nadaf’s efforts to achieve comity and his courage — unfortunately rare — in publicly giving credit to Israel for its decent treatment of minorities in a region where persecution is the keynote. Sometimes rays of light break through the darkness.