Israeli Arabs Slam Alleged Ploy to Get Christians to Join Army

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Christmas in Jerusalem's Old City. December 21, 2013.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Several Israeli Arab communities are enraged over a plan by a Christian-Jewish charity to distribute food vouchers to needy families at Christmastime via a controversial organization that encourages Christians to join the Israeli army.

The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, a charity that works with the poor and promotes social and cultural projects, including within the Arab community, has decided that this Christmas, its vouchers are to be handed out by the Israeli Christians Recruitment Forum, an organization that promotes military service and civilian national service among Christians.

Christians in Israel are divided over the forum, and part of the community, including several Arab local authorities, refuses to cooperate with it.

Several departments of social services within Arab municipalities have claimed that the decision is an unacceptable attempt to create a link between aid to needy families and the recruitment forum's activity.

Until recently, the fellowship transferred funds to local authorities' social services departments in accordance with each community's size and socioeconomic situation. These departments would then give out food vouchers, each worth $100, to registered needy families.

On September 2, local authorities where Christians reside received a letter from the fellowship saying that the forum would be distributing vouchers this year due to its link to the community.

On September 11, the forum sent Arab local authorities a request for a list of needy families. The forum said it would allocate vouchers based in part on the social services’ recommendation.

Haaretz has learned that some social services officials have asked the heads of their local authorities to intervene vis-à-vis the fellowship, arguing that handing over information about needy families would hurt the families and violate their privacy.

MK Basel Ghattas (Balad) has harshly criticized the fellowship’s decision to change the way it assists needy families, calling it "an ugly political act that tarnishes the ostensible humane purpose of helping people.” He added that the forum would use the project to increase its influence and “take advantage of people’s distress in a cynical, disgraceful way.”

According to Ghattas, “It turns the local authorities’ social services and social workers into contractors for recruiting Christians into the army. This is a breach of their job and conscience.”

Ghattas called on the fellowship to retract its plan “or we’ll call for it to be boycotted. I urge the local authorities’ social services not to cooperate with the fellowship.”

The fellowship's CEO Zion Gabai rejected the criticism. He told Haaretz that the charity and its founder, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, support the forum and its efforts to bring the Christian community closer to the Israeli mainstream. The decision was aimed at bolstering the aid efforts, a move he said would be positive for Israel and the Christian community.

Gabai denied claims that the forum would take advantage of the plan to pressure needy Christian youths to join the Israel Defense Forces. He said that in the past, some local authority heads handed out vouchers based on political interests, not need.

He said the fellowship made its decision independent of political pressure, and that this year the group intended to distribute 500 vouchers worth $100 each.

The Israeli Christians Recruitment Forum also dismissed accusations that it had political motives. A spokesman for the forum, Shadi Halul, said the fellowship had simply chosen to cooperate in the community’s interest.

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