A quiet revolution is under way in the Arabic-speaking Israeli-Christian community. More and more young Christians see themselves as Israelis first and refuse to bend to political interests that do not serve them.
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These young people want to be part of the State of Israel and Israeli society in every way, including by joining the army. This initiative should be welcomed by anyone who champions a democratic, humanistic approach that views each person as a citizen first.
But not everyone shares this attitude. The Christian-Israeli revolution has plenty of enemies, not only in Arab nationalist circles, but also on the Jewish extreme right and Jewish extreme left. These three groups, ostensibly very different, promote the same racist-Kahanist position that rejects the enlistment of Israeli Christians. All three groups view Christian Israelis as “Arabs” or “non-Jews,” not as Israeli citizens with equal rights and duties.
Fortunately, a strong majority of Israelis doesn’t share this racism and wholeheartedly supports the amazing revolution. But tacit support isn’t enough. The time has come for the silent majority to compel its politicians, on the right and on the left, to stand – in deed as well as in word – beside the country’ citizens who want to contribute.
Members of the Israeli-Christian Arabic-speaking community are sharply divided over their identity. Some see themselves as Palestinian Arabs, and in a free and democratic state, this choice must be respected. But many, who until recently lived underground and were silenced, don’t see themselves as Palestinian and sometimes not as Arab. Rather, they consider themselves Israeli Christian. Some in this group have rediscovered their roots in the ancient Land of Israel, in Aramaic and Greek culture.
Positions like these have been formed based on the realization that the State of Israel is not a passing phenomenon, and certainly not a negative one. Considering the fanatic religious and sectarian violence in neighboring countries, many Israeli Christians have concluded that only a strong Israel can ensure them and their children personal and religious freedom, prosperity and well-being, as well as protection against the terrible fate of the minorities in neighboring countries. They understand that their future is in Israel, so they seek to fully integrate and contribute as much as they can.
The desire to join the army isn’t surprising. As long as the army is the formative experience of most young people in the country, army service is required for full integration into society.
This isn’t a legal decision but a reflection of a sociocultural reality. It’s the reason thousands of handicapped people who are exempt from military service insist on volunteering. It’s the reason more and more religious young women who can receive exemptions insist on joining the army. It’s the reason many immigrants want to be drafted; they realize that only army service will make them Israeli in every sense. It’s the reason disaffected young people insist on serving, knowing that army service is the key to a normal life in Israel. It’s also the reason young Christians want to join the army; they realize that not doing so leads to discrimination.
In recent months a number of politicians have identified with Christians who support joining the Israel Defense Forces. They identify with the spiritual leader of that group, Father Gabriel Nadaf, and with the organization he founded, the Israeli Christian Recruitment Forum. But this identification and moral support aren’t enough. The state must lend a hand.
For example, it's inconceivable that the IDF does not yet have Christian chaplains. Just as the U.S. military has rabbis, so should the IDF appoint Christian clergy to serve the needs of Christian soldiers, while appointing Muslim military qadis to serve Muslim soldiers. Also, the Civil Service Commission must use affirmative action to appoint Israeli Christians who have served in the IDF or have done national service to suitable positions in government.
The choice of many Christian Israelis to get involved in the state and join the IDF is nothing less than miraculous. These pioneers can become part of a revolution that will make the entire non-Jewish community an integral part of Israeli society. But the country’s leaders must take immediate steps to help them. This is important to us all, and the main thing, it’s the right thing to do.
Uri Shenhar is the legal adviser to the Israeli Christian Recruit Forum.