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The Plight of Arab Israeli Christians

By on 5.22.14 | 3:53PM

Arab Israeli Christians of military age will now receive a non-binding invitation to volunteer for the Israeli army, partly because of efforts by an Arab Israeli priest.

The Greek Orthodox priest, Father Gabriel Naddaf of Nazareth, has faced tremendous opposition from the Christian and Muslim communities alike, some of whom see this as Israel's latest attempt to "divide and conquer" along religious lines, according to the Washington Free Beacon. Christians represent 2 percent of the Israeli population and 10 percent of Arab Israelis, but the number of Christians in the Israeli army has tripled to 150 since Father Naddaf's campaign began.

It should be noted that this is mostly symbolic. Arab Christians who have Israeli citizenship are only a small percentage of the overall Palestinian population, as the category excludes Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem, not to mention the refugees scattered worldwide.

Additionally, this new rule does no more than advertise to Arab Israeli Christians the military service option they have technically always had. All Arabs, along with Jewish Ultra-Orthodox, were originally exempted from the mandatory military service of the nation’s Jewish population. The thinking was that Arab Israelis should not be asked, or trusted, to fight Arab armies. 

However, even the symbolic interest in being part of Israeli society represents a sharp turnabout.

The Arab cause has been championed by Islamic groups for long enough now that the idea seems strange, but Christians were once some of Palestine’s most politically involved citizens. In the years following the 1948 establishment of the Israeli state, Palestinian Christians were not just involved in pro-Palestinian efforts—they were often the leaders. Arab Christians generally benefitted from relatively high educational levels, contacts in Europe, and the infrastructure provided by churches. They developed and used Pan-Arab ideologies, insisting that Muslims and Christians were brothers and that both faiths are part of the Arab cultural heritage.

The wars with Israel in 1967 and 1973 were two of many blows to Pan-Arabism. It was replaced by a resurging interest in Islam. Groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas rose up to represent the Arab people. Politically, Arab Christians were left in the cold.

Some Christians were optimistic about the Arab Spring, which began as a secular populist movement. Much of the initial optimism has backfired, and Christians have often been left as collateral damage in power plays. The Coptic Christians, who make up 10 percent of Egypt’s population, have been targeted repeatedly in the revolutionary violence since 2011.

In Syria, many Christians have opted to support President Bashar al-Assad rather than the primarily Sunni Muslim rebels. Assad is an Alawite—a Shiite Muslim minority—and he courted other religious minorities to stay in power. Presumably Syria's Christians have no particular love for his regime, but they would rather take the known evil of Assad than try their luck with the rebels.

The paradox continues with this recent interest by Christians in joining the Israeli army. The Arab Israeli Christians are similarly stuck between a rock and a hard place.

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