By Father Gabriel Naddaf
We, sons of the Christian community in Israel, have decided to get off the fence we straddled for decades. We are no longer victims of the turbulent reality like a leaf in the wind, but warriors who shape their surroundings with power; no longer accepting the blurring of identity and falling into the trap of double loyalty, but rather demanding a clear, distinct identity arrived at by choice.
The passive and submissive approach, dragged along by Arab nationalism and foreign interests, has been replaced by a profound and forthright desire to be part of Israeli society and to integrate into it as citizens with equal rights and obligations, fortunate to live in an enlightened democratic state. We wish to say out loud, and ensure that it should be clearly heard as part of the variety of voices which make up the rich tapestry of Israeli society.
Against the extremists: Neither Arabs, nor Palestinians – but Israelis
The number of Israeli Christian citizens is estimated at about 160,000; 80% speak the Arabic language, and in the past were known as “Arab Christians.” The Christian community, which exists as a minority within the minority of non-Jewish Arabic speaking people in Israel (about 8%), now strives for self-definition from a conscious position of freedom. We wish today to declare our identity, both to the community and to Israeli society and the whole world: we are not Arabs, we are not Palestinians, we are Israelis, citizens of this country, and we see ourselves as loyal to it and its institutions, just like Christians around the world who live in any other country, practice their faith and feels himself loyal to the state in which he lives – be it France, the United States, Britain or Holland.
We know that even if the relationship between the Christian community and the State of Israel has known ups and downs since its establishment, there was generally a good and reliable rapport between the community and the State. Now the community is allowing itself to present an alternative to the status quo which left its members foundering with no way out. Israeli Christians wish to hold their heads high and feel pride in an honourable relationship between the Jewish residents of the country and members of other communities.
The Christian community has dealt before and now with difficulties and challenges, primarily internal ones. But these derived – and still derive – from an unwise leadership. The leadership needs to be able to lead the Christian community on the right path – a path of connection and full integration with Israeli society, of growth and development, a path where the positive outweighs the negative. But unfortunately, there are those in the Christian community who encourage and preserve an isolationist approach, along with full nationalist identification with the Palestinian side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and not with the state in which they live, and they oppose and even try to sabotage anything that would promote Christian integration into Israeli society.
In addition, there are non-Jewish and non-Christian factors who wish to torpedo the revolutionary process which the Christian community is presently undergoing, out of both political and personal interests. Christian Israelis who oppose their brethren’s integration into Israeli society are not following in the path of Christianity and not acting according to its spirit. Elements within the Christian community and certainly within the Muslim community are encouraging separatism and conflict, forcing the Christian community to remain at the margins of society, this in order to enshrine us as victims of the Palestinian conflict, a conflict with which no Christian has any connection and from which it wishes to distance itself.
But since the beginning of the revolutionary process, a large portion of the Christian community has begun to free itself of the old, constraining outlook, an outlook which left helpless to be pulled between the previous situation and the choice to free themselves of the bonds of the past, the desire to choose loyalty to the State which protects them and allows them complete freedom of worship, opinion and conscience.
A Common History
Judaism and Christianity have been bound with one another ever since the birth of the latter. The Christian faith is a direct descendant of the Jewish faith, and it sees itself as such. Its roots are embedded in the Bible, the books of the prophets in the Old and New Testament, and also deep in the Land of Israel, already from the time of Jesus. This is where his teachings grew, this is where Christianity was founded and spread to the whole world. Christianity sees what is written in the books of prophets as being fulfilled in the New Testament embodied by Jesus, the son of Holy Mary from Nazareth, who was seen as the Messiah by the Judeo-Christian community and the only son of God by the Christian faithful to this day.
Jesus of Nazareth, born in Bethlehem, lived in the time of the Great Caesar Augustus and grew up in the region of Judaea, Samaria and the Galilee. According to the Christian faith, Jesus sacrificed himself for the forgiveness of humankind and for the unification of the Jewish and Greek worlds. He was resurrected on the third day after his death and ascended to heaven forty days afterward to become the right hand of God. Thus was humanity merged with God.
After Islam was founded in 641, Arab forces led by the Califs Omar and Abu Bakr conquered the Land of Israel from the Byzantines. The population of the Land of Israel largely consisted of Jews and Christians – Greeks, Arameans and Latins. During the Muslim conquest, Muslims placed limitations on them on where they could pray or live. In 1099, the Crusaders conquered many territories in the Land of Israel. The Crusading period is a dark period for Christianity. We are not proud of it, we reject it entirely, as it is opposed to everything we believe in.
The ‘Arab Spring’: A Wakeup Call for Israeli Christians
Today, after the radicalization which has washed over the Christian community in Israel, it is now a time for truth and introspection; a time for work and activism, the time to say our piece. We see what is happening in the Arab states around us. We see the intolerable suffering of the Christians in these states: the persecutions, the ethnic cleansing and the daily murders of Christians just for being Christian.
These harsh historical events are a resounding wakeup call for us. The silent majority of the Christian community which never expressed itself, especially our youth, understand today that they must become active partners in the state which protects them and grants them freedom in a democratic society. Partnership means contribution and giving.
From here the process began, the desire grew among the youth and the vast majority of Christian families to give expression to the freedom of opinion and conscience, which are the foundations of a democratic society. This, in spite of the strident opposition of the dominant Arab minority ever since the state was established.
Ever since this began, the path from here to the Israeli Christians Recruitment Forum was short, as it fell on fertile ground. The majority of Christians always waited for a courageous leadership which will show them the way and be an address for it, instead of a group of self-selected people driven by factionalism, isolationism and conflict while providing no real solution or way out.
The fallacious argument often made, that the Israeli government deliberately aims for a policy of “divide and rule,” is an entirely baseless claim. We, members of the Christian community, declare out of choice and free will: the old path, which caused us much damage and little good, has come to an end. No-one whose approach is foreign to us will speak for us or force an identity or nation on us based on personal or political interests. We are finally free to return to our real roots and follow the path in which we believe with a profound faith.
It is very easy to sweep people up in the path of hatred and conflict. It is far more difficult to do so for the path of acceptance, integration and removal of hate. Despite that, recently, after the founding of the Forum, young men and women arose and expressed themselves in the media – bravely and wisely – passing on a message for all Israeli citizens: Enough. We’ve had it with the situation of the past. We are choosing a different path. A path of our own.
Believing in a Partnership with Israel
As is the way with all revolutions, the present one among the Christian community is not an easy one. It is encountering resistance from a number of quarters. But profound changes don’t happen in a day, or a year. We are aware of the difficulties but determined to press on, to fight for the integration of members of the Christian community into Israeli society and state institutions, to serve in it and do our part – not just with words but with deeds.
Thus, in 2012 the Israeli Christians Recruitment Forum was established by Major Ihab Shelian, who has served in the IDF for many years. A man of outstanding character, a role model for our youth and an infinite source of pride for us. That year, when the process had just begun, the number of those enlisting in the IDF was just 35. In 2013, that number tripled to 120 young boys and girls; this in spite of incessant threats and incitement.
I personally, as a spiritual father of the Christian community, am constantly threatened. My threat status is “threat level 4.” But my faith and that of all those in the Christian community following in this new path, is stronger than any threat. We believe that the State of Israel is our heart. The State of Israel is sacred to us. We believe in its strength and its path. We also believe in the brave alliance of brotherhood between Jews and Christians in Israeli society. This alliance is stronger than any other force.
Father Gabriel Naddaf is the spiritual father of the Israeli Christians Recruitment Forum