Amit Barak, co-founder of the Jerusalemite Initiative, spoke to participants in a January 25 Middle East Forum webinar (video) about historic change occurring among the roughly 175,000 Arabic-speaking Israeli Christians and their growing identification with and integration into Israeli society as a whole.
For many years, Arabic-speaking Christians in Israel were commonly known as Christian Arabs, reflecting the fact that they shared much the same solidarity with the outside Arab world as Israel's 1.3 million Muslim Arab citizens. Living primarily in Arab Muslim towns and villages, they were considered part of the undifferentiated Arab sector. Like Muslim Arabs, they are exempt from obligatory military service.
This perspective about the place of Arabic-speaking Christians in Israeli society began to shift around 2012, as they witnessed the growing persecution of Christians throughout the Middle East, most notably those in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, and the Palestinian Authority self-rule areas.
In response, Father Gabriel Naddaf of Nazareth, a Greek Orthodox priest who had established the Christian Empowerment Council, has called upon the Christian community to embrace Israel as its home and "safe haven." Moreover, he publicly urged Christian youth to "defend our home" by serving in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and the Israeli National Service (Sherut Leumi). While Israeli law obligates only Jews, Druze, and Circassians to serve in the IDF, Arabic-speaking Christians (and Muslims) may volunteer.
Father Naddaf's call for Christians to fully integrate into Israeli society and become partners in "building the state" broke a long-standing taboo. While there are Arabic-speaking Christians who serve as judges in Israel's Supreme Court, hospital directors, and other high-profile positions, Barak explained that their participation until now has been as individuals, not as representatives of a community acting on behalf of Israel.
Evidence of Father Naddaf's success can be seen in the increasing number of Arabic-speaking Christians volunteers serving in the IDF, from 30-35 before 2012 to around 100 by 2014. Arabic-speaking Christian volunteers in the National Service (which serves as an alternative to obligatory military service for ultra-orthodox Jews and conscientious objectors) rose from around a dozen to 500.
Father Naddaf's wake-up call to his fellow Christians has been challenged by Muslim and leftist organizations in Israel. Arabic-speaking Christians who embrace his call have suffered boycotts against their businesses and even difficulties seeking marital partners. The threat of violence against Arabic-speaking Christians in the IDF has led them to receive special permission to remove their uniforms when traveling to and from their homes.
Father Naddaf has emphasized the need for education about the origins of Arabic-speaking Christians to bolster their integration in Israel. Arabic-speaking Christians date back to the 7th and 8th centuries when Arab Muslims conquered the area and transformed the culture. Among the imposed changes, Aramaic, the spoken language shared by Jews, Greeks, and Christians, was replaced by Arabic. Christians speak Arabic as their "mother language" because of the cultural environment of where they live, but "they are not Arabs," said Barak. They are being awakened to their true origins as "descendants of the first Jews who followed Jesus ... [and] ... descendants of Aramean tribes, north-of-Israel Assyrian tribes, and other tribes."
Arabic-speaking Christians in Israel "are not Arabs."
At Father Naddaf's urging, in 2016 Israel's Interior Ministry enacted a major change by recognizing Aramean as a nationality in Israel. Although the registry process involves a lengthy bureaucratic one, the ministry's recognition enables Arabic-speaking Christians to formally change their identity "from Arab to Aramean."
Barak said the next step in the "ongoing process" of Christian integration is to gain the support of Israel's Ministry of Education. Providing crucial knowledge in the education system about the origins of Arabic-speaking Christians will help bring about "a real change" by nurturing their identities as Israeli civilians who are fully vested in safeguarding their homeland.
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.