JERUSALEM—A group of Israeli Arab Christians led by a Greek Orthodox priest have roiled the Israeli Arab community by distancing themselves from their Arab identity and requesting that Christian Arabs be drafted into the Israeli army to show their support for the Jewish state.
"Christians have a bond with the Jews," said Father Gabriel Naddaf of Nazareth, referring to their common link to the Old Testament. "We have an allegiance with the Jewish people. With the Muslims we are neighbors. There is no covenant there [with the Muslims]. None at all."
Israel exempts Arabs, whether Muslim or Christian, from the military draft on the grounds that it would be too much of a strain on loyalty to be asked to wage war against fellow Arabs. A small number of Arabs serve on a voluntary basis.
However, Father Naddaf has been meeting with Israeli authorities and groups of draft-age Christians and their parents for the past year in an effort to ease the way for Christian youths to be drafted into the army as a way of becoming more fully integrated into Israeli society.
Christians constitute just under 10 percent of the 1.5 million Arabs living in Israel who, in turn, make up 20 percent of Israel’s total population.
Naddaf’s highly controversial initiative—in effect, an attempt to forge a new non-Arab identity for the country’s Christians—has brought him condemnation from both Muslim and Christian leaders in the Arab community, as well as death threats.
He has been barred from entering the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, which Pope Francis will visit during his tour of the Holy Land next week. He ventures out only in the company of bodyguards after his son was beaten in the street.
The priest’s efforts have had some limited successes. Although there are only about 150 Arab Christians currently serving in the Israeli army, which is three times as many as were serving when he began his campaign.
All Arabs will continue to be exempt from the draft but Christian youths, as they approach draft age, will receive invitations from the Israel Defense Forces to visit their nearest draft board. There they will receive information about various branches in which it would be possible to serve. Although there will be nothing obligatory about these meetings they will make it easier for anyone thinking about volunteering to do so.
The movement reflects the shift in recent years in the Arab world from secular pan-Arabism, which united all Arabic-speaking peoples in the region and in which Christian Arabs could more easily fit, to Islamism as a dominant motif. There have been many attacks on Christians and massive emigration of Christians from countries like Iraq and Syria.
Israeli Arab Knesset member Hanin Zoabi, a Muslim, said that separating a Christian Arab youth from other Arabs endangered him by changing him "into an enemy of his people and assisting his true enemies [Israel]." Christian Arabs, she added, "are part of the weave of our Arab Palestinian people."