Where do Christians fit into the 'Jewish State' bill?

Minority religious groups are worried about the impact of the proposed "Jewish State" bill.

December 10, 2014 15:03
3 minute read.
Christians in Jerusalem

A Christian woman outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. (photo credit: ARIEL COHEN)

Christians in Israel are debating whether the proposed "Jewish State" bill will weaken Israel's democracy by marginalizing minority religious groups, or whether it will strengthen the Holy Land as a unified state.

The proposed "Jewish State" bill defines Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people,” and reinforces state symbols, the use of "Hatikva" as the national anthem, use of the Hebrew calendar and the Law of Return. While these are not new developments in Israeli society, this would be the first time these Jewish national elements were enshrined in a Basic Law.

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Critics of the legislation believe that efforts to maintain Israel’s 'Jewishness' are outweighing the importance and necessity of keeping the state democratic for all citizens and religious groups.

The 158,000 Christians who call Israel home make up two percent of the population, according to a 2013 survey by the Central Bureau of Statistics. Approximately 80% of Christians in Israel are Arabs.

Israeli-Arab Christian MK Hanna Swaid told The Jerusalem Post that he is expressly against the "Jewish State" bill, stating there is not a place for a Jewish state at this time or at all in general, as "this bill formalizes and enshrines the status of Arabs as second class citizens."

“For this purpose, there is no difference between Christian, Muslim and Druse," Swaid said. "The bill does not speak about equality for Arab citizens in the State of Israel. In my homeland I deserve rights."

Certain versions of the proposed legislation, which seeks to ensure legal consideration for Israel’s 'Jewishness', also excludes minorities in certain ways. Arabic would no longer be considered an official national language, but rather would be given a "special status," according to a version of the bill.

"They speak of the flag, the anthem, all the symbols of Israel-- as belonging to Israel, not to Arabs. But this is our state too, not just for the Jewish people," Swaid said. "This is very frustrating for Arab citizens."

Swaid spoke of the two Druse officers who were killed last month in separate terror attacks in Jerusalem: one in the Har Nof synagogue and the other in a vehicular attack near the light rail. Both those men died protecting Israel, but under the "Jewish State" bill he believes they would be deemed "second class citizens."

“The Christian perspective is completely against the bill because it treats Christians just like Arabs," Swaid said. “It is a provocative bill. It is not required, it is not needed; it insults the minorities in Israel. No one aims to be a second class citizen, and this bill completely makes them second class citizens."

Not all Christians are opposed to the bill, though. Father Gabriel Naddaf, an outspoken priest from Nazareth who advocates national service for Christian Arabs, expressed his support for the "Jewish State" Bill.

Naddaf explained that although the State of Israel defines itself as a Jewish and democratic state, democratic principles are well-founded in law, whereas Jewish principles are not. But, in order for Israel to stay true to its founding purpose, it is important to define Israel as a Jewish state under law.

“The minority group is claiming that Israel is a multinational country,” Father Gabriel Naddaf said. “Even the fundamental laws, which the Supreme Court turned into ‘constitution’ against all practicality known in the world, where it is mentioned that Israel is a Jewish and democratic county, were interpreted in a way that gives a clear supremacy to the democratic aspect over the Jewish aspect. The bill is meant to restore the balance that was broken in an attempt to erase the 'Jewishness' of the state."

In the past, Naddaf routinely stated that Israel is the only nation in the Middle East where Christians can enjoy equal freedoms and rights.

The prominent Greek priest added that the Christians of Israel currently “enjoy freedom and equality in all aspects, and that for Israel to define itself as Jewish would not pose any obstacle for members of minority groups to live in peace in the country."

Due to recent political developments, it is unclear if and when this bill will go to a final vote in the Knesset.
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