Recently, the Justice and Peace Commission of the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries in the Holy Land issued a strong statement criticizing the recent Knesset law that allows specifically for Christian (and other) representation on the employment advisory council. This Catholic document wouldn’t matter much, except for the fact that the World Council of Churches quoted from it a few days later, and repeated some of its most insidious untruths. And from there it has carried on to blogs and websites around the world. The ostensible heart of the issue is Arab-Christian identity in Israel.
I’m an Orthodox Jewish Israeli Zionist with great respect for Christianity and I have the privilege of working regularly and happily with Arab Christians on various projects.
So as a person who is neither Arab/ Palestinian nor Christian, I write these musings with great trepidation, aware that this is an internal conversation with high stakes. But when an internal dialogue about identity is turned into a platform from which a religious institution with great influence can launch unfounded attacks against the State of Israel and her legislature, the truth must be sought out.
First, the document argues that the state has overstepped its bounds and has no right to define the identity of Arab Christians on their behalf. But of course states constantly strive to categorize and label the identities of its citizens, in accord with their strategic interests, because that is what states do.
Naturally, it remains up to the individual to decide to what degree they will accept that ascribed identity.
So, for example, in October 2013 the Supreme Court of Israel declared that “Israeli” could not be substituted as a nationality for “Jewish” (or anything else) on ID cards. There is, according to the Supreme Court of Israel, no such ethnic identity (leom) as “Israeli.”
It certainly is the right of states to define – in specific contexts – the identities of its citizens. As a community and as individuals, Christian Arabs also have the right to define themselves any way they please, as should anyone else, as participants to whatever degree in broad Israeli society, as closer to or further away from other communities, institutions, and aspirations.
It is up to individuals to accept, reject, ignore or make use of the identities ascribed by the state.
Second, the concerns raised by the Justice and Peace Commission statement suggest, strangely, that ethnicity is more important than faith. The new Knesset law implies (accidentally, I feel certain) that there is a shared “Christian” identity, something that stands beyond the various ethnicities and hyphenated identities, that binds Christian believers/practitioners together.
If “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek,” I would imagine there should equally be neither Arab nor Filipino nor Russian. I find this Herculean effort on the part of Christians to emphasize ethnicity (Arab) over religious faith/practice (professing Christ) to be puzzling from a theological perspective.
But the third problem is the most insidious: simply put, the new Knesset law does not do what it is accused of doing. The statement adopted by the Justice and Peace Commission of the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries in the Holy Land and repeated by the World Council of Churches document, boldly asserts that the new Knesset law “states that Christian Palestinians are Christians and not Palestinians.”
That’s just untrue – the new law states nothing of the sort.
The law expands representation on the committee to include an organization engaged in promoting employment among the Arab-Muslim population and an organization engaged in such work among the Christian population.
Now I am not naïve – it is clear from interviews in the media that the intention of MK Yariv Levin is precisely the kind of division in the Arab community that many fear.
But criticizing the perceived intention of the author of the bill is a far cry from the accusation that the Israeli Knesset has enacted a law that decrees that Palestinian Christians are not Palestinians.
I wish I could urge Israelis to believe that the Justice and Peace Commission of the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries simply made a translation error. Unfortunately, the history of Jewish-Christian relations generally, and specific experience between some Christian institutions and the State of Israel, offer us little stable ground for presuming goodwill. Accusations against the Israeli legislature that are inaccurate and contained in documents not translated into Hebrew, which are then copied and repeated by Christian organizations around the world do little to strengthen the glimmer of trust and honest relations that we strive to build up.
Particularly as the state and the Church prepare together for the pope’s visit in two months, it is incumbent on us to examine whether we act, speak and write in good faith.
The writer is the director for the Galilee Center for Studies in Jewish-Christian Relations (www.csjcr.com) at The Max Stern Yezreel Valley College. She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org