Recently publications have been highlighting “Israel’s Christians Awakening,” arguing that Palestinian Christians in Israel are undergoing a change, separating their identity from the Palestinian minority and enlisting in the Israeli army as a sign of close cooperation with Israeli Jewish society.
Recently Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu sent a special video message to Palestinian Christians citizens of Israel. His message served a twofold purpose: it was both another attempt to present Israel as the protector of Christian minorities (ostensibly in contrast to neighboring countries), and an opportunity to encourage Palestinian Christians citizens of Israel to serve in the Israeli military.
Netanyahu’s message comes at a time of gathering momentum in the international efforts to boycott Israeli institutions. The treatment of Palestinian Christians is particularly crucial to Israel’s image as a “Jewish and democratic state” and its relationship with the Western countries that continue to support it. It is this context that provides a clearer reading of articles about the “Christian awakening.”
I was raised in a Palestinian Catholic family in Nazareth in northern Israel. My parents’ lives revolved around family, work and church. Although I have lived in the US for many years now, I visit my family every summer and am deeply connected with my roots.
As part of this community, I can tell you that Palestinian Christians in Israel are aware of their belonging to the Palestinian people in every aspect of their lives. They live and function within a state that is defined for others, since it is by definition a Jewish state, and policymakers are wholly focused on serving those others. The voices reported in these articles, then, are discordant with this reality, sounding like a cacophony prompted by the Israeli government.
Israel is defined as a Jewish state, which means Jews have exclusive and special rights that are not given to non-Jews. These rights include promotion of Zionist values and history, the disproportionate and beneficial allocation of resources, and other institutional privileges that have direct impact on social structures including immigration, land rights and education.
Palestinian citizens of Israel are treated as second-class citizens and lack a sense of belonging. They acutely feel a need for protection at all times within the State of Israel, whether they are Christians or not.
Over the years some cabinet ministers and political groups explicitly advocated the transfer of Palestinians citizens and even population swaps in order to maintain Israel’s Jewish majority.
Discriminatory laws and initiatives are passed to prevent Palestinians from connecting to our history, culture and religion. The ‘Nakba law’ prohits state funding to organizations that commemorate our dispossession in 1947-1949. There is also discrimination in approximately 700 agricultural and community towns in Israel on the basis of “social unsuitability,” preventing Christian and Muslim Palestinians from living among the Jewish populations.
These discriminatory practices extend to everyday routines. At this time of year, it is not permitted to display a Christmas tree in the Israeli Knesset, reportedly because such an act would be considered “offensive.” Legal action has even been taken to allow the display of Christmas trees in some public places, such as Haifa University.
Palestinians face discrimination in access to higher education. Housing subsidies are extended to Jewish settlers who want to live in West Bank and east Jerusalem settlements which are illegal under international law. These conditions often make Palestinians desperate to leave the country in search of equality, education, housing and the freedom to celebrate the holidays associated with their religion.
Today, it may be true that there is some “Christian awakening” in Nazareth, but this is not and could not be the awakening described in recent articles. It is an awakening regarding the Israeli government’s attempts to recruit Christians to serve in the Israeli military as part of a divide-and-rule policy. The reported alignment of Palestinian Christians with the Israeli identity and their attempt to disconnect from the Palestinian minority is questionable, at best.
Many Palestinian Christians are aware that serving in the Israeli army contradicts their national interests and even their Christian values and beliefs and would bring them no greater rights, privileges or protections. Members of the Arab Druse community have been serving in the military since the 1950s and yet have not achieved equality; even those serving as officers in the Israel Air Force are subject to unusual screening, as seen during a security exercise at the nuclear reactor in Dimona.
Thousands of Palestinians, Christian and Muslim alike, are struggling daily against discrimination and are determined to seek unconditional full rights for all Israeli citizens.
Against this backdrop, it is foolhardy to claim an “awakening” based on reports of only around 150 Christian Palestinian recruits.
Make no mistake: Palestinian Christians know that joining the Israeli military or enrolling in the newly offered alternative national service will not end discrimination, but will only lead to further alienation and fragmentation.
Those few Palestinian Christians choosing to join the army only highlight the tough choices faced in the face of institutionalized discrimination.
Do they join an army occupying the West Bank to get state benefits, or demand unconditional full equality in solidarity with all Palestinians? Overwhelmingly, Palestinian citizens of Israel – both Christian and Muslim – are choosing to support Palestinian equality.
Today, my father, like many other Palestinian citizens, struggles within Israel to secure equal rights from the state that, following the 1948 war which we call the Nakba or catastrophe, forced him into an orphanage as a child (and his mother and brother into Lebanon as refugees). I live with my father’s personal suffering and loss, with the hope that the common future for us all, Palestinians and Israelis, regardless of religious belonging, will be based on values of equality, justice and mutual respect and not on a spurious call to arms.
The writer, is a Palestinian citizen of Israel , living in New York and working as an assistant professor of communication sciences and disorders at Adelphi University.