Arab Christians join raging debate over IDF service

Greek Orthodox priest condemned for encouraging Arab Christians to enlist in the Israeli army.

Greek orthodox 370 (photo credit: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)
Greek orthodox 370
(photo credit: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)
Israeli society is locked in a heated debate over sharing the burden of military service more equitably, given that some 40% of potential draftees manage to evade army duty. To date, the dispute has largely focused on the exemptions granted to ultra-Orthodox Jews studying full time in yeshivot, and the Knesset is currently considering a bill that would greatly reduce that privilege, though the haredi world has vowed to fight it every step of the way.
But over the past month, a debate has raged over a different sector of the public serving in the army: Arab Christians. Knesset members and state prosecutors have been drawn into this impassioned exchange, thanks to a Greek Orthodox priest from the Galilee who has encouraged Arab Christians to volunteer for the IDF.
Last fall, Father Gabriel Nadaf, from the village of Yafia, began publicly calling on Israeli-Arab Christians to serve in the IDF. The move stirred a commotion in the Arab community, but it only reached the headlines in the Israeli press more recently, when Arab MKs demanded that Theophilos III, patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, discipline and even defrock Nadaf. This, in turn, elicited calls from nationalist Jewish MKs that the Arab lawmakers be banned from parliament and prosecuted for incitement against the state.
Since its founding in 1948, Israel has not made IDF service mandatory for its Arab citizens, who now make up 20 percent of the population. Over ensuing decades, the Beduin minority and a number of Druse villages have opted to send their sons into the army, but the remaining Arabs – both Muslims and Christians – have largely frowned on such a move.
Nadaf became involved with the issue last year, after he was asked to join a local forum in the Nazareth area to promote Christian enlistment, The Forum for Drafting the Christian Community. The group was launched by Bishara Shilyan, a 58-year-old Arab boat captain, who first encountered trouble getting his nephew into the IDF. “The entire thing started from the fact that I wanted to get my nephew into the army and there were difficulties, they really didn’t want him to integrate,” Shilyan recently told the Hebrew daily Israel Hayom. “Today he is a major in a combat unit.”
When it was his son’s turn to join the IDF, Shilyan founded the forum with the help of local clergymen, including Nadaf. Shilyan’s efforts have begun to bear fruit, as 90 Arab Christian high school graduates have joined the IDF in recent months, triple the number from three years ago. The IDF has recently made Christian conscription easier at its Tiberias office, and a special adviser was appointed by the Defense Ministry to deal exclusively with Christians.
But Nadaf is bearing the brunt of the angry reaction from fellow Arab Christians, Israeli Muslims and the Palestinian Authority.
In his hometown and nearby Nazareth, numerous posters have been put up condemning Nadaf. He has been forced to move around with bodyguards and was banned from Nazareth’s Church of the Annunciation. The tires of his car have been slashed, a rag with bloodstains laid at his doorstep. His wife and two children receive regular death threats and are cursed when they walk the streets.
Foreign Arab governments even warned Nadaf that he would be held responsible for any harm that is done to Christians in the region.
Then came the denunciations by Arab MKs like Haneen Zoabi and Bassel Ghattas of the Balad party, which propelled the issue onto the national stage.
“We are against his initiative,” Ghattas, an Arab Christian, recently told The Jerusalem Post. “As a religious man, he should be concerned with the affairs and issues of his church, and he should not be politically active in this way and seek to get Arab Christians to volunteer for the Israeli army. Such activity is against the public will and desire of the Christian population,” he added. “We are Christians and part of the Palestinian people.”
Ghattas also confirmed that he had personally written to Theophilos, demanding he fire Nadaf if he continues promoting IDF service among the Arab sector.
Theophilos eventually summoned Nadaf to a meeting in the Jerusalem Patriarchate last month and while he did not demote him, he did caution the priest to take a lower profile on the issue in order to safeguard the Arab Christian community.
Meanwhile, Jewish MKs from the Right and Center have come to Nadaf’s defense, urging the attorney-general to open an investigation of Arab politicians campaigning against the Greek Orthodox cleric. MK Miri Regev of the ruling Likud party denounced the Arab legislators during a recent hearing in a Knesset committee.
“It’s unacceptable that Arab MKs should think they can be Trojan horses in the Knesset and send letters of incitement against a Christian priest who encourages young Christians to enlist in the IDF,” she insisted.
The backlash has been upsetting for Nadaf and his family but he has not backed down.
“We feel secure in the state of Israel,” Nadaf explained recently. “And we see ourselves as citizens of the state with all the attendant rights as well as obligations. We all live in the same home, which we must defend.”
To the dozens of young Arab Christians from across the country who have called and emailed Nadaf asking for advice, he tells them to “participate, and have no fear!”
Shilyan is also standing his ground, and in fact has gone a step further by forming a new political movement that hopes to win seats in the next Knesset election. Called B’nei Brit Hahadasha in Hebrew – “Sons of the New Testament” – the faction endorses Israel as a Jewish state and aims to challenge traditional Arab positions on Israel.
Shilyan has cited the failure of the existing Arab parties to secure any benefits for the community. According to its Facebook page, the party’s platform includes full integration of Christians in all fields, peace with a democratic Palestinian state and all of Israel’s neighbors, increased tourism and trade, and the return of Israelis who have left the country.