To serve, or not to serve

Christians in Israel are sharply divided on whether to be conscripted into in the IDF.

Druze soldiers of the IDF’s Herev Battalion in training 521 (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
Druze soldiers of the IDF’s Herev Battalion in training 521
(photo credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
AS THE ARAB world continues to plunge deeper into political unrest amid the spread of sectarian warfare and Islamist radicalism, the region’s Christian minorities increasingly feel either persecuted or caught in the crossfire.
In Egypt, home to some eight million Copts, the region’s largest Christian population, several Christians have been killed and dozens of homes and churches have been burned, vandalized or looted since the government began fighting against supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted president Mohamed Morsi in July.
In Syria, over 300 Christians have been killed so far in the country’s civil war and hundreds of thousands have fled the country.
Two Orthodox bishops were kidnapped in April by armed men in Aleppo and remain missing.
Feeling the heat, several community leaders of Israel’s Christian Arabs are calling for greater integration into the Jewish state by promoting service in the Israeli army – a move that has stoked a fierce public debate.
On a spacious, windy balcony in Nazareth, Israel’s largest Arab city and home to the majority of the country’s some 130,000 Christian Arabs, Gabriel Nadaf, a Greek Orthodox priest, dressed in a long, black robe sits, sipping coffee. Last year, Nadaf, 40, attended a conference staged by the Defense Ministry to promote Christian enlistment in the Israeli army. Dozens of teenagers belonging to scout groups also participated.
The controversy that ensued, observers say, reflected the existing debate within the small community on the merits of their full integration in an avowedly Jewish state, and the inherent paradox of serving in an army that has fought wars against various Arab neighbors.
Nadaf says Israel is currently the safest country for Christians in the entire region, and serving in the Israel Defense Forces is a way for Christians to cement their status here.
“We want Christians to be fully integrated into Israeli society, enter the army, and perform all their duties so that they can obtain their full rights,” Nadaf tells The Jerusalem Report. “Given all that is happening in the region, the time has come to discuss this now.”
NADAF SAYS conscription is essential, with employment prospects and plum jobs often closely tied to military service and networking. He says his calls have resonated strongly among young Christians eager to improve their lot, with some 100 Christians currently serving in the army, up from 35 last year, and an additional 500 performing civil service, up from 200 in 2012.
Early in August, following a frenzy of comments on social media sites, calls from the church and the community to remove Nadaf from his post, and a church decision to temporarily ban him from entering the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Nadaf in a show of support.
Following the meeting, Netanyahu called for the establishment of the Forum for the Enlistment of the Christian Community, a group of army veterans and supporters of conscription who aim to encourage more young Christians to serve.
“Members of the Christian community must be allowed to enlist in the IDF,” the prime minister said in a statement. “You are loyal citizens who want to defend the state and I salute you and support you. We will not tolerate threats against you and we will act to enforce the law with a heavy hand against those who persecute you.”
Most Israelis are called up for military service when they turn 18. Men are expected to serve three years, and women for two years, with reserve duties into their early 50s – combat soldiers are exempted from age 41.
Military service, which often involves serving in the West Bank, patrolling near the Gaza Strip and other flashpoints of violence, is a rite of passage for most Israelis, who view the army as a core element of their national identity.
Israeli Arabs, Muslims and Christians, make up some 20 percent of Israel’s 7.8 million people. They have always been in a precarious position – at once, citizens of Israel, and also Arabs identifying with the statehood aspirations of the Palestinians.
They have been exempted from army service since the state’s founding. However, several thousand, mostly Druze and Bedouin Arabs, enlist or perform voluntary community service.
Not all Jews serve in the army: religious young women are not required to serve and young ultra-Orthodox males, who declare that their main occupation is Torah study, can delay conscription or avoid it altogether.
The issue has caused growing resentment from the majority secular Jewish population who do serve. The cabinet approved a draft law in July to abolish exemptions granted to ultra-Orthodox seminary students after Yesh Atid, an integral party in Netanyahu’s ruling coalition, led an unprecedented battle to amend legislation, stoking anger among the traditional community. Under the new proposed law, only 1,800 out of an estimated 8,000 students who become of eligible age for draft every year would get an exemption. Not all Haredim are against military service however, and a few thousand ultra-Orthodox soldiers serve; and their numbers are slowly rising.
Amir Shlayan, a Christian from Nazareth and active in the new forum, served for three years in the Israel Navy. “Everyone should love to serve the country he lives in,” the 25-year-old tells The Report. “It was a great experience… We all lived and ate together. We were like brothers.”
Shlayan says the army taught him time management, responsibility, improved his Hebrew, expanded his horizons, and opened up educational and professional opportunities that would not have otherwise been available. He says Arabs often perceive the army only in terms of combat, and are unaware of the other roles offered.
“You don’t have to fight; you can be an electrician, a doctor, anything you want,” he says.
In the bustling streets of Nazareth, locals crowd the clothing shops and restaurants, while tourists walk in groups up the hill to the Church of the Annunciation and to the old market. Once a Christian town, Nazareth is now Israel’s largest Arab city, with a population of 72,000, according to the census bureau. Dominated by Christian schools and institutions, the city is now two-thirds Muslim.
Christian residents say serving in the army is far from accepted in their society, and those who do serve often try to keep it secret, and change into their civilian clothing before entering their cities and villages.
“The only incentive for any Christian to serve in the army is the financial benefit,” says Wassim Khoury, 28, sitting in a coffee shop with his friends in downtown Nazareth. “There are quite tempting deals for people with limited financial means… There wouldn’t be any other reason.”
IN ADDITION to better access to jobs, those who serve in the army are entitled to cheaper loans, government allowances and tax breaks. But, residents say, being accepted into the army is no easy feat. It is an extremely lengthy process, involving background checks and multiple interviews that would determine their “true motives.”
According to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, over half of Arab families live in poverty, compared to the national average of 21 percent. Arabs also complain of higher unemployment rates, inferior municipal services, crowded neighborhoods, inferior health care and unfair allocation of resources in education and housing.
Christians and Muslims share Arabic as a common language, attend the same educational and social institutions, which they administer on their own in their cities and villages. Observers say, however, that the two religious groups have, to some extent, different cultures, with Christians generally being more liberal than Muslims, sometimes resulting in tensions. Christians also resent the fact that they are often not given any particularity by Israeli authorities, and are simply referred to as Arabs.
They recall how in 1998, the authorities approved the construction of a large mosque adjacent to the Basilica of the Annunciation, which, Christians said, would tower over the ancient church, and upset the status quo in the city. Months of protests, strikes and violent clashes between residents and the police ensued. Five years later, building inspectors destroyed the foundations of the mosque after ruling that the construction had begun without the proper permit.
Bishara Shlayan, Amir’s father and founder of a new Christian, pro-Israeli party called Bnei Habrit (Hebrew for allies), says army service is a reality in Israel that Christians must come to terms with, and serving in the IDF will advance their economic and political status.
“We are Israeli like everyone else,” Bishara Shlayan tells The Report. “We have to help stop discrimination against us. If we serve in the army, our conditions will certainly improve.”
He also challenges the notion that Christians should be referred to as Arabs.
“I think we should be referred to as IsraeliChristians,” he says. “First our nationality is Israeli, then our religion is Christian.”
He says his new party has gained significant traction among a growing number of Christians who want greater integration into the State of Israel, but for years have been overshadowed by those who identify more with Palestinians and anti-Zionism.
Historically, Christians, like Muslims, have either abstained or voted for one of the three Arab parties represented in the Knesset: Ra’am-Ta’al, the National Democratic Assembly and Hadash.
Together they have 11 Knesset seats.
Some also support mainstream, Jewishdominated parties, usually those on the leftwing or in the center.
THE LEFT-LEANING, anti-Zionist Arab parties have never been part of a coalition government, preferring to sit in political opposition, resulting in them wielding limited political clout. All three parties call for Israel to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians, and become a bi-national state for all its citizens. They also object to Arabs serving in the military or civilian service, saying money for such programs should be spent on education and better infrastructure in Arab towns.
Basil Ghattas, a Christian MK representing the Balad party, says that so far the numbers of those enlisting remains small and on a volunteer basis. But the “real danger” is that, with the recent emergence of the public campaigns and forums aided by right-wing Israeli groups, “it becomes a law and service becomes mandatory for all Christians,” Ghattas tells The Report.
Opponents of enlistment dismiss the idea that service will lead to much improvement in their conditions and point to the experience of Druze, who are part of the draft, and the Bedouin, who volunteer in significant numbers.
The Druze are ethnic Arabs who emerged 1,000 years ago as a sect of Islam. Peppered across the Middle East, their elders in Israel back in 1956 agreed to conscription for men, hoping it would improve their lot. Despite often illustrious careers, Arab leaders says the service of the Druze has not paid off, with a 40 percent poverty rate and a 52 percent employment rate – levels that are on par with that of other Israeli Arabs.
“Israel succeeded in conscripting the Druze, as if they were a different sect and not Arabs. They are now trying to do the same to us,” Azmi Hakim, leader of the Greek Orthodox Community Council tells The Report.
Representing some 20,000 Christians, Hakim, says if Christians enlist in larger numbers, the small community will become a separate, isolated sect, like the Druze, severed from the rest of the Arab, majority Muslim, population. “This is an attempt to create Christianity as a sect, sever them from the rest of the Arab population under the premise of ‘protecting Christians,’” Hakim says. “The streets of Nazareth are opposed to it.”
He points to the case of the villages of Ikrit and Biram, whose Christian residents were evacuated from their homes by the Israeli army in 1948, for security considerations because of their proximity to the Lebanese border. The army promised them that they would be allowed to return and most of the residents moved to the neighboring villages while they waited. When years went by and they were still not allowed to return, they turned to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of their return. But in 1953, a few months after the ruling, the village was razed and the land expropriated by the state. The legal battle is still ongoing.
“If Israel were interested in protecting Christians, it would resolve the issue of Ikrit and Biram,” Hakim says.
Greek Orthodox Church officials assert that Nadaf only represents his own opinions, and not those of the church, which opposes army service as a matter of principle because it contradicts Christian pacifist beliefs. They also say conscription will hurt the relationship with Christian Palestinians.
Some 50,000 Palestinian Christians live in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, and it is common for Israeli Christians to marry someone from the Palestinian areas, or for the same family to be split among territories.
“Palestinian citizens of Israel, if they are asked to enter the Israeli army, are being asked to fight Palestinians, to point their guns at the chests of Palestinians,” former Latin Patriarch Michele Sabbah said in a television interview with a local Arab station. “This is not feasible.”
The Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Sebastia, Atallah Hanna, accuses Israel of fueling sectarian division between Christians and Muslims. “Israel is throwing oil over the flames; they are attempting to fragment Arabs in Israel in light of the violence of the Arab Spring,” Hanna tells The Report. “Christians in this country, like those all around this region, are an integral part of Arab social structure.”
He says despite the increased campaigns, the numbers of those actually enlisting remain negligible. “People are not lining up to go serve in the Israeli army,” he adds.
While the army has indeed embraced the Druze and the Bedouin, experts doubt that Israel would want or even need to absorb large numbers of Arabs.
“Militarily, as a force, the army does not need any more people,” Tel Aviv University political science lecturer Amal Jamal tells The Report. “It’s a political issue of who is willing to give how much to the state.”
Nadaf, sitting pensively on his balcony, says Christians and Jews have a historical and spiritual relationship that ties them together in the present and into the future.
“This land is holy to us too, and we are partners in it. We live under its protection and we should protect it along with its citizens,” he says.