North Africa, West Asia

Israel passes legislation to reclassify its Christian citizens as ‘non-Arab’

A new Israeli law creating a legal distinction between Arabs of Christian and Muslim descent passes in the Knesset. Basing the categorisation and status of citizenship on religious and ethnic identifications creates systemic barriers to those citizens who are not deemed acceptable members of the state.

Quinn Coffey
3 March 2014

After weeks of debate, Israel’s Labour, Health, and Welfare Committee voted to send a new bill to the Knesset, which would, for the first time, create a legal distinction between Arabs of Christian and Muslim descent.

The law, which passed by thirty-one votes to six on Monday in the Knesset, purportedly aims to strike at the heart of labour discrimination against Christians in the Israeli job market by giving them a seat in the Equal Employment Opportunities public advisory council. Whilst the law supposedly targets labour discrimination and seeks to give minorities further representation, comments made by the sponsor of the law, coalition chairman for the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu faction MK Yariv Levin, seem to indicate that the law will ultimately attempt to reclassify Israeli Christians as ‘non-Arabs’.

As MK Levin explains, this law, ‘will provide separate representation and separate attention to the Christian public, separate from the Muslim Arabs…This is a historic and important move that could help balance the State of Israel, and connect us and the Christians, and I’m being careful about not calling them Arabs because they aren’t Arabs.’ As MK Levin’s comments suggest, the Israeli right views Christians as a potential ally in the face of a growing Arab Israeli population, ‘We and the Christians have a lot in common. They’re our natural allies, a counterweight to the Muslims who want to destroy the country from within.’

In response to the new law, the Lutheran Bishop of Jerusalem, Munib Younan stated on Israeli radio, ‘if you want to know whether or not I’m an Arab, you must ask me’, implying that the law has designated Christians as ‘non-Arab’ without the consultation of the Christian community itself. When asked whether he thought this was a step in the right direction for the Christians of the Middle East, Yosef Daher, Executive Secretary of the Inter-Church Centre of the Heads of Churches of Jerusalem, responded ‘most Christians do not agree with this bill, of course.  It will do nothing but create animosity between us and the Muslim community because the Muslims will feel that they are being discriminated against.’ Furthermore, Arab Christians point to the long history of Christian leadership within the Arab world, with figures like Isa al-Isa, Edward Said, George Habash and others, having made very significant contributions to the development of the Palestinian nationalist movement.

However, MK Levin’s comments also point to growing divisions within the Arab Israeli Christian community, in which fringe, but growing elements, are encouraging further integration into Israeli society. In 2012, several Arab Christian IDF officers founded the Forum for Drafting the Christian Community, whose aim was to encourage IDF enlistment amongst Arab Christian youth in Israel. Lt. (ret.) Shaadi Khalloul, spokesman for the Forum, suggested that military service would greatly help Arab Christians integrate into Israeli society, which will shelter them from the systematic discrimination they have experienced historically under Arab Muslim rule.

Father Gabriel Naddaf, a Greek Orthodox priest from Nazareth and member of the Forum, has also supported the recruitment of Christians into the IDF, suggesting that, ‘The Christians will not be made into hostages, or allow themselves to be controlled by those who wish to impose their nationality, religion and way of life upon us. We will not agree to hide behind the groups that control the streets. We want to live in Israel - brothers in arms and brothers in peace. We want to stand guard and serve as the first line of defence in this Holy Land, the Land of Israel.’

For Father Naddaf and other members of the Forum, the Arab Spring has endangered Middle Eastern Christians and brought to the fore historic identity issues, which they feel are rooted in Muslim dominance over the Arab identity.  As Lt. Khalloul claimed, ‘The typical Christian student thinks that he belongs to the Arab people and the Islamic nation, instead of speaking to the people with whom he truly shares his roots - the Jewish people, whose origins are in the Land of Israel.’ Lt. Khalloul and others have also lobbied the Israeli government to change the legal designation of Arab Christians from ‘Arab’ to ‘Aramaic’ or ‘Syriac’, attempting to distance themselves from what they consider is a Muslim dominated identity. According to the Forum’s Facebook page, they describe themselves not as Arab Christians, but as ‘Christians Israelis who speak Arabic’.

In the summer of 2013, a new Christian political party called B’nei Brit Hahadashain (Sons of the New Testament) was founded based on many of the principles outlined by the Forum for Drafting the Christian Community. The party seeks greater Christian integration into the State of Israel and the participation of Christians in all levels of Israeli civil society. In September 2013, the party organised a conference entitled, Israeli Christians: Breaking Free? The advent of an independent Christian voice in Israel, in which many of these concerns over identity were expressed.

The Israeli right, which, to the Arab Israeli community, has vested interests in creating divisions within the Arab community, has given widespread support to B’nei Brit Hahadashain and the Forum for Drafting the Christian Community, using statements by these groups to justify recent legal measures to reclassify Christians. Those who support the new law, who are overwhelmingly from the Likud party, have also tried to link this legal measure to the Arab Spring, by pointing to anti-Christian attacks in neighbouring Arab countries. It is clear that MK Levin’s statements regarding Christians are based upon the Likud’s association with B’nei Brit Hahadashain and the Forum for Drafting the Christian Community. But what has been the response of the mainstream Christian organisations in Israel and Palestine?

The National Coalition of Christian Organisations in Palestine (NCCOP) issued a statement in 2013 entitled, Attempts to mobilize Christians into the Israeli military The case of Christian Arab citizens of Israel, in which it refers to the mobilization of Arab Christians to the military as an attempt to ‘divide and rule’ the Arab minority in Israel. The statement also recognises that Israeli military service is a ‘principle place of forming a “national (Israeli-Zionist)” consciousness’, which it fears will have a detrimental effect on young Arab Israelis who are already ‘losing their national, cultural and religious identity and may no longer identify themselves as Arabs’. As such, they view the indoctrination of Arab Christian youth into Israeli’s militarised society as a potentially life-threatening phenomenon for the Arab Christian identity. The statement also devalues the belief that military service will grant Arab Christians equal rights in Israeli society, suggesting rather that Arab solidarity is the solution to issues of discrimination. 

Finally, the NCCOP urges religious leaders to educate Arab Christians in their history and culture in order to reinvigorate their identity in the face of what they have called a ‘crisis of identity’. This sentiment was also expressed in an al-Akhbar interview with a 19-year old Palestinian Christian in Haifa who said, ‘We are aware of this plan of theirs. It aims to make us forget our identity and make Christians and Muslims turn against each other’.

In regard to Arab Christian fears about the rising sectarian tensions of the Arab Spring, the community is more divided on whom to support, with prominent church leaders hesitating to support opposition groups because of their links to Islamist movements. However, this difference of opinion does not necessarily translate into a feeling of being oppressed by the Arab Muslim community, nor does it mean that Palestinian Christians no longer feel part of the wider Arab community; ‘while it’s true we are vulnerable elsewhere in the region, we are the same in blood, language, culture and social traditions. The only difference is religion.’

The root of the problem is not a feeling of subjugation that Christians feel within Arab society, but rather the everyday discrimination that Arabs feels within Israeli society, a feeling that is shared amongst both Arabs and Israelis who oppose the bill. The Abraham Fund, a joint Arab/Israeli non-profit, issued a statement in opposition to the bill in which it said, ‘profound issues regarding the relations between the Jewish majority and the Palestinian Arab minority in Israel cannot be solved by means of the legislative definition of identity categories for the majority’ and suggested that the bill ‘reflects the unacceptable practice of divide and rule’. In fact, it would seem that, apart from the Likud and a very small minority of Arab Christians, the bill would only serve to further divide an already divisive society and is, as MK Jamal Zahalka suggests, an attempt to ‘cruelly divide the Arab public’.

Internal divisions within the Arab Christian community most certainly exist, as do tensions between Christian and Muslim in the Middle East, but the perceived threat to Christians in Israel is not because of a misunderstanding of Arab identity. Rather, basing the categorisation and status of citizenship on religious and ethnic identifications creates systemic barriers to those citizens who are not deemed acceptable members of the state.

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