Debunking Israel’s imagined ‘Christian awakening’

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A scene in Nazareth (Photo: Flickr/Adam Groffman)
A scene in Nazareth (Photo: Flickr/Adam Groffman)

Last week, the Wall Street Journal published a piece entitled “Israel’s Christians Awakening,” by Adi Schwartz, 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 the Israeli Jewish society.

This piece was published just a few days after Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin 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. The latter is a longstanding tactic that has been used to de-Arabize Palestinian communities, a continuation of Israel’s divide and rule strategy and a hallmark of Israel’s founding fathers.

Netanyahu’s message comes at a time of gathering momentum in the efforts to boycott Israeli institutions for their complicity in aiding and abetting Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights. But 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 notwithstanding its abusive policies. It is this context that provides a clearer reading of Adi Schwartz’s comments in the WSJ.

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 the WSJ’s article, 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 to Jews, and other institutional privileges that have direct impact on social structures including immigration, land rights, and education. Palestinians 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. Cabinet ministers and political groups explicitly advocate the transfer of Palestinians citizens and even population swap 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 infamous anti-Nakba law prohibits state funding to organizations that commemorate the dispossession and expulsion of over 700,000 Palestinians from 1947-1949. Segregation is endorsed 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. Arab communities in the Naqab and the Galilee are subject to Judaization plans, non-violent Arab demonstrations against these policies are routinely dispersed with egregious and unnecessary force.

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. Access to higher education is made easier for Jewish students than Palestinians. Housing subsidies are extended to Jewish settlers who want to live in illegal West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements. 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 Schwartz’s article. It is an awakening regarding the Israeli government’s attempts to recruit Palestinian Christians to serve in the Israeli military as part of their 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. 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 Druze community have been serving in the military since the 1950s and yet have not achieved equality; even those serving as officers in the Israeli 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 oppression 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 by Palestinians in Israel in order to survive in the face of institutionalized discrimination. Do they join an occupying military to fight against fellow Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank in order to later be eligible for state benefits, or do they reject such bribes, demand unconditional full equality for themselves, and stand in solidarity with Palestinians living under Israeli occupation who are seeking freedom? Overwhelmingly, Palestinian citizens of Israel – both Christian and Muslim – are choosing Palestinian freedom and equality.

Today, my father, like many other Palestinian citizens, struggles within Israel to secure equal rights from the state that, following the Nakba of 1948, 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.

(Editor’s Note: This Op-Ed was originally sent to the Wall Street Journal who declined to publish it.)

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Great article, Reem, you said it all. The WSJ article was a PR stunt.

With Pan-Arabism fading and Pan-Islamic movements gaining it makes sense for Israel to reach out to Christians. You are absolutely right it is part of “divide and rule”. Israel’s goal is to disassemble Palestinians identity. The Palestinians movement’s goal (assuming they are aiming for a human solution and not genocide)… Read more »

I know a few Palestinian Christians who have “served” in Israel’s army, but it was always quite obvious to me that they did it because they thought they would be treated as equal citizens. The bottom line is that regardles of what they do, they are still perceived as the… Read more »

The incident in which Druze IDF soldiers were excluded from the training exercise at the Dimona reactor was roundly condemned. Even Defense Minister Yaalon said it was outrageous , and, supposedly , it won’t be repeated. On the other hand , a Druze officer is at present in command of… Read more »

The massive plight of Christians in Arab countries, among Moslems, cannot be separated from what goes on in Christian regards in Israel, since, practically, it makes Israel the only place in the region where Christian live in the main in safety.