A controversial bill which draws the first legal distinction between Israel’s Muslim and Christian Arabs was approved in its second and third readings in the Knesset on Monday, recognizing Christian Arabs as a separate minority in Israel for the first time.
The bill passed by a 30-5 margin in its second reading, and a 31-6 vote in its third reading.
The legislation, sponsored by Likud MK Yariv Levin, will add an Israeli Christian Arab representative to the panel of the Advisory Committee for Equal Opportunity, in the Employment Commission.
The law would extend the number of panel members from the current five to ten, adding a representative for the ultra-Orthodox, Druze, Christian, and Circassian populations, as well as for reserve duty soldiers, women, immigrants, and the elderly.
While the law is, in theory, meant to boost employment among Israel’s minorities, Israeli Arab MKs have accused Levin of undermining Arab identity and creating a divide in the Israeli Arab community by advancing the the legal status of Christian Arabs in Israel, at the expense of Muslims.
“We are essentially in a situation where attempts are being made to define the country by religion, and here [the government is] trying to determine differences between Christian Arabs and Muslim Arabs,” MK Issawi Frej of the left-wing Meretz party said of the newly instated law.
“Levin wants to divide the Arab public, which is already oppressed. We won’t be his slaves,” MK Jamal Zahalka of the Balad party said in early February.
Levin himself has maintained that this bill would be the first in a series of laws to allow for greater integration of the Christian population into Israeli society.
“The legislation would give separate representation and separate consideration to the Christian population, that will separate them from Muslim Arabs,” Levin told Maariv a few months ago. “It’s a historic and important step that could balance the State of Israel and connect us to the Christians, and I am careful not to refer to them as Arabs, because they are not Arabs.”
The Christian Arabs, “our natural allies,” differ from the Muslims “who want to destroy the state from within,” Levin said.
Lt. (res.) Shadi Halul, who heads the Christian IDF Officers Forum, and was present at the debate in early February, called the Arab MKs “racists.”
“I’m proud to be Christian. We have a right to self-definition as well; we are entitled to recognition,” he said.
“We are supporting this bill,” Halul told the Times of Israel in an e-mail interview. “It makes justice for Christian needs and solves discrimination against them within the Arab community that the state has falsely put them in for 65 years.”
“Christians have their own historical identity and heritage with a destiny different from Arabs and Muslims,” he continued. “If something happened to our beloved country Israel, we as Christians will have a harmful destiny, as we see now in Syria, with massacres, rape, church destruction, like what happened in Lebanon and Iraq before. We deserve the right to self-representation and identity with legal Christian representatives that understand our needs, to stop discrimination,” he said.
There are 161,000 Christians living in Israel. Nearly 80 percent of them are of Arab origin, with the remainder largely hailing from the former Soviet states. For years, the majority group — which has included an Israel Prize-winning author and a Supreme Court justice, as well as an unswervingly anti-Zionist member of Knesset — has maintained top position on Israel’s scholastic achievement charts. But it has often identified, first, as Arabs and Palestinians — nearly all live in majority Muslim towns and villages — and only then as Israelis, certainly in all matters pertaining to compulsory military service.
In a move some attribute to the sectarian violence associated with the Arab Spring, Israel’s Christian Arabs have increasingly sounded calls for an identity distinct from the country’s majority-Muslim Arab society, with an emphasis on their ties to the Israeli state. In July, Israeli Christians banded together to create a new political party called “Sons of the New Testament.” The party encourages enlistment in the IDF and full integration into Israeli society.
In addition, 2013 saw a threefold increase in IDF enlistment among the Christian population.
Mitch Ginsburg contributed to this report