Christian Arab citizens of Israel are forming a new political party that calls for Arab enlistment into the IDF. The party’s Hebrew name — B’nei Brit Hahadasha — means “Sons of the New Testament,” although the word “allies” is hidden in the title as well.
The effort is part of a growing assertiveness on the part of Christian Arabs in the wake of the Arab Spring, as they increasingly sound calls for an identity distinct from Israel’s broader Arab society, which is around 90% Muslim.
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.
Israel Hayom reported Tuesday that the new movement is led by Bishara Shilyan, a 58-year-old sea captain from the mixed Christian-Muslim city of Nazareth. Shilyan said the idea came to him when he saw how much trouble his nephew ran into when he tried to enlist in the army.
Today, Shilyan’s nephew is a major in a combat unit.
When it was his son’s turn to join the IDF, Shilyan started a local Christian enlistment forum with the help of local priests. One of the clergymen who joined up with the Forum for Drafting the Christian Community was Father Gabriel Naddaf, a Greek Orthodox priest from Yafia who has faced threats for his support of Christian enlistment.
For his backing of Christian recruitment, Naddaf was banned from entering Nazareth’s Church of the Annunciation, and was threatened with being fired from his position in Yafia. The tires of his car were punctured and a rag with bloodstains was laid at his doorstep.
“If I was in America, I wouldn’t be American?” Shilyan said to Israel Hayom. “At least in Israel, everyone who stayed was given the right to become a citizen and integrate into society. But the first demand of Israel, and I’m for it — you need to understand it — is that it is the land of the Jewish people.”
According to Maariv, Shilyan’s efforts have begun to bear fruit: 90 high school graduates have joined the IDF in recent months, a number that may seem like a drop in the bucket considering the total number of 130,000 Arabic-speaking Christians in Israel, but it is a threefold increase compared to 2010. Small as it is, the number was sufficient to enrage Muslim community leaders and politicians, like Balad MKs Hanin Zoabi and Bassel Ghattas.
Despite the harsh opposition, Arab volunteerism is on the rise, and is not limited to the Christian population. New data released by Israel’s Administration for National-Civic Service indicates a rise of 76% in Arab youth volunteering for civil service since September 2001. Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett recently celebrated the 3,000th Arab volunteer, almost double the number of volunteers in 2012 (1,700).
Soon after its creation, the forum paired with right-leaning Israeli NGO Im Tirtzu, which promotes a no-nonsense form of Zionism on Israeli campuses, and began actively recruiting Christian youths in their hometowns.
The forum has been coordinating with military authorities and arranging meetings with Israeli MKs from the center and right including Elazar Stern (Hatnua), Boaz Toporovsky (Yesh Atid), Miri Regev (Likud), and Ayelet Shaked (Jewish Home). 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.
In the past, the IDF usually guided Christians into the Bedouin Reconnaissance Battalion, where they are found themselves a tiny minority among Muslim Bedouin and urban Arab soldiers. That is likely to change.
The violence against Middle Eastern Christians in the wake of the Arab Spring has likely pushed Israel’s Christians to more publicly express opinions considered unacceptable in Arab society. Coptic Christians in Egypt have faced attacks on churches and murders of priests since Hosni Mubarak was toppled in 2011. In Syria, Orthodox and Catholic churches have been kidnapped, and Islamist rebels declare Sharia law on Christian villages that fall under their control. “People see what’s happening now in Lebanon, Egypt, and Syria,” said Shilyan. “They understand where we’re living.”
A similar process has taken place among Druze on the Golan Heights. According to government figures, 2012 showed a sharp several-hundredfold increase in requests by young Golan Druze for Israeli citizenship, as they come to the understanding that Israel offers them a future much brighter and safer than neighboring states.