In Arab Israel, a battle over Christian conscription

‘We are all in the same boat, why shouldn’t we serve?’ asks Father Gabriel Naddaf, the target of a delegitimization campaign

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

An Israeli recruit on his first day of military service gets a vaccine injection (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)
An Israeli recruit on his first day of military service gets a vaccine injection (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)

An eclectic assembly of government officials, Christian clerics and young soldiers gathered in the town of Yafia near Nazareth in mid-June to toast their tightening cooperation with the Israeli military establishment.

The organization that hosted the gathering, The Forum for Drafting the Christian Community, was launched in October 2012 by a number of mid-ranking officers, mostly belonging to the Maronite denomination. In its Facebook page, the group defined itself as “Christian Israelis who speak Arabic.”

Regardless of religion, for Israeli Arabs — who are exempted by law from military service — deciding to join the IDF is very much a taboo. But for the Christian minority within Arab society, shaken by the Arab Spring and its Islamist undercurrents, that reality is beginning to change, though most of the soldiers in active service remove their uniform before coming home on leave.

Soon after its creation, the Forum paired with right-leaning Israeli NGO Im Tirtzu, which promotes a no-nonsense form of Zionism in Israeli campuses, and began actively recruiting Christian youths in their hometowns.

“We believe that military service is the best entry ticket into Israeli society for those who see themselves as part of it,” Amit Barak, who heads Im Tirtzu’s policy and media department, told The Times of Israel. “What these people are doing is not evident in Arab society. They should receive our backing.”

The backing Barak refers to includes coordination 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.

According to the website of Israeli daily Maariv, these efforts have begun bearing fruit. So far, 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 yet is a threefold increase compared to 2010. Small as it is, the number was sufficient to enrage Arab community leaders and politicians, like Balad MKs Hanin Zoabi and Bassel Ghattas.

Father Gabriel Naddaf (photo credit: Facebook image)
Father Gabriel Naddaf (photo credit: Facebook image)

Father Gabriel Naddaf, a Greek Orthodox priest from Yafia, was approached by the Forum soon after its creation, along with two other clerics, to serve as the movement’s spiritual guides. But following a campaign of intimidation the other two dropped out, leaving Naddaf alone at the helm.

For his positive view on Christian recruitment, Naddaf was banned from entering Nazareth’s Church of the Annunciation, and may be fired from his church position in Yafia. The tires of his car were punctured and a rag with bloodstains was laid at his doorstep.

“This is proof of their moral bankruptcy,” Naddaf told The Times of Israel in a telephone conversation. He considered the freedom to speak his mind on the recruitment of Christians “a matter of faith,” he added, noting that he has filed a police complaint against his attackers but could do little against inciting videos posted on YouTube or threatening tweets.

Earlier this month, Im Tirtzu sent a letter to the Justice Ministry and Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, demanding that action be taken against the incitement surrounding the recruitment campaign. Naddaf spoke to Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and asked her to address incitement in Arab websites and clamp down on it “with an iron fist.”

“I never thought I would face such pressure, but I am not scared and I will not back down,” he said. “We all live in the same home [in Israel] which we must defend. Our future depends on the state we live in.”

Naddaf says army service could provide a salve for problems of drugs, alcoholism and unemployment, which he says are endemic in Israel’s Arab community.

‘How can we seek a better future if the pain of the past continues to dominate us, and we cannot overcome it?’

Asked why the campaign needed religious leadership at all, Naddaf said that young Christians craved the peace of mind provided by religious authority. Other minority groups living within Arab society, like the Druze or the Circassians, have their supportive religious leadership as well, he noted, and Christians should be no different.

Dozens of young Christian men and women from across the country have called and emailed Naddaf, asking for his advice, he said. “Participate, and have no fear,” he says he tells them.

That is somewhat hard when community leaders like MK Hanin Zoabi write (in an official letter dated November 1, 2012) that by endorsing recruitment Naddaf  is “endangering Christian youth, separating them from their people and turning them into their people’s enemy, thereby helping their true enemies.”

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. Last week Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett celebrated the 3,000th Arab volunteer, almost double the number of volunteers in 2012 (1,700).

Naddaf said that the anger expressed in Zoabi’s letter, which he called typical of Arab discourse, prevented the community from forging normal relations with the Jewish majority in Israel.

“We are always told [in Arab society] to remember the past and its woes. But I ask: How can we seek a better future if the pain of the past continues to dominate us, and we cannot overcome it? If hatred controls us and our hearts? Christianity opposes this,” Naddaf said.

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