Allen B. West

Arab Christian: second-class status in a Jewish state better than first-class status in an Arab state

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There is an interesting little internal dilemma brewing in Israel — what will be the allegiance of Arab Christians? There is legislative policy proposal to officially declare Israel a Jewish state, even though around 1.7 million Arabs, including 161,000 Arab Christians, live in Israel, making up more than 20 percent of the population.

According to the UK Telegraph, “The bill to designate Israel as “the nation state of the Jewish people” is supported by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and would deny collective national rights to the Arab minority and strip Arabic of its status as one of the country’s official languages. Plans to table the bill were delayed after the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, was dissolved this month and a general election called for March, but it is certain to be a controversial issue in the forthcoming campaign.”

However, not all Arab Christians are concerned by this move.

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“Sitting in front of the family Christmas tree dressed in military fatigues, Amir Shalayan seemed in no doubt about his identity. “When you go back in religion, I consider myself a real Jew,” he said, unabashed by the non-Jewish festive decorations in his living room. “Jesus was Jewish and he was observing the Shabbat (Jewish sabbath).” Mr Shalayan is in fact an Arab Christian, a category he refers to as “Aramean”, but his strong identification with the Jewish faith is offered as explanation for his keen army service.”

“Critics say that it will reduce the Arab population – Muslims and Christians alike – to second-class citizens in the land of their birth and ancestry. Mr Shalayan has no such qualms, citing the recent fate of Christians at the hands of jihadist extremists in Iraq and Syria to support his case. “I’m supporting the bill,” he said. “I would rather be a second-class citizen under a Jewish state than a first-class citizen in an Arab state. “Arab countries don’t have any system. They want to act according to Sharia (Islamic law). Christians have been persecuted all over the world and this is the only country (in the Middle East) that gives me the right to be Christian and practice my rituals.”

It is an interesting question. Does the declaration of a Jewish State relegate all non-Jews to a lowered status? My assessment is that it would not. Consider that you currently have Arabs who sit in the Knesset — hardly a second-class status. Israel is without a doubt the most multi-cultural and multi-ethnic nation in the Middle East. Across the Middle East, religious and ethnic minorities are thoroughly persecuted in Islamic dominated countries, which is exactly what Mr. Shalayan articulated.

As The Telegraph writes, “Mr Shalayan, 26, is one of a small number of Christians to have volunteered, to serve in Israel’s armed forces – from which his co-religionists, like other Arabs, are exempt. This is in contrast to most Jews, for whom service is compulsory. Having spent three years in the Israeli navy, he now performs regular reserve duty and is a member of the Israeli Christians Recruitment Forum Association, which attempts to persuade other Christians to join the army. It claims to have recruited between 100 and 150 Christian volunteers since its establishment in 2012.”

“Mr Shalayan says his motivation is simple: Christians should assimilate in Israeli society and serve the country which protects them. His military service and support for the Jewish nation state bill is music to the ears of Mr Netanyahu and the Israeli armed forces, which sent out voluntary recruitment notices to Christians for the first time this year in an attempt to woo young Christians into military service.”

The seminal question truly is, do those residing within the State of Israel have a duty to serve the nation that protects them?

Most Arabs do not think so. According to the Telegraph, “Most (Arabs) reject the idea of army service as an Israeli attempt to dilute their Arab identity and divide them from their Muslim brethren. “I’m against Christians being enlisted in the army,” aid Elias, 26, a dentist visiting Mama’s Coffee Shop. He did not want to give his full name for fear of antagonizing his Jewish patients. “We are Palestinians, our ancestors were Palestinians, it doesn’t matter which religion we are. If Israel lived in peace with other countries in the region and with the Palestinians, I would have no problem enlisting. But how can you serve a country that kills your own people?” Elias also dismissed Mr Shalayan’s attempts to re-cast Arab Christians as Aramean as “ridiculous,” adding: “They are just trying to fit into the mix of Israeli society.”

First, I would have to remind Elias that the reference “Palestinian” has nothing to do with Arabs — as we’ve discussed here often. So the real conundrum in Israel is whether or not the Arab-Israelis see themselves loyal to Israel — or to an ethnic group. Will there come a time in Israel’s future where some type of loyalty oath will be a part of Israeli citizenship?

“Israel decided this year to recognise Arameans – Christians descended from an ancient Semitic people originating in what is now Syria – as a national minority. The rule change allowed Syriac Christians to identify themselves as Arameans rather than Arab, a definition that has been seized upon by the army recruitment group that Mr Shalayan helped to found. It is roundly rejected by Riah Abu Al-Assal, the Nazareth-based Anglican Bishop of Israel and Palestine, who has held prayer sessions with Tony Blair and participated in delegations to 10 Downing Street when he was Prime Minister.

“This is not the first time we have witnessed people in Israel of this kind,” he said. “Years ago, there were people who said that the Christians here were Phoenicians and not Arabs. “For anybody to claim and say that Christians (in Israel) aren’t Arabs, I tell them you will have to change the book (the bible). This was written long before there was a conflict between Jews and Arabs.” On army service, Bishop Abu Al-Assal added. “My brother lives in Lebanon and has two sons and I have two second cousins here who are of army service age. How could they could they possibly serve when they might have to fire on their relatives in a future war?”

Well, I must remind Bishop Al-Assal of a very important point — Romans under Emperor Hadrian forced the Jewish people to flee their homeland and created the diaspora. And it was an Arab named Muhammad championing Islam, a new belief, who destroyed Jewish-Arab relations. A legacy that continues today.

However you come down in this issue, there is one thing for certain. Major challenges abound in establishing a respectful multi-ethnic, cultural, and religious populace in Israel. If people want to “coexist” in a peaceful society, they must possess a sense of responsibility to that society. It will be interesting to see how, when surrounded by entities who want it destroyed, Israel will manage a multi-ethnic, free society.

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