Contesting Christian Identity in Israel: Arab, Aramean, Palestinian or Other?

By: Dr Tilde Rosmer, University of Oslo.

A campaign to increase the voluntary conscription of Christian citizens of Israel to serve in the military and a proposed new law to register some Christians as a separate nationality from other Arabs has recently angered many Arab Palestinian citizens of Israel. Why are they so provoked? With few exceptions (most notably for certain religious students) all Jewish Israelis are automatically drafted to military service. Palestinian citizens of Israel constitute approximately 20% of the country’s population, or some 1.694 million. Of this number, 9 % are Druze, 10% Christians and the rest are Sunni Muslims. Whereas the Druze community in Israel has served in the army since 1956, other non-Jewish citizens of Israel have been exempt from military service since Israel was founded in 1948. According to the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), there are approximately 100 Christians currently serving in the IDF. However, it is estimated that 2000 Christians could be conscripted annually. The campaign to increase the voluntary conscription of Christian citizens is supported by Greek Orthodox Bishop Jibril Nadaf, who stated, ‘We want young Christians to be completely integrated into Israeli society, and this means also carrying an equal share of the burden […] Our future as a Christian minority is wrapped up in the future of the State of Israel’. However, Bishop Nadaf’s view is controversial. Various youths and leaders of the Palestinian community have rejected and criticised the draft. This spring there were demonstrations by Arab Palestinian students at universities in Jerusalem, Haifa and Beersheba against the enlistment. In June, the High Follow-Up Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel and the Coalition Against Military and Civic Service arranged a congress with an anti-enlistment agenda. Representatives of many political, religious and societal groups were present, including Member of Knesset Jamal Zahalka who described the draft as: ‘… a violation of the Palestinian identity and a deprivation of our rights,’ adding, ‘It places our basic rights as citizens under condition, by tying our rights as citizens with serving the Israeli army. In other words, military service is a pre-condition to get basic rights.’ The controversy of this conscription is related to the controversy surrounding a law passed on 18 September that allows Christian Palestinian citizens to register their official national identity as ‘Aramean’ instead of ‘Arab’. Shady Halul is the chairman of the Aramaic Association in Israel and initiator of Maronite Christian group, Amram, which applied to the state to obtain recognition of an Aramean national group. Halul is a Maronite Christian and the promoter of the ancient and largely liturgical Aramaic language in his community. He was behind the campaign to include Aramaic in the syllabus for the local school, which was approved by the Ministry of Education with the assistance of, among others, Member of Knesset Yariv Levin (Likud). Imitating Eliezer Ben Yehouda, the father of Modern Hebrew, Halul speaks Aramaic to his children and dreams of it becoming a daily modern language. According to official figures, the majority of Christian citizens of Israel are Greek Catholic, Greek Orthodox or Roman Catholic. In addition, there are approximately 10,000 Maronite Christians in Israel, of which 2,500 arrived from Lebanon in 2000 when the IDF withdrew from the south of that country. Although he is a native Arabic-speaker, Halul does not consider himself Arab or Palestinian: ‘My ethnicity is Aramean,’ he says, ‘I am Maronite Christian and my religion is Christian’. Based on this he asserts, ‘We [Maronite Christians] are not part of the Israeli-Arab conflict, but somehow we’ve been pulled into it’. Halul himself served as a lieutenant in the IDF Paratroopers’ Brigade. According to Ha’aretz, the state’s decision to offer a new alternative national identity to Christians who wish to avail of it is directly linked to attempts to encourage greater conscription of Christians. It is designed to emphasize a distinction between Muslim and Christian citizens of Israel who have previously been grouped together by the state as ‘Arabs’ and who increasingly self-identify as Palestinian. For Ahmed Tibi, a Palestinian Member of Knesset, the new nationality is, ‘a high-handed attempt to divide and rule the Arab minority in Israel […] The Christians are an authentic part of the national Arab Palestinian minority in Israel, and no right-wing political decision will change this fact’. Criticism has also comes from inside the Maronite community. Deacon Soubhi Makhoul, administrator of the Maronite Exarchate in Jerusalem, does not support Aram’s cause: ‘I believe that this is a political issue, […]. Moreover, there might be specific Israeli political circles that stand behind this attempt. The Maronites are Arabs, we are part of the Arab world. And although it’s important to revive our language and maintain our heritage, the church is very outspoken against the campaign of these people.’ This criticism was reiterated in a joint statement by 18 civic society groups representing Palestinians in Israel who rejected the new law as ‘colonialist’ and ‘sectarian’, stating: ‘We vehemently reject all attempts by the Israeli government to fragment and segregate the Arab Palestinian society along sectarian lines of Christians and Muslims. We assert that we were and will continue to be one people united – albeit with different religions and ideological affiliations – and an integral part of the Arab Palestinian people. We have the right to define our national identity, which is based on our Arab culture, language, common history, and on the unity of our destiny and our future as a single original group that remains in its homeland’. Attempts by the state to ‘divide and rule’ this indigenous national minority are certainly not new. In Ian Lustick’s seminal work Arabs in the Jewish State work (1980, p. 133), the author stated: ‘the particular programmes implemented by the regime with respect to the religious segmentation of the Arab population were designed to preserve these identities and encourage their use as meaningful political categories. These efforts must be understood as part of a general desire to inhibit the emergence of “Arab” as the most meaningful category of political identity and association for Israel’s non-Jewish population’. Perhaps unknowingly underscoring the continued relevance of Lustick’s observation, Member of Knesset Yariv Levin who supported both the Aramaic revival and the new status for Christians, declared that he did so because this would ‘separate them [the Christians] from Muslim Arabs […] 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.’ At the core of these controversies are vexed questions of identity – whether this is defined by religion, national or ethnic identity, or language. Who draws the boundaries between groups of citizens and to what extent are communal identities an expression of self-identification as opposed to being imposed by the state? Such questions are always complex and controversial but perhaps never more so than in ethnic states that are embroiled in conflict.