By Josh Hasten/JNS.org
By the end of 2013, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) will have enlisted its lowest number of new draftees over the past two decades, according to a recent report in Yedioth Ahronoth. Yet there is at least one minority sector of Israeli citizens that boasts dramatically rising enlistment figures and is attracting increased attention from the government.
There have been 150 Christian IDF recruits this year, more than four times greater than the 35 who enlisted in 2012. Looking beyond what those numbers mean for the IDF, Israeli leaders see a broader opportunity to better integrate Christians into the fabric of the country’s society.
While some refer to Israel’s Christian population as “Christian Arabs,” Father Gabriel Nadaf—a Greek Orthodox priest and spiritual leader from Nazareth—insists that they be defined as “Christian Israelis,” tracing their roots to non-Arab populations including the Greeks, Armenians, Romans, and others.
“Were Christians during the times of Christ considered Arabs?” he asks rhetorically in an interview with JNS.org.
Nadaf has been an influential advocate encouraging Christians living in Israel to give back to society, either through army service or through what is known as “Sherut Le’umi” (national service), by serving as volunteers in hospitals, schools, and a variety of other non-profit entities. His interview with JNS.org came before a 21-year-old political activist from a group that opposes Arab conscription on Dec. 6 reportedly struck his 17-year-old son with a stick, in addition to hurling verbal insults. Father Nadaf said his prof-IDF stance motivated the attack on his son, who was briefly hospitalized.
In 2013 alone, 520 Israeli Christians from Nadaf’s communities took part in yearlong Sherut Le’umi internships. The priest’s efforts received significant backing in August, when during a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he was tasked to head a joint government-community forum to promote the enlistment of Christian youths into the IDF and other forms of national service, to aid their integration into the life of the state of Israel.
Representing the Israeli government on the issue of Christian enlistment in the IDF is Deputy Defense Minister MK Danny Danon, who says that he oversees a department within his ministry earmarked for encouraging and assisting minority citizens throughout the enlistment process.
Danon explains in an interview with JNS.org that he runs a slew of educational programming for 12th-grade high school students in Israeli Christian communities, in order to give them the opportunity to start thinking about enlisting and to learn what is involved in enlisting, while at the same time understanding how army service will enhance their lives.
Legally, Christians in Israel are not required to enlist in the IDF, but Danon adamantly encourages them to serve. Both Nadaf and Danon admit that one of the biggest challenges for Christians not only serving in the army, but also integrating into Israeli society, is the presence of certain radical elements within Arab and Muslim society opposed to their normalization within the country.
Danon says a campaign of incitement “has been launched by the radical leadership amongst the Arab community opposing Christians’ joining the army, especially by Arab members of Knesset.” He singles out Balad MK Haneen Zoabi, along with National Democratic Assembly MK Jamal Zahalka, as leading the charge against Christian enlistment.
On a local level, Danon cites recorded cases of violent threats directed at Christian families who allow their children to serve in the army.
Some of these soldiers who live in mixed [Christian/Muslim] villages do not feel safe to come home wearing their army uniforms, [so they change first],” Danon says. He adds, “I think we have to strengthen those forces that support and are loyal to the state of Israel, and recognize Israel as a true democracy and fight against those who incite.”
Danon says that in order to stop the hate campaigns, while continuing to encourage Christian enrollment, “On one hand we need to make sure law enforcement is strict [against incitement], and at the same time, we need to create incentives for those who serve.”
In a recently created government program that Danon calls “a very important symbolic gesture,” Israeli Christians who serve in the army or carry out national service will be rewarded by being allowed to enroll in government bids to acquire land, for the purpose of building homes for their families. Land acquisition for non-Jewish residents in Israel, a small country with a multitude of land disputes throughout various regions, is considered a significant achievement for non-Jewish residents.
Nadaf’s passion for encouraging young Christians to enlist in the army is motivated by both his nationalism and loyalty to the state and his Christian ideology. He says, “Christians, who live here, need to donate and to contribute, not just in talk, but with action, just like the Druze, Bedouins, and others. Everyone has to give his part to serve the State either in the army or through national service. We live here, and this country protects us, therefore we need to protect it.”
Ideologically, this is also a Holy Land for us,” he says. “Christianity’s roots are here in this land. We are connected to the Bible, so we have to guard each other and this land from all evil.”
Nadaf says that despite “scare tactics” used against him, including incitement-laced social media campaigns by Muslim and even Christian groups, he is trying to maintain positive and quiet relations with everyone. Those who “call themselves Christians, and are against us, these people are atheists who don’t really understand what Christianity is,” he says.
Describing the plight of Christians living in other Middle Eastern countries, Nadaf says he is both grateful for being in Israel and eager to help advance his community in the Jewish state.
As Christians we see the daily killings in other Arab countries and the Christians fleeing as a result of religious persecution,” he says. “That is not happening here, so we need to look after ourselves and our interests here.”