It’s hard to be a Christian Arab in Israel, but not because of prejudice
My name is Gabriel Naddaf, and I have the privilege of being a Greek Orthodox priest from Nazareth in the Galilee. My people have mistakenly been called “Christian Arabs”, but the reality is that we are Arameans, descendents of people who lived here in Israel since the time of the Bible.
Recently Israel’s Interior Ministry has recognized us as the “Aramean nation”, following a lengthy public campaign. Partners in this effort were a number of Israeli Zionist organizations.
In the past three years I have become a controversial figure in Israel for the simple reason that I embrace Zionism, Jewish sovereignty in Israel, and the tolerance, respect and opportunity that has grown out of that sovereignty for all. I believe that our youth – Christian youth –should fully integrate into Israeli society. Part and parcel of that integration includes serving in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Israel’s Army, or undertaking some other form of national service which Israel routinely provides for teenagers.
In 2012, a few Christian IDF officers and I founded the I.C.R.F–the Israeli Christians Recruitment Forum. My efforts have had mixed results. On the positive side, hundreds of Arab or Aramean Christian youth have heeded my call and have served their country with distinction. They have been embraced by their fellow soldiers, who regard them as comrades in arms, and not as strangers in their midst.
On the downside, the blowback, as it were, from my efforts among rejectionist elements in the Christian and the Muslim Arab community has been intense. Christian soldiers have been harassed by their neighbors, and in many cases, by their own families. These soldiers are forced to change out of their IDF uniforms before returning into their home towns, for fear that they may be harassed on their way home.
Another example came in 2012, when a conference was held in Nazareth by supporters of Christian recruitment to the IDF. A local leader, attorney Abir Kopty from the Mossawa Center, attacked the participants and accused them of Palestinian persecution. Attorney Kopty also suggested that integrating Christians into the army was an attempt to divide Arab society in their national struggle against Israel.
Following the conference, a campaign of harassment began against the conference’s organizers. Students who participated were also threatened, isolated, and suffered humiliation via social networks and in the Arab media. An Israeli organization who supports us, Im Tirtzu subsequently published a report detailing statements made against Christians who encouraged Christian enlistment in the IDF.
For me personally, my conviction and actions have led to numerous death threats against me, my excommunication by the Orthodox Church Council and the prevention of my entrance to the Church of Annunciation.
None of this has anything to do with the Israeli government or the Jewish community. The assertion of Israel as a so-called Apartheid state is complete nonsense. My successes and challenges speak loudly as to where the real problems lie for my fellow Christians.
It pains me to say this, but it must be said. The incitement against me, my campaign, and all those Christians who have sought to integrate into Israeli society has been led by Arab leaders from Israel and abroad and even by some Arab members of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset.
MK Hanin Zoabi wrote to me on official Knesset letterhead and accused me of “helping the enemy of the Palestinian people,” “collaboration with occupying forces” and pressured me “to fight against the loyalists of the regime.” Of course, all this creates an atmosphere of incitement against me and anyone who is interested in integrating the Christian minority into the national service frameworks in Israel.