“It’s nice that he understands both English and Hebrew,” Father Gabriel Naddaf tells his interpreter, Amit Barak, at Houston’s Royal Sonesta hotel while I go back and forth between the two languages during my interview with the Israeli Greek Orthodox priest.
Hebrew is Naddaf’s stronger tongue, and English is mine. But despite having his interpreter at my disposal, something about Naddaf’s simultaneously commanding and soothing presence encourages me to not only ask him some questions in my choppy Hebrew but also to try my best to comprehend his Hebrew responses rather than relying on Barak’s translations.
But why does the language issue matter? Naddaf, who visited Houston to address the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) Texas Region gala on March 28, is best known for his efforts to bolster the integration of Arab Christians into Israeli society through their voluntary enlistment in the Israel Defense Forces.
Naddaf exudes Israeli pride. What language other than Hebrew, then, would have been appropriate for this interview?
When Naddaf co-founded the Israeli Christians Recruitment Forum in 2012, the average number of Arab Christians enlisting in the IDF was 35 per year. That number rose to 150 in 2013 and continues to increase annually, albeit at a slower pace year to year, Naddaf says.
“It’s still not that a high a number, but the numbers are rising slowly every year,” he says. “You have to understand that there is a lot of pressure against [IDF enlistment] inside of Arab society, from Muslims and also from Christians who were taught for years that they should stand with the Muslims, with the Arabs, and not with the state of Israel. It’s a long process, but it’s changing.
“More and more Christians are joining this historic movement. I tell the Christians, ‘At this time, you see what is happening in the Middle East. It is very important to stand with the state of Israel.’ The Christians should defend, along with the Jews and with the Druze and with the Bedouin, the state of Israel and the Holy Land. Their roots are from the Holy Land, so they have to be on [Israel’s] side.”
FIDF’s Houston gala – during which Naddaf turned the tables from our interview by addressing the crowd in English – raised more than $500,000 to support the wellbeing of Israeli soldiers. Naddaf’s FIDF-organized United States trip also included a stop in New York City.
“I’m coming [to America] and I’m meeting my brothers,” Naddaf tells me. “My Jewish brothers and also the Christians, the real believers who believe in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament and follow the right path. So…the Jews and the Christians, they are my brothers and I hope that I will keep meeting my brothers.”
Scott Kammerman, executive director of FIDF’s Texas chapter, says he first met Naddaf, and was inspired to bring him to Houston, at a Christians United for Israel (CUFI) “Night to Honor Israel” program.
“I noticed this Greek Orthodox priest was getting up there, and when [CUFI founder] Pastor [John] Hagee was explaining [Naddaf’s] mission, how he encourages Arabic-speaking Christians to join the IDF, the entire congregation of Pentecostals and evangelicals, completely different Christian denominations, stood up and applauded.
“I thought to myself, ‘This is so important.’ His mission, and not just his mission, but the mission of all pro-Israel Christians…as Jews, we need to embrace and thank those Christians who are standing side by side with us, yad b’yad , hand in hand.”
Naddaf describes the current state of global terrorism as a case of history repeating itself through a new cast of characters.