Arab-Jewish co-existence through a Christian military draft
There is some good news from the chaos in the Middle East, where many minorities are being persecuted. The Christian minority in Israel understood that if it is to live among a sea of Muslims, it is better off doing so in Israel. In recent years, together with Druze and Cherkess youths, the Arab-Christian minority in Israel had also developed aspirations to help carry the security burden and fit better into society.
Encouraged by “The Forum to Draft Christians”, the number of Christians enlisting for military service has significantly increased. Two years ago, only 35 Arab Christian youths served in the army; this past year the number grew fourfold to 150. Under Israeli law, only Cherkess and Druze men must serve, while Christians and Bedouins can volunteer for military service. But influenced by the Forum’s activity, the Israeli army sent “volunteer draft letters” to Christian youths and some answered the call.
For these youths, serving in the army is an entry ticket into Israeli society. In my opinion, they are the pioneers of true coexistence, those who will lead many other youths and neutralize anti-Israeli tendencies amongst Arab Israelis.
The brave call of the Forum’s leaders to integrate into Israeli society was answered by many, some with threats and violence towards the leaders and Christian soldiers in uniform.
Those who oppose the draft claim that it might divide the Arab minority - Christians from Muslims - and will cause Christian Arabs to turn against their Palestinian brothers.
But Christians are not a part of the Arab minority. Rather, they are a mistreated minority within a minority. The Christian community is today 120,000 strong, 9% of the Israeli Arab population, which numbers a little over 1.5 million. Many in the Christian community do not feel they are a part of the Arab nation. They define themselves as Aramaic, as does, for example, the spiritual leader of the Forum Reverend Gabriel Nadaf.
The Christians’ desire to distinguish themselves from the mainstream of the Arab public has grown stronger in recent years given the sharpened Islamist knife that has been targeting minorities - and Christian ones, in particular. First came the murder of hundreds of Copts by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, then the slaughter by al-Qaida in Syria. The Christians, who see how the world remains silent as their brothers are being murdered, understand they better ally with the body that permits minorities to prosper under its rule - the State of Israel.
There is a measure of hypocrisy in demanding from Christians not to serve in an army that controls the Palestinians. Under the Palestinian Authority, the Christian community is dwindling. They don’t call it a transfer, but many Christians escape the Palestinian Authority. Christian Bethlehem is no longer the same Bethlehem. Things are much worse under Hamas in Gaza. According to claims made by Christians who escaped Gaza, an ethnic cleansing has been taking place ever since Hamas ascended to power in 2007. Over 80% of the Christian community has escaped Gaza. So why would a Christian youth want to defend the Palestinian people?
Has Israel done enough to support youths who choose to give up three years of their life to serve the state? That is unclear. However, Reverend Gabriel Nadaf was embraced by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who even formed an inter-ministerial team to promote a Christian draft. Among other things, thanks to this activity, last summer a five-week, state-funded seminar was held for Christians wishing to enlist.
But the real test comes once these youths end their service. Did they receive sufficient support in their attempt to integrate into Israeli society? The sad answer is - no.
The first stop of youths after the army is academic studies. The Higher Education Council provides scholarships to Arab Israelis to promote their integration into the academic world. The Forum urged the Council to give Arabs who served in the Israeli army priority in scholarship allocations. Such a criterion makes sense given that those who choose to serve begin their studies three years later and in worse financial shape than their peers who do not serve. But for some reason, the Council, headed by Education Minister Shay Piron, rejected the appeal.
The next stop for youths is employment. The Israeli public service sets aside a certain number of jobs for Arabs as part of its affirmative action plan. But there, too, those who serve in the military do not enjoy any advantage. Those who serve, risking not only their lives but their place in society, deserve such priority.
Another important point is housing. Minorities who have served in the army should be first in line when lands in Arab towns and mixed cities are allocated for building. A minority that volunteers to defend the national home deserves more than anyone a home of its own.
The State of Israel must act not just to draft those youths into the army, but mostly to make the service a real entrance ticket into Israeli society.
Yifat Erlich is a journalist. She's married, a mother of five, and resides in Ofra (West Bank).