Israeli Priest Gabriel Nadaf Confident of Greater Christian Recruitment Into IDF (INTERVIEW)
“I will make a prediction,” Father Gabriel Nadaf told me with a smile. “Next year, in 2015, there will be 400 Christian recruits into the IDF.”
Father Nadaf, a Greek Orthodox priest from the town of Yafia, in the north of Israel, has spent the last two years urging Israel’s Christian community to join the Israeli military, based on his conviction that the Jewish state is the only country in the Middle East where Christians can practice their faith free from persecution. The numbers would appear to bear him out; in marked contrast to the other states in the region, where Christian populations have declined dramatically because of oppression and political conflict, the size of the community in Israel has more than quadrupled since independence in 1948, from 34,000 to 158,000 in 2012.
Prior to Nadaf’s recruitment drive, an average of only 30 Christians joined the IDF each year. In 2013, Nadaf’s efforts pushed that number up to 150; hence his confident assertion that this figure will be more than doubled in 2015.
Ordained as a priest in 1995, Father Nadaf has worked for the Greek Orthodox community across the country, including a spell as the spokesman for the Patriarch in Jerusalem. The dawn of the so-called “Arab Spring” in 2010, which highlighted the threat posed to Middle Eastern Christians by the various Islamist movements, persuaded Nadaf that Israeli Christians should recognize Israel as the sanctuary that it is by serving in its armed forces – “as do,” Nadaf said, “other minorities like the Druze, the Circassians and the Beduin, who are all Arabic-speaking minorities and have all served in the IDF.”
Nadaf was on a four day visit to New York and Washington this week, during which he met with Jewish and Christian leaders under the auspices of “Face of Israel,” a Jerusalem non-profit that promotes some of Israel’s most compelling voices from the worlds of culture and politics. At each of his encounters, he emphasized the vast chasm separating Israel from the rest of the region when it comes to respecting freedom of worship.
“In Syria, there were 2 million Christians. Now there are only 200,000. In Iraq, in the year 2000, there were 4 million Christians, whereas now there are only 300,000,” Nadaf said. “The daily massacres experienced by Christians have opened the eyes of Christians in Israel.”
In the context of Israeli-Arab politics, Nadaf’s message is a radical departure from the nationalist and separatist attitude encouraged by political parties like the Communist Hadash and the nationalist Balad. Indeed, Nadaf does not describe himself as an Arab, preferring the term “Aramean Christian Israeli” instead.
“Jesus himself spoke Aramaic and lived in the land of Israel,” Nadaf said.
The Israeli government has already agreed that Israeli citizens will be able to define themselves as “Aramean” in legal documents. Last month, 2 year old Yaakov Halul from the northern village of Gush Halav was formally given this identity on his official documents, becoming the first Israeli Christian to register as an Aramean.
For Nadaf, the key goal is integration, which is why he places so much stress on Christian recruitment into the IDF. “The military in Israel is a fundamental base of society,” Nadaf said. “It’s like an entrance ticket to society. The Christians, as a minority that lives within a minority, have to protect their identity and their society within Israel. To integrate, they must serve in the Israeli army and believe that if Israel is threatened by terrorism, there will be no place left for Christians in the Middle East.”
Not surprisingly, Nadaf’s positions have caused a strong degree of consternation among the traditional Arab leadership in Israel. Radical Arab Knesset members Haneen Zoabi and Basil Ghattas have pushed the Greek Orthodox Church to fire Nadaf, so far without success. Even more seriously, Nadaf said he receives threats via social media on a daily basis, while in September last year his son was badly beaten up by extremists, forcing him to spend several days in hospital.
Israeli politicians, among them Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have warmly embraced Nadaf. “Members of the Christian community must be allowed to enlist in the IDF. You are loyal citizens who want to defend the state and I salute you and support you,” Netanyahu said after meeting with Nadaf in 2013.
With tensions in the Jerusalem area currently escalating, the importance of integration is again being underlined by Israeli leaders, who were united in condemning the decision of Ashkelon Mayor Itamar Shimoni to dismiss Arab workers from construction projects in schools and kindergartens. Responding to Shimoni’s announcement, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett pointed out that ,”Ninety-nine percent of Israeli Arabs are loyal and want to integrate. There is a tiny minority that uses violence and causes terrorism, and we must crack down on that, but we must also integrate and bring closer the vast majority of Israeli Arabs. This is a key to our future here.”
It is also, as far as Nadaf is concerned, a key to a secure future for Christians as well as Jews. Last month, he said, he visited the Golan Heights with a group of young Christians, some of whom will be part of the larger intake into the IDF he forecasts for next year. “They won’t listen any more to the Arab leaders,” Nadaf said. “Parties like Hadash and Balad haven’t brought Christians and Jews closer together, and the young people are tired of this attitude. That’s why people will be very surprised by the number of Christians who will go to the army.”