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November 18, 2013 12:09 pm

Christian IDF Recruitment Numbers Affirm Israeli Democracy

avatar by Ben Cohen /

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The all-Druze Herev Battalion training. Photo: IDF.

JNS.orgOver the summer, the Israeli media highlighted a phenomenon that is both intriguing and encouraging: a movement among Israel’s Christian Arabs advocating that their community be drafted, along with the country’s Jewish and Druze citizens, into the Israel Defense Forces.

Historically, Israel’s Arab citizens have been exempted from mandatory conscription. There have been exceptions—many Bedouin, for example, have served in the IDF with distinction—but those who actually volunteer are a tiny minority. At the same time, many Arabs have complained, not without justification, that the exemption marginalizes them from fully participating in Israeli life.

That now appears to be changing, against the background of a broader reassessment of the conscription policy. Earlier this year, a Knesset committee headed by Science and Technology Minister Jacob Perry approved measures that would draft the majority of haredi men—another minority that has largely avoided military service—with criminal sanctions waiting in the wings in the case that draft quotas are not met.

But the indications are that draft dodging won’t be too much of a problem when it comes to Christian Arabs. Their community, at 130,000 strong, makes up just less than 10 percent of the total Arab population in Israel. In the weeks that followed the formation of a new political party, B’nei Brit HaHadasha (“Sons of the New Testament”), by a merchant seaman, Bishara Shilyan, whose nephew serves as a major in the Israeli Army, around 90 Arab Christians enlisted in the IDF. It seems like a tiny number, but it’s a threefold increase compared to 2010. And earlier this month, around 250 Arab Christian youths attended a recruitment event organized by the IDF with the assistance of Father Gabriel Nadaf, an orthodox priest from Nazareth and a vocal supporter of Christian recruitment into the armed forces.

This new mood among Christian Arabs has worried the communists and Arab nationalists who have traditionally played a central role in the political leadership of Israel’s Arab citizens. You can imagine them tearing their hair out when they hear statements like this one, from Father Nadaf: “It’s only natural that the country which protects us deserves that we contribute to its defense.”

A predictable condemnation came in the form of a statement from Kairos, a radical Palestinian Christian organization that denies the right of Israel to exist and promotes anti-Semitic interpretations of Christian theology. “Those who call for recruiting Christians to the occupation army do not represent us, do not represent our Churches, and do not represent the Christians,” Kairos said. “We need to be united, we need to protect our national identity, only our Arab, Palestinian, identity will be able to protect us, and protect our interests.”

It’s true that this view was once very common among Arab Christians. During the last century, Christians were an important presence among the theorists and political leaders of the Arab nationalist movement. Among the Palestinians, the late George Habash, founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, was a Christian, as was his rival Nayef Hawatmeh, founder of the breakaway Democratic Front, who was born into a Christian tribe in Jordan. And the Ba’ath Party—overthrown in Iraq during the 2003 war but still in power in Syria—was founded by another Christian, Michel Aflaq.

It’s widely believed that by the time Aflaq died in 1989, he’d converted to Islam—a faith he equated with revolutionary Arab nationalism. But for Arab Christians, Aflaq’s conversion was a harbinger of the present time, when Islam has superseded nationalism as the main channel for discontent in the Arab world, leaving Christians feeling increasingly marginalized.

For that reason, the image of Arab Christians wanting to join the IDF suggests a hitherto unprecedented fracturing of Arab national identity. In an interview with Inter Press Service, Bishara Shilyan neatly summarized how this has impacted his community: “Jews call us ‘Arabs.’ For Muslims, we’re ‘Christians,’ not Arabs. We’re Israeli Christians, nothing short of that.”

At a time when Christian communities across the Islamic world are facing vicious persecution, in the form of arrests, mob violence and bombings of churches, it’s no coincidence that this assertive form of Christian identity has manifested in democratic Israel. Increasingly, Christians in the Middle East understand that if their faith is to have a future in the region, the states in which they live need to be governed by the values of democracy and tolerance. A state that is Jewish in terms of its identity, but which gives the same rights and demands the same duties of all of its citizens, is truly a revolutionary development for the Middle East—and a key reason why so many of its neighbors dream of its destruction.

Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Mosaic, and many other publications.

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  • scott..
    isnt gilbert gottfried the funniest on the planet?
    next to howie mandel of course

  • ScottAdler

    The Baathists were founded by Michel Aflaq????



    (I wonder if he sounded like Gilbert Gottfried?)

    Do you bennie ha kohaine have the guts to post this?
    esauv was hated
    esauvs son married ishmaels daughter
    both enemies and teachers to eacth other how to decimnate ISRAEL.
    Today we have spiritual death by the xtinas.
    Missionaries deceptions door to door brainwashing, in fron of the kotel giving gifts praising jeusx.
    john hagees sold himself as a friend of Israel.
    xtiasn intimidate impose insist that Jews must listen to them because they ‘support Israel”
    As long as Jews deny THE ‘ONE G-D OF ALL THINGS and look to hagees,obamas united nations etc etc..Jews will suffer.

  • Stephen Logan

    Israel and the Jewish people should not be surprised at ever growing support and love from Christians of every stripe.

    The views of anti-semetic Christian leaders have been recognized as misguided and a sin against G-d.

    The most famous of all New Testament bible verses, known the world over is “For G-d so loved the World that He gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life”. The “World” clearly spoken of includes Israel and the Jewish people. Thousands of other verses confirm this belief.

    The teachings of Yeshua and his disciple Saul about salvation belonging to the Jews first and in affirming that Christians owe the roots of their faith to the Jews is now accepted by all Christians whether Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox.

    May HaShem continue to bless Israel, her leaders and her people wherever they live. May the Jewish people find comfort in the love of the near one billion people who love and trust in the Jew born in Bethlehem some 2000 years ago.

  • Ridiculous label

    Please ask a BDS supported and a UN Human rights council member how this could be happening in a “apartheid” country.

    Additionally I don’t understand how any Christian organization would side with Arab Nationalist or Fundamentalist Muslims (no matter how non-violent they profess to be) given the church burnings in Egypt.

  • Mariana Lita

    Yes, it is a great article !
    It is a great thing what happening when Christians are not to forget we come from The Old Testament.
    Much love growing from this because our God is Love !
    He told us to love one another and to love our enemy as we love we selves (still we can hate what they do) !
    Unfortunately their religion is just full of hate in this orderliness: first they hate the Jewish and the Christians and the women and the blacks and been ordered in their teaching to kill all of them and any infidel. So is their growing hate to measure love ?! Must be hard to be programmed since childhood to hate and seems impossible to changing as adults. But we having hope and same God promises and He is always keeping His promises :)) We just have to keep praying for Israel ! And Bless Israel ! Thank you for the News. I wonder why we do not having these kind of news in australia where I live. Or everywhere to be telling the truth !

    • bb

      Mariana Lita,
      What Bible are you reading from? It is not the King James Version or any other Christain Version for that Matter. There is no where written in any Christian Bible or New Testament,(The Books concerning the life and times of Jesus Christ)that a Christian should hate any one. Where do you get off saying that “their religion is just full of hate in this orderliness: first they hate the Jewish in their teachings to kill att of them and any infidel.”
      And you live in Australia? You must have either been makiing some off color joke while writing your post or you were extremly high on something or just too drunk to know what you were writing.
      Bottom line, The Christian Bible and New Testament does not direct any one to hate any one.
      Semper Fi and Good Night Chesty Puller Where Ever You Are.

  • Joseph Silver

    We as Israeli Jews must do all we can to strengthen this attachment of our Christian fellow citizens to our state and its institutions; and as proud Zionist Israelis who are Christian.
    One small correction to this fine article: There are now over 153,000 local Christians in Israel. This is because Israel is the only country in the Middle east where Christians feel safe, and their numbers are increasing.
    This number does not include the 240,000 ex-Russian Christians who came with the just over 1,000,000 Russian Jews who have arrived in the last 23 years.

  • Kristoffer

    Great article!

    I’m Christian and been to israel about 10 times myself the last 4-5 years. I’ve experienced a growing number of Christian Arabs comming together with Messianic Jews (many serving in the special forces) in synagogue/church-like places. Their passion for their country is the same, so is their love for God.

    I find it beautiful and great for Israel that this phenomenon seem to be growing.