Josef Olmert

The changing mood of some Arabs in Israel

The political turmoil known as the Arab Spring is far from being over. It is not close
to its end, rather to the end of the beginning. One of the many unintended and surprising
consequences of the situation has to do with Israel’s Arab citizens.
Recently, a new political force among Israel’s Arabs, started to raise a voice, one
which the Israeli Government , the Jewish population of the state, but also the
self-styled leadership of Israel’s Arabs, the MKs , like Ahmad Tibbi , Hanin Zuabi
and the rest, should pay attention to.
I refer to the emerging new movement of mainly Arab Christians, citizens of the state, who are
calling in public to their brethern, first the Christians, but also Muslims , to
enlist in the IDF, and by so doing , to fulfill their utmost civic duties.
Arabs , both Christians and Muslims, have always served in the IDF,in fact, there is
a Bedouin battalion which is doing a great job in tasks of everyday security of borders,
particularly in the South, but these people have always been a tiny fraction of the Arab
population, and were conceived by many of their compatriots as ”traitors” in the service
of the ”Zionists”.

The difference now is the fact, that the desire to serve is being expressed publicly
and enthusiastically by a growing number of Arabs, mainly Christians. They have
a leader, a fearless Priest, Gabriel Nadaf, and alongside him a group of young people
who are proud to declare their total , undivided loyalty to Israel, recognizing its
Jewish and Zionist character. First, words of explanation as to the connection of
all that to the Arab Spring. Arab Christians are fast becoming the biggest losers
of this political eruption. Copts in Egypt have become victims of the rising power
of the Islamists there, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis. Even in Sinai, where there are very few Christians,
there were troubles, much more so in Cairo, Alexandria, Assyut and other mixed cities.
In Gaza, the small Christian minority almost decimated due to emigration resulting from the harassment
by the Hamas government. Beit Lechem is no more a Christian city, in fact, the Christians have left in droves.
In Syria, there are 10 % Christians, over two million people, and they dread the possibility of a
Sunni take-over there. If we could visit Bab Touma, the old Christian quarter of Damascus , we would have heard
the horror stories of the great massacre there in 1861, in which thousands of Christians were slaughtered.
In the Middle East, memories of this kind die hard, if at all, and the Jews are not the only ones
who have a long heritage of persecution and memory.
No wonder, that the Christians in Syria are among the minority groups, alongside the Alawites, who are
still loyal to the regime. Sectarianism is the name of the game in Syria, as it is in Lebanon, once
with a Christian Majority, now with an ever dwindling Christian minority, and also in Iraq, the majority of its
Chaldean and Assyrian Christians left, mainly to the US, in large numbers after the downfall of Saddam.
Christians in Israel hear the voices and see the sights, and they do not like it.
The realization that Israel could be a safe heaven is therefore a logical conclusion of this state
of affairs.

Yet, the new movement is not , by any stretch of the imagination, a true representative of the majority
of Israel’s Christian Arabs. We are not there still, perhaps not for a long while.
Traditionally, Arab Christians, in the Middle East in general, including in Israel, tended to support political movements
which advocated a secular, non-sectarian identity for the Arab states. So, the Pan-Arab Ba’th
Party, the Pan-Syrian party and Communist parties in Arab countries, were heavily stuffed with Christian Arabs,
in some cases these parties were founded and led by Christians. One of them was the Pan-Arab Nationalists,
established by the notorious Palestinian terrorist Jeorge Habash. Also in Israel, the historic leadership
of the Communist Party was mostly Christian, with Taufiq Tubi, Emil Habibi and others on top, and Azmi Bishara
led the Balad Party, until his defection few years ago.
Clearly, these Christians hoped, like many Jews did in Eastern Europe but also in the Middle East [Iraq, for example],
that secular, non-sectarian parties will offer them a way out of the religious/sectarian ghetto to which they were
confined in a Sunni-dominated society.
With the demise of all these ideological trends in the Arab world, it should come as no surprise, that a growing number
of Arab Christians in Israel has decided that the Jewish state is , after all, a better solution to them, then Arab/Palestinian
nationalism, with its distinct Islamist flavor.

The Israeli Government should encourage these people and provide proper security to those who are already threatened
by pro-Palestinian militants. Israeli Jews in general are required to understand, that Arabs, and not just Christians, are
not automatic enemies of the state. Israeli Arab politicians should view this development as a reminder
to them, that ordinary Israeli Arabs, and not just Christians, are interested in questions of bread and butter, and not all
of them are obsessed with Palestinian nationalism, which most of Israel’s Arab leaders are tuned to.

All this is easier said than done. Jews are the majority of Israel’s population, and so it will be for ever. Israel is the nation -state
of the Jewish people, and that too should never change, yet protection of minority rights is an essential element of every democracy,
so the state and all its organs should warmly brace those Arabs who want to fulfill their utmost duty and serve in the IDF, but at the same time
also strive to come to accommodation with those Arabs who have a different approach. It is a toll order, but
it could and should be done.

About the Author
Dr Josef Olmert, a Middle East expert, is currently an adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina