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Christians of Israel: The Fight for Survival

Dr. Minakshi Sardar Dr. Minakshi Sardar
15 Apr 2024

This article deals with the status of Arab Christians in Israel and the several challenges faced by them as minorities. In the broader context of the conflict between the Arabs and the Jews, the Christian communities remain a highly ignored community in Israel. They are almost seen nowhere in the picture. First, it is primarily due to the numerical domination of Arab Muslims as an Arab category. Secondly, the Arab-Israel conflict is loosely connected with Zionism vs Palestinian Arab Muslims. Hence, Christians are a less focused group in the larger context of the minority in Israel.

Christians have been invisible in the political imagination of Israel since its formation despite it being the birthplace and inhabited by the oldest living Christian community. The Pew Research Survey in 2016 found that first, Christians referred to themselves as equally Arab. Secondly, politically, they believe that the Jewishness of Israel undermines their credentials and claims of being a democracy. The Jewish state often practices institutionalised discrimination against its Arab minority. Thirdly, they live in highly segregated and socially undermined society and remain mostly ghettoised. Christians frequently face severe discrimination for practising their faith by the ultra-orthodox Jews, who are often involved in vandalism and harassment.

Democracy is argued as an evolving process and subject to many undercurrents. Israel, which claims to be the only democracy in the Middle East, has been accused of defaulting on that tall promise. Since its inception, the process of Judaisation has symbolised the image of Israel. Judaisation refers to the process of altering and reshaping the demographic and physical character of the Holy Land carried out to establish complete Jewish control. It is mainly done by increasing and expanding the Jewish settlements. The Arab vs Jews remained the permanent strife in Israel, more so when the state came out of its national home for Jews. The Jewishness of Israel not only questions its democratic credentials but is a nightmare for Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular. The Arab-Israel conflict also shaped Israel's socio-political structure. However, Jews aren't a homogenous group in a socio-political sense and are mainly divided into political lines.

There has been a consistent segregation of Arabs as a singular category by the Jewish state. Arabs, mostly Muslims, and also a tiny (2 per cent) population of Arab Christians live mostly in Northern Israel, the land of Jesus of Nazareth. The institutionalised segregation became more rapid with the rise of the Likud Party, which was born out of despondency in the backdrop of the chaotic 1973 war with Arabs. Likud eventually came to power in 1977. The Christian community and their fate have been sealed by the institutionalised segregation within Israel under the 'Arab phenomenon' and the rise of the right-wing populist nature of Israel's majoritarian democracy.

Arab Christians speak Arabic and thus remain unrecognisable for any distinctness as a separate minority. Bethlehem, being the birthplace of Jesus, remains a deserted site on Christmas Eve. Nazareth, in the northern part of Israel, is symbolically the place where Jesus lived his life. It has the highest concentration of the country's Christians. In 1867, Christians comprised 65 per cent of Nazareth's population, which declined to approximately 20 per cent in 2022.

Similarly, Jerusalem holds profound significance to Christianity, signifying the death and resurrection of Jesus, the essence of Christian belief. Studies and reports on the demographic pattern in Jerusalem show that in 1922, Jerusalem had 51.4 per cent of Christians, and the number declined over time to 1.7 per cent in 2020. A large section of the Christian population has preferred to migrate outside the Holy Land as a better option for survival and prospects for better livelihood. The migration consequently led to their decline in number.

The rise of ultra-right or populist rights under the rise of Bibi Netanyahu has often been accused of running an authoritarian structure. One glaring example is in 2020, the Ministry of Religion allocated only 7 per cent of non-Jews to maintain their religious institutions. This further crippled the status of Arab Christians in Israel, who lacked much attention and visibility under the Arab category. The rise of the Likud and Netanyahu explains the sorry state of affairs for Christians and minorities in Israel. There can't be a separation between how Netanyahu built his idea of Greater Israel and its fallout on Arabs, including Christians. Security threats, the minority status of the Christian communities and state policies, the declining number in the population, and the conflict-prone turmoil nature of the region have posed serious challenges to the survival of the Christian communities in the region.

Netanyahu's policies are a combination of a neo-liberal agenda, theocratic practices and personalised political behaviour that justifies annexations of the Arab land in the name of biblical prophecy, setting up neo-liberal agendas under the arm of 'market is always right' that often targets any form of opposition and positioning himself as a muscular populist and saviour of the Zionist project of making Israel a fundamentalist state. The rise of an extreme right-wing has not been particular to Israel. A trend of polarisation and establishing political supremacy under the justification of religion seems to be the present-day scenario in several countries. A similar model of power concentration of extreme rightist agenda also finds a political intersection with the current ruling authorities under the Modi government in India. However, the situation and the context in both countries remain hugely different.

The problem, however, remains how Israel's state policies impact the minority, mostly Christians, who have been almost invisible in any discussion. The recent 2018 Nation-State Law formally recognises that Israel belongs to Jews only against any legitimate claim by Arabs, including Arab Christians. However, the intervention by the Supreme Court challenged the premise of the Nation-State Law that legitimises the elevated status of Jewishness against the Arabs, making religious minorities in Israel de facto second-class citizens. Primarily, due to Netanyahu's insecurities about losing power, he has been instrumental in challenging the autonomy of the judiciary despite the significant opposition to his move, even by the majority of Israeli Jews. But before the Gaza war on October 7, 2023, he projected himself as the only choice who could make Israel a 'Greater Israel'.

Christians also find themselves in the crossfire between the claims of Zionism on biblical notions of the Promised Land and justification of annexations of Palestinian Land, referring to the West Bank and Gaza as Judea and Samaria. On the other hand, Arab opposition also makes the Christian community more vulnerable. Israel has not found any concrete solution to its conflict with Palestine and has undermined the international laws and civility that any democracy promises to its people.

The fact is, Israel, since its inception, has defaulted on its promises of being a democracy, and the rise of Netanyahu made it impossible for any possibility of return. The Arab Christians are not just a tiny minority but have become an invisible community, and there is a direct connection with the unresolved Israel-Palestine conflict. Their fate has been sealed under the cloud of uncertainties shrouded with clash over many rightful claims; their voices are muted, and their frustrations are unending.

(The author specialises in Israel-Vatican Relations. She is an assistant professor at the Indian Social Institute in New Delhi. minakshi@isidelhi.org.in)

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