“We are Zionists and serve Israel with pride” – Former SLA members, Druze, Bedouin and Muslims from Jerusalem at a special event for Israel’s 70th anniversary spoke of the real coexistence in Israel
In recent years we are witnessing a process of awakening among Christians in Israel, as well as among members of other minorities, who are speaking out and acting against the prevailing attitude in the Arab sector and against the systemic fixation of the authorities in Israel.
This can be seen in the historical process of integration into Israeli society and enlistment in the IDF and National Service, in which more and more Arab-speaking Christians are taking part. It is also seen in a redefining of Christians, who shed their Arab identity and adopt the historical Aramaic identity and Israeli identity. Even among young leaders and activists in the Bedouin community and in the Arab sector, Israeli identity as a definition is gradually taking its place and these voices are becoming public.
Military service is the ticket into Israeli society, but the initiatives do not stop there and that is a good thing. Christians, Bedouins, Arab Muslims and Druze can now be seen in the forefront of public diplomacy efforts and the struggle against anti-Semitism and the delegitimization of Israel. For example, the “Reservists on Duty” organization, which organizes the extraordinary activities of Israeli minorities on campuses in the United States and Europe.
Despite all this, government ministries and authorities are still too set in their ways and do not treat these minorities as those who wish to be an integral part of all aspects of life in the State of Israel.
During the tenure of the previous government, Deputy Minister Ophir Akunis formed an interministerial forum that began to advance processes in favor of encouraging leadership in the Christian community. The current government though transfered responsibility to Minister Gila Gamliel and all progress with this tendency came to a halt.
For example, as part of the publicized plan to transfer huge budgets to the Arab sector, Gamliel made no reference to the strengthening of the Christian community or the issue of military service, nor did she meet with the main activists in the community.
Even in the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, entrusted with Israeli public relations, would have benefited if they had thought outside the box, and understood the potential of activity with Christians and minorities, which can be very useful to all parties involved.
As with other issues, here too the initiatives come first of all from citizens and civil society organizations. The “Im Tirtzu” movement was the first to be involved in the process of integration of the minorities, followed by other Zionist organizations who each did so in their respective fields. As things stand today, it seems that until such time that a minister assigned the responsibility is appointed – one who will realize the magnitude of the hour and the honor bestowed upon him to advance the historic change – citizens and organizations from the national camp will continue to do so, as happened in the events of this past Independence Day.
We Are All Zionists
Among the many events celebrated in the State of Israel marking the 70th anniversary of its independence was one particular event, modest and unique, and perhaps even historical. An event that took place as a private initiative, but reflected very positive processes that have been going on in Israeli society in recent years.
A day after Israel’s main Independence Day celebrations, Rabbi Yaakov Kirmayer, the head of the Yakir organization, initiated an event dedicated entirely to minorities who see themselves as an inseparable part of the State of Israel and operate in this spirit.
The Shai Agnon Synagogue in Jerusalem’s Arnona neighborhood saw its traditional Jewish worshipers on that morning, but the main lines were occupied by guests, some of whom were in a synagogue for the first time.
In attendance were a distinguished group of Christians and Druze from the South Lebanese Army (SLA) Society who have tied their fate with the fate of the State of Israel; Representatives of the Bedouin community in the north, and Israeli Arabic-speaking Christians from the Galilee; Members of the Israeli Druze community; and there was an Arab-Muslim soldier from one of the Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem, who is about to finish Officers’ training course in the IDF.
The event was also attended by the Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem Yael Antebi and City Council member Dan Illouz. The event opened with a speech by Rabbi Kirmayer, who spoke about the heroism and contribution of minorities and the opportunity to acknowledge them on the day of the State of Israel, the State of which they are an inseparable part.
The first speaker among the representatives of the minorities was former Druze MK Shakib Shanan, who lost his son, Kamil, in a terror attack on the Temple Mount last summer. “Jerusalem was my heart and now it is my soul,” said Shanan and, referring to the incident in which his son was killed, said “To meet people who are willing to respect the human way, to love the State of Israel and to live in mutual existence and mutual respect, I will run to the end of the world.”
He later spoke of the personal grief he experienced and the lessons he took from it: “The blood of the policemen in this attack was not spilled in vain … I want to create love, peace and bring people closer as a result of this event. To do everything so that there are no more fathers who are bereaved parents like me. We were born as human beings and are in a holy place in order to live and coexist together, to respect one another. The despicable murderers of my son and his friend intended to murder the coexistence of all of us. We must say to them and those who sent and financed them: You will not win. The State of Israel is much stronger and much more human, and such people will not be able to sabotage it. “
He was followed by Nur Mazarib, a Bedouin from the north who established a pre-military academy, and is also the nephew of ‘Abd al-Majid al-Mazarib, who is the founder of the mythical [Israeli commando unit] Sayeret Shaked. “We are all Zionists, different in religions but we have the same goal,” he began, “the Bedouin community does not have a duty to serve, but we have been serving voluntarily since before the establishment of the state. I very much hope that we will continue, and I turn to the establishment to embrace us. There has been improvement but there still needs to be improved. I send a message to everyone and say to the Jews as well: Be loyal to the state because you have no other country. I call on minorities to serve the state, to protect its borders and to be loyal. We need to educate our children to follow us.”
“We Have No Other Country”
The third speaker was Fares al-Haji, a member of the SLA who fled to Israel with the withdrawal of the IDF from southern Lebanon and their abandonment by former prime minister Ehud Barak. “There is already a third generation of SLA members in Israel. We feel at home here, and it is the Lebanese state that betrayed us,” he said.
“For years we served to preserve peace between Lebanon and Israel, and Israel accepted us with love. We have no other home, we will not return to Lebanon, even though our families are there and it is very difficult, “he said.” Our children also want to enlist in the IDF. We were loyal to the State of Israel and will continue to be loyal to it. We have no other home.”
Another speaker representing the Christian community at the event was Suleiman Salameh of the Christian Quarter in Jerusalem. Minorities from Jerusalem who enlist in the IDF are a rare occurence, although there are already a few pioneers, mostly Christians. Suleiman, who was recently discharged from the IDF as a combat soldier and whose brother now serves as a fighter, decided to speak openly despite the danger.
“I am from Jerusalem, I grew up here in this country and I am proud of it. After high school I started to study at the college, but I felt uncomfortable so I finally decided to enlist. I waited two years until I received the approval for the security classification. There may be people who thought I had wasted two years of life, but I do not feel that way because you have to go with what you believe.”
Suleiman went on to say about his military service: “We are not waiting to receive anything from the state, but to give. I was a fighter, a company medic, I was an outstanding soldier. I fulfilled my dream and served the country. I want to tell young people my age: We have no other country.”
The last speaker of the event was the most surprising of all. “A” is a Muslim Arab from one of Jerusalem’s neighborhoods which produced quite a few terrorists. He chose to do the unbelievable, and to follow the volunteer path to the IDF and serve as a fighter. His extended family, friends and neighbors do not know this and he avoids approaching his childhood neighborhood so as not to endanger them.
He asked not to be on stage so not to draw attention to himself, but agreed to say a few words: “I was born under a blue and white flag and we will protect it to ensure it keeps flying forever,” he said, and told about the difficulties that accompanied his brave decision. “I can not go back to my neighborhood because, unlike most, I decided to pave the way for people in the hope that others would follow. Although the neighborhood where I grew up is defined as hostile, I enlisted to change this and the population that sees the state as an “other” and not as a home. I tell them the opposite: this is home.”
To Serve with Pride
The speeches were followed with a prayer in the synagogue for the welfare of the state and of the IDF soldiers, which was also translated into Arabic, and then the members continued to a festive meal at the rabbi’s house, where they met Samar Jiryis, one of the first Christians who joined the IDF in the 1980s. He then continued to serve in the Border Police, and was recently promoted to first lieutenant colonel, the first Christian in the Border Police to hold this rank
Jiyris began by saying that Israel is the safest place for Christians in the Middle East. “When I look around at what is happening to the Christians in Syria and Iraq, what a massacre they have gone through, it just serves to increase my understanding that the State of Israel, the Jewish state, is my home.”
Jiyris said that when he hears young Israelis complaining about the state, he tells them: “Look at the history, be proud and serve it with pride.”
He continues to encourage young Christians to enlist as well out of a sense of belonging: “We will continue to deepen the relationship we built out of loyalty to the state, but the establishment must understand that this is not only about military service – it is a blood pact that has already been written, but we also need an alliance of life and partnership in all fields,” he said.
This unique event was not covered by the mainstream media in Israel, to no surprise. Most of the positive processes affecting minorities in Israel are accompanied by organizations and activists affiliated with the political right, as opposed to large sections of the left who prefer to use minorities as a political battering tool.
The left prefer to keep the Arabs disadvantaged and inferior and to encourage their separateness and their national-Palestinian identity, sometimes even by force. The sane national public in Israel should embrace minorities who are aware of the realities and want to live here as equals.
This trend must continue and be strengthened. There is, of course, still a long way to go and many other gaps to narrow in order to bring the various groups closer together, and to encourage openness and recognition. Seventy years is not much, and therefore what has not been done until now must be corrected, out of true partnership and not out of isolation.
*(Translated from Mida.org.il Hebrew)
Amit Barak is a Consultant on Christian enlistment in the IDF and Christian integration into Israeli society
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