How much do we know about the Christian Arabs in Israel?

DSCN0018Hopping into a cab and driving to your destined location, seems a normal task as any. In Israel however, in most cases, it is a chance to get a glimpse of what the average Joe thinks about politics. Every time I am in a cab I find myself engaged in a conversation about politics, not because it’s what I really want to get into with a complete stranger, but it is a topic that in Israel everyone has a say about.

Heading home from Tel-Aviv, passing by the Shuk Hapishpeshim in Jaffa on a cool Friday evening I was asked by the cab driver what my plans were for the Passover (Peseach) holiday. Slightly off -put, I looked him in the eyes through the rear-view mirror and said: “I’m not Jewish, I’m Christian Arab”. He glances back before he turns his head to traffic and says: “What does that mean? Aren’t all Arabs Muslim?”. For a moment I did not pass judgment; after all, he might be someone who has not lived here for a very long time and might be a new ‘Olah’ to the country, so I asked him this: “For how long have you lived here?”, “For forty years” he shoots back.

I am not one to judge. After all I am judged by the way I speak, by the way I look and constantly haunted by the question: “you don’t look Arab” insinuating that there has to be a special Arab factor that singles me out or the fact that I am not wearing a headscarf is alarming. We are pointing out the stereotypes, no?

However, at that moment I did judge, I judged this Israeli taxi driver who has lived in Israel for forty years, had the radio on a news channel, politically aware, hard working man, a voter and a citizen, for not being able to tell me that he knew that there is a Christian Arab minority in his own country and not being aware of what it means.

Christian Arabs comprise around two percent of the Israeli population. Faith? Christianity. Ethnicity? Arab.  Confused as I was, his response startled me. Christian Arabs vote, go to university, work in this country and get married in it. Simply visit Jerusalem, Jaffa and Nazareth amongst other areas and you will find all of those facts to be true. After all, isn’t a Holy Land for all three religions?

Christian Arabs are always mistaken for being the same as Muslim Arabs. Although they share the same ethnic identity and language, Christianity dates back earlier than the rise of Islam.

Christian Arabs don’t only have a religious history that separates them from their Arab Muslim counterparts but also have a separate struggle that came after the newly independent state of Israel in 1948. In 1948 there were 150,000 Arabs that remained in Israel and out of those 150,000, forty percent were Christian Arabs. However, all throughout the 1940s and 1960s the Christian Arab population went through a struggle because the population was almost entirely wiped out.

Fast forward years later, the Christian Arab community still holds up with a small, almost two percent in Israel. It is a thriving small population that takes pride in its tight-knit community and preservation of its customs and habits. It is this time of year that the largest denomination in Israel, the Greek Orthodox, step out and showcase their pride, wear their traditional scouts costume for everyone to see at the annual Easter parade in Jaffa. Inviting over ten other scouts to participate, that display of a Christian tradition in Jaffa is loud enough in itself to attract attention to the community and exert its willingness to triumph on with pride despite its ill -recognition in the media and even almost the entire Israeli society of its existence.

Why is this important to know?

The key feature of a democratic state is being aware of its minorities and engaging them in society. It is vital to Israel’s democratic character and stability to be mindful of its minorities. However, in Israel either a large group of people clump the minorities under one category or repel the idea that different minorities exist in the country, the Christian Arabs being an example of this behavior.

The Christian Arabs, I see, are a voice of a community that is neglected. A voice that is as much part of this country as the Muslim Arab minority and the Jewish majority. We should stress hearing it because at the end of the day the minorities that live in this country are just as part of the rest. They make this country diverse, authentic and different. They hold the key to its potential and change. We shouldn’t repel difference but embrace it because it might be the solution to the aged long question of whether there can ever be peace in the region and in this country. The minorities hold the key to that problem. Respect the minorities, embrace them, engage them in society and you will hear compelling voices that make up the core of a functioning civic society that can exist in Israel. Otherwise, we will run the risk of hearing the same old arguments.

The last elections might have just proved one thing: there is a large number of people in this country that still believe in its tremendous potential. What I have seen was not a Likud victory but people campaigning, running to the ballot box, protesting and standing at Kikar Rabin, Arabs voting like never before, all for the sake of change and embracing the minorities in the country should be part of that change.

As things have dwindled down and conversations shifted to talks about the future coalition and the impact of the Iran deal, one can’t help but still have a will to fight on for a better change.

Arriving at my destination in the taxi, it seemed that I learned a thing or two as well. As we talked about Yemenis traditional cooked dishes and culture, politics and religious holidays, the differences and confusion aired away. I looked out the window at this beautiful country that has so much potential. People from all walks of life, aged old stories, memories, the smell of cooking in the air and the sound of the Muslim call for prayer on a cool Friday afternoon and then I remembered why I left this place with such a heavy heart because I always wondered deep down: why can’t we all just talk like this?

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