By Sean Savage/JNS.org
Despite Christianity being founded in Judea more than two millennia ago, Christians have long kept a low profile in Israel. But in the last few years, the Jewish state’s Christian minority has stepped up its visibility while seeking greater integration and participation within Israeli society, much like other minority groups such as the Druze and Bedouin.
Now that they have a higher profile, how do some within Israel’s 165,000-strong Christian community view and celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day)?
Israeli Greek Orthodox priest Father Gabriel Naddaf told JNS.org through an interpreter that one of the first actions of the Israeli Christians Recruitment Forum, which he co-founded in 2012 to encourage Christian participation in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), was to make a point of celebrating Israeli Independence Day.
“In my office, there is a flag of the State of Israel,” Naddaf said. “We end all of our conferences and events by singing ‘Hatikvah’ (Israel’s national anthem). When we sing it, all of the Christians that participate in these events, they stand in respect for the Holy Land, the Jewish and democratic state. We need to recognize that God said the land of Israel belongs to the Jews, so if I believe in God and if I believe in the holy books, I must believe that the land of Israel belongs to the Jews and I must take part in Israeli democracy. That’s why we celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut.”
Naddaf’s strident patriotism presents a stark contrast to many Israeli Arabs, among them Christians, who link Israeli Independence Day with what they call the “Nakba”—Arabic for “catastrophe”—and mark the Israeli state holiday with protests as well as memorials for Arabs who were displaced as a result of Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.
“The Arabs don’t like [my Israeli pride],” Naddaf said. “They want me to say that this is an Arab land, a Palestinian land. But I know that this is a lie. Why? Not because I’m protecting the Jews like a lawyer would do. It’s because God said that this is the land of the Jews.”
While Naddaf represents a new movement of Christians seeking better integration within their country, Israeli Christian society is a diverse group that even includes Christians from neighboring Arab states such as Lebanon, who hold their own interpretation of the holiday.
Jonathan Elkhoury, who was born into a Christian family in Lebanon and moved to Israel when he was 9 years old, said he proudly adopted Yom Ha’atzmaut as a new Israeli citizen.
“In school, we learned about the holidays and Yom Ha’atzmaut was one of them. I knew back then that now I live in Israel, this is my holiday too, because this is my country now and I belong here,” Elkhoury told JNS.org.
Elkhoury’s unique background led him to face discrimination within the Israeli Arab community due to his father’s service with the South Lebanon Army (SLA), which was allied with Israel in its fight against the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Hezbollah terror group until Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000. As a result, many SLA veterans and their families were relocated to Israel after the IDF pullout.
Today, Elkhoury serves as a spokesman for the Christian Empowerment Council, where he speaks out on behalf of other SLA families as well as against the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. Elkhoury said he celebrates Yom Ha’atzmaut much like any Jewish family in Israel would do so.
“Like every Israeli family on Yom Ha’atzmaut, we go out and have a barbecue. On the evening of Yom Ha’atzmaut, we go out with friends to see the concerts and celebrate with our friends around the city, then go all together to watch the fireworks exactly at 9:15 p.m. every year,” he said.