Identity Politics: Israeli Election Squeezes Arab Christians

  • Written by:

Research suggests Christians are downplaying ‘Israeli’ and ‘Palestinian’ labels, but losing ministry opportunities as a result.
Jayson Casper in Cairo/ MARCH 18, 2015
Identity Politics: Israeli Election Squeezes Arab Christians
Image: Ariel Schalit / AP
Israel’s election wasn’t easy on its Arab Christian citizens.

From one direction, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rallied his base by warning, “The Arabs are flocking to the polls in droves.” From the other, Ayman Odeh, a Palestinian-Israeli politician from Haifa, led an unprecedented but disjointed coalition of Arab secularists, communists, and Islamists, and received the endorsement of Hamas.

The tension illustrates the struggle of Arab Israeli Christians to craft a national identity between the increasing clamor of Zionism and Islamism. The result, according to evangelical leaders: a “ghetto mentality” among Christians and fewer opportunities for public witness and ministry.

Netanyahu’s Likud emerged victorious over its left-of-center rivals, the Zionist Union, buoyed by promises to abandon prospects for a Palestinian state. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a Likud ally, told Odeh during campaigning, “You’re not wanted here.”

As voter turnout surged, however, so did Arab participation. Odeh’s “Joint List” placed No. 3 among the 10 parties that captured seats in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. “I’m very wanted in my homeland,” Odeh replied.

But where is this homeland for Arab Christians? The answer is quite contested.

“The level of comfort in identifying as an Israeli is not very high,” said Botrus Mansour, general director of Nazareth Baptist School. “Israel doesn’t help in that.”

A contributing factor is the implosion of regional secular Arab nationalism amid an increasing emphasis on Islamic identity.

“They [Arab Christians in Israel] see what is happening with Christians in the Arab world,” said Mansour, mentioning Iraq, Syria, and Egypt specifically. “Despite the fact that they are second-class citizens in Israel, they feel they live in reasonable conditions economically, and with reasonable freedom of expression that other Christian Arabs in the Middle East do not enjoy.

“Therefore, the Israeli card trumps the game.”

Israel’s Arab population is roughly 20 percent of the Jewish state’s 7.9 million people. Of these, only 157,100 are Christian, according to the latest statistics (gathered in 2012) from the Israeli Census Bureau.

But new research on the roughly 5,000 evangelical Arab Christians in Israel paints a different picture. According to Nazareth Evangelical Theological Seminary (NETS), 75 percent of Baptist leaders surveyed last summer called themselves “Arab Israeli Christians,” deemphasizing their Palestinian identity.

“Our research asks people who they are,” said Duane Alexander Miller, lecturer in church history and theology and co-author of the study with NETS president Azar Ajaj. “There is not a huge aversion to being called Israeli, which is somewhat surprising.”

Baptist churches make up the majority of the Convention of Evangelical Churches in Israel, which is seeking official recognition from the government. Partners include the Assemblies of God, Brethren, Nazarene, and Christian Missionary Alliance churches, totaling 35 congregations.

But there is a newer, fledgling movement of ethnic identity that also identifies strongly with Israel. In September 2014, approximately 20,000 Christians became eligible to have their national ID cards identify them as “Aramean,” rather than “Arab.”