Armed forces court Christians for service
NAZARETH, Israel — Amir Shalayan, dressed in his Israeli military fatigues, was in no doubt about his identity. “When you go back in religion, I consider myself a real Jew,” he said, unabashed by the family Christmas tree behind him in his living room. “Jesus was Jewish and he observed the Sabbath.”
Shalayan is an Arab Christian, a category he refers to as Aramean. But his strong identification with the Jewish faith is offered as explanation for his keen army service.
It also accounts for his vocal support of legislation that would officially declare Israel a Jewish state, a bill that would deny collective national rights to the Arab minority and strip Arabic of its status as one of the country’s official languages.
The legislation to designate Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people” is supported by Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, despite the fact 1.7 million Arabs — 161,000 of whom are Christians — form more than 20 per cent of the country’s population.
Plans to table the bill were delayed after the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, was dissolved last month and a general election called for March, but it is certain to be a controversial issue in the forthcoming campaign.
Critics say it will reduce the Arab population, both Muslim and Christian, to second-class citizens in the land of their birth and ancestry.
Shalayan has no such qualms, citing the recent fate of Christians at the hands of jihadist extremists in Iraq and Syria to support his case.
“I’m supporting the bill,” he said. “I would rather be a second-class citizen under a Jewish state than a first-class citizen in an Arab state.
“Arab countries don’t have any system. They want to act according to Shariah (Islamic law). Christians have been persecuted all over the world and this is the only country (in the Middle East) that gives me the right to be Christian and practise my rituals.”
Shalayan, 26, is one of a small number of Christians to have volunteered to serve in Israel’s armed forces, from which his co- religionists, such as other Arabs, are exempt. This is in contrast to most Jews, for whom service is compulsory.
Having spent three years in the Israeli navy, he now performs regular reserve duty and is a member of the Israeli Christians Recruitment Forum Association, which attempts to persuade other Christians to join the army. It claims to have recruited 100 to 150 Christian volunteers since its establishment in 2012.
Shalayan says his motivation is simple: Christians should assimilate in Israeli society and serve the country that protects them.
His military service and support for the Jewish nationstate bill is music to the ears of Netanyahu and the Israeli armed forces, which sent out voluntary recruitment notices to young Christians for the first time this year in an attempt to woo them into military
I would rather be a secondclass citizen under a Jewish state than a first-class citizen in an Arab state.
Yet they are deeply unpopular among his co-religionists in Nazareth, where Christians account for only about 30 per cent of the population of 80,000.
Most reject the idea of army service as an Israeli attempt to dilute their Arab identity and divide them from their Muslim brethren. Riah Abu Al-Assal, the Anglican bishop of Israel and Palestine, said: “My brother lives in Lebanon and has two sons and I have two second cousins here who are of army service age. How could they possibly serve when they might have to fire on their relations in a future war?”
That conundrum cut little ice in the Shalayan household in Upper Nazareth. “All the Arabs say, you are going to kill your own people,” said Bishara Shalayan, 59, Amir’s father, who set up a Facebook page aimed at encouraging Arab Christians to join the army. “We don’t want to kill anybody. We want to protect ourselves and serve the country we believe in. But if my brother is a terrorist, I will kill him.”