By Shalle' McDonald/JNS.org
Jonathan Nizar Elkhoury wants minority populations in Israel to speak up about what life is really like in the Jewish state. He wants the world to know that Israel is a safe haven for persecuted Middle East minorities. For Elkhoury, this isn’t just loose talk. He is gay, Christian, and a Lebanese refugee.
Elkhoury was 9 years old when his family fled war-torn Lebanon for Israel. His father was a soldier in the South Lebanon Army (SLA), which was established in 1982 and was supported by Israel in its fight against the Palestine Liberation Organization and Hezbollah. In 2000, Israel withdrew its troops from Lebanon and the SLA collapsed, leaving the militia with the unsavory options of finding asylum, surrendering, or being captured by the Hezbollah terror group and subsequently put on trial for treason.
After Elkhoury’s father sought asylum in Israel in 2000, the rest of the family followed him in 2001 as persecution of Christians and SLA members became more widespread in Lebanon.
“The situation in Lebanon was really difficult…Hezbollah started entering homes of Christians and of those who were [from the] South Lebanon Army. [They were] just taking stuff, beating the women, the kids...it was really scary for us,” Elkhoury said in an interview in the midst of his U.S. speaking tour, which covered 12 college campuses this month.
The speaking tour, dubbed “The Story of An Arab Refugee in Israel,” was sponsored by the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) in order to educate college students about Israel’s diverse society and civil rights record. (The Zionist Organization of America was a co-sponsor of the events at six of the 12 schools where Elkhoury appeared.)
“At a time when Israel is falsely denounced on college campuses as an apartheid state, Elkhoury’s life and message are a powerful antidote to the distorted picture students are given,” said Gilad Skolnick, director of campus programming for CAMERA.
“What I’m hoping is that [the students] will see from a personal perspective, from a minority who is living in Israel…more of how life is really like in Israel,” Elkhoury said.
Israel’s government and society both helped Elkhoury’s refugee family fully integrate and become citizens, he said. Yet he recalled that they did face some discrimination from the Israeli Arab and Christian populations—the very communities the family thought they would belong to.
“I entered the Jewish schools because the Arab schools wouldn’t accept us because they considered us as traitors. They thought that we fought against our [Lebanese] brothers and we collaborated with Israel [during the South Lebanon conflict]…although we only protected our homes, protected our families, and the South Lebanon Army was fighting only against terror organizations and not the government itself,” Elkhoury told JNS.org.
But the Israeli Christian community’s acceptance of his family did increase over time, according to Elkhoury, particularly as the persecution of Christians drastically rose across the board in the Middle East. Currently, that persecution has reached a fever pitch in Iraq and Syria amid the conquests of the Islamic State terror group.
“Today, the situation is different because [of] what’s happening now in the Middle East. [Arab Christians] are starting to understand [my family] more because of the situation of the Christians all over the Middle East,” Elkhoury said.
For Lebanese Christian families like Elkhoury’s, in the face of losing their freedom and ultimately being controlled by a terrorist organization (Hezbollah), leaving for Israel was the only choice.
“The Lebanese government didn’t help us [and] didn’t protect us—we had to do something to fight for our lives and for our rights in our land,” said Elkhoury.
As an Arab refugee, Israeli Christian, and a member of the LGBT community, Elkhoury continues to fight for his rights. During his two years of Israeli national service, he became very vocal in trying to encourage Arab Israelis to serve even though Israel’s government doesn’t require them to do so. He said, “At the end, [national service] will only help them and the community they live in.”
Elkhoury is now a spokesman for the Christian Empowerment Council, headed by Father Gabriel Naddaf, an Israeli Greek Orthodox priest who is well-known for successfully recruiting Arab Christians to join the Israel Defense Forces and other forms of national service. Elkhoury said there are currently 650 Christians taking part in Israeli national service programs.
Speaking publicly in support of Arab Israelis becoming more integrated into Israeli society is something Elkhoury is unafraid of, despite the danger that often accompanies such advocacy.
“Although we have a lot of threats on our lives [from other Arabs who oppose national service], we really miss a lot of people that need to stop being afraid and talk more about the life in Israel as it is, and not try to put their heads in the sand and just cover their eyes,” Elkhoury said.
Many Arab Christians in Israel are afraid to speak out in favor of the Israeli government “because they live in a lot of areas where if they do speak…they will be persecuted, they will be hunted or they will be expelled from their community,” Elkhoury explained. He wants those Arab Christians to understand that they are part of Israeli society.
“As citizens we need to do our best in order to make our country better for us and for others, so we need to take part in it and not be separated. If we have some problems that we need to solve with the government, we’re going to do it as civilians, as activists that consider ourselves as Israelis and not some outsiders…we need to collaborate together,” said Elkhoury.
As a gay man, Elkhoury said he doesn’t “know what the situation would have been” if he remained in Lebanon. According a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center, 80 percent of Lebanese citizens believe the country shouldn’t accept homosexuality. While Israeli public opinion is divided on the subject of gay rights, Israel has laws protecting against anti-gay discrimination in schools, the military, and the workplace, and Tel Aviv is known as one of the world’s most gay-friendly cities.
Ultimately, Elkhoury considers it a privilege to live in Israel. He was initially unsure how his mixture of identities would work out in the Jewish state, but now he sees that he can be himself: Israeli, Arab, Christian, gay, and proud of his family’s heritage in the South Lebanon Army.
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