(March 30, 2016 / JNS)
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.
Though Israeli Christians were long considered a minority within a minority, the Israeli government has in recent years taken steps to distinguish Christians from the rest of the country’s Arab minority. Last year, Israel officially recognized the existence of an ethnic group of Christians known as “Arameans,” who consider themselves to be the descendants of Aramaic-speaking Semitic people dating back to the Late Bronze Age more than 3,000 years ago.
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.
“I studied in a Hebrew-speaking schools. The Arab schools didn’t accept us, for being part of the SLA families, and they considered us as an enemy and traitors because we were allies with Israel,” Elkhoury said.
Coming from an Arab country that is still technically at war with Israel, Elkhoury intimately understands the negative view that Israeli Independence Day holds within the Israeli Arab community.
“For some Arabs in Israel, the day of celebration is a disaster because the Jewish people were able to build a country,” he said. “In my opinion, it is a hypocrisy because until today, some won’t accept Israel as a state spatially as a Jewish state.”
Elkhoury said many Israeli Arabs argue that there is discrimination within Israel, but that “some are not doing anything in order to make their lives better, from education, language, and learning Hebrew to the small things of being part of a bigger society.”
“Without the State of Israel, the situation [in the Middle East] will not be as good as it is,” he said. “Yes, we do have many things to change, but it is much better than all the countries surrounding us, even in Lebanon.”
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 friend 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.
While the vast majority of Israeli Christians, such as Father Naddaf and Elkhoury, have millennia-old roots in the Middle East, a small but vibrant community of expatriate evangelical Christians also call Israel home and proudly celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut.
Nyki Ramirez, a stay-at-home mother of three, originally lived in Florida before moving to Israel in 2007 with her husband so that he could assume a position with the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, a Christian Zionist organization.
Ramirez, who proudly said that all three of her children were born in Israel, bases her support for Israel on the Hebrew Bible and sees Israel’s founding as an extension of God’s promises to the Jewish people.
“To me, Zionist simply means to support and bless the nation of Israel. I believe God when he says, ‘I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you’ (Genesis 12:3). I don’t support Israel in order to receive blessing. Rather, I do so because it pleases God,” Ramirez told JNS.org.
Like the Fourth of July in the United States, Yom Ha’atzmaut is seen by many as a strictly secular holiday. But to Ramirez, the celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut takes on a uniquely biblical approach.
“Celebrating Israel’s independence as a nation reborn is a modern-day demonstration of God’s everlasting promises,” Ramirez said.
“Many Christians before us did not live to see this Jewish nation,” she added. “Today, it strengthens my faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to see the fulfillment of His promise to return His people from the four quarters of the Earth back to the land he gave them….Yom Ha’atzmaut serves as that reminder that God’s word is true and everlasting.”
Yet the secular Yom Ha’atzmaut traditions are still fair game for Ramirez and her local church, whose members—like most Israelis—head to Jerusalem’s Gan Sacher Park for a barbecue or picnic as well as to watch an Israeli Air Force air show.
“It reminds me of growing up as a U.S. military dependent,” Ramirez said. “We always had similar kinds of celebrations for the Fourth of July, when I was a child….However, celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut is not only a physical or earthly celebration, but a spiritual one as well. I look forward to sharing the spiritual significance of this day with my children.”