In February, the IDF will promote a Christian soldier to the rank of lieutenant-colonel, making him the first soldier of his faith to achieve that rank. This comes as the result of a six-year process intended to help the indigenous Christian community integrate into mainstream Israeli society.
The identity of Maj. I must remain secret since he is slated to enter a high-level/high-risk security position. Maj. I, a Greek-Orthodox Christian and a resident of Nazareth Illit, the Jewish town next to Nazareth, is married and the father of a nine-year-old boy and a five-year-old girl. He describes himself as an Aramean-Israeli Christian. The obligation to serve in the Israeli army applies only to Jews, Druze, and Circassians. Christians are not required to serve in the IDF and when Maj. I joined the IDF in 1999, only a few Christians volunteered, mostly serving in the Border Police. He graduated high-school with honors from the Salvatorian Sisters German Catholic School in Nazareth.
Maj. I stated that in his community, there was no animosity or fear of enlisting in the IDF. The vast majority of Christians chose to forgo military service in favor of continuing their studies and acquiring an education. Maj. I noted that among the Arabic-speaking Christians there are also those who opposed serving in the IDF for political reasons, mostly atheists, communists, or Pan-Arabists. Maj. I emphasized that this is an extreme and shrinking minority whom he perceives as being “detached from reality.” He also noted that these are generally people who are in denial of their Christian roots and history.
“The environment in which most Christians in Arab towns live is fertile ground pressuring and threatening men against enlisting,” Maj I said.
Upon completion of high school, he was accepted to study mechanical engineering at the Technion in Haifa but said that he was not at peace with himself. At the time, he had a Jewish girlfriend who was about to be drafted into the IDF. Maj. I already felt that he was an Israeli but also felt that something was missing. He decided to volunteer and join the IDF but as someone who did not attend a Jewish school, Maj. I had no prior knowledge of the IDF. He lacked information about the recruitment process, about the service, the various IDF units, and the myriad possibilities available to those who served. He described his prior knowledge of the IDF as being “a soldier has a weapon and he is doing negative things.”
His father spoke with several Jewish friends who connected him with the IDF recruitment office. The recruiter informed him that he would be drafted into the Bedouin battalion.
“I had no idea what it was about,” Maj I said. “My personal information was not checked. I had completed a full matriculation certificate with high marks on the psychometric (pre-university) exam. Because of my lack of knowledge about army procedures, I was easy prey to be thrown into any unit they wanted. Like a few other Christians who volunteered and did not know anything, I was sent to the Bedouin battalion.”
“When I realized that this was a Bedouin unit I refused. The Christians do not have the professional ability or personal characteristics of the Bedouins. Even though we speak the same language, they are culturally cohesive and I would not fit in.”
Maj. I noted that later experience confirmed this belief.
“The Bedouins form a professional battalion with unique characteristics that is capable of performing functions that no Christian or Jew can carry out.”
Maj. I was also intent on serving in a multicultural unit that more closely mirrored Israeli society at large.
“I believe the Christians must serve in units in which everyone is familiar with all the different aspects and of Israeli society,” Maj. I said. “It is therefore very good that there are no homogeneous Christian units.”
Maj. I was transferred to the Golani infantry brigade and it proved to be a trial by fire.
“I did not get along very well,” Maj. I said. “I told everyone that I’m an Arab Christian. That’s what we learned at school; that we are Arabs. We have the same music, the same food, the same language as the Arabs. I have no problem with Arabs, not with the music, not with the good food and not with the rich language, but today I know that this is not my true identity.”
Self-identifying as an Arab, albeit a Christian-Arab, led to interpersonal conflicts with the Jewish soldiers in Golani. But Arabic is his mother-tongue and that proved to be enormously useful to the IDF. Maj. I was placed in a communications course and then in the Signal Corps. From there, he rapidly advanced.He received a Certificate of Appreciation for an operation in which he took part and that led to him being accepted into officers’ training. He served as an officer in an artillery battalion, and from there, advanced to other positions in different units, locations, positions, and ranks.
“Over the years, I went to four years of studies on behalf of the army,” Maj. I said. “I completed studies in electrical engineer and during the course of my studies, I was involved in recruiting young Arabic-speaking Christians to the IDF. Currently, I’m in the Military Academy, Command and Staff College and in February I’ll get a position in the Navy where I will be promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel.”
Maj. I was wounded by shrapnel during a Hezbollah bombardment of a facility he was commanding in Southern Lebanon 19 years ago. In 2012, he was serving as an officer in the Armored Corps in Operation Pillar of Defense on the Gaza border. At nights, he slept in his car near the tanks. A group of reservists serving in the area invited Maj. I to join them for an overnight barbecue, promising to return him to his tanks in the morning. He returned the next day to find that his car had taken a direct hit from a mortar. Reserve soldiers of the unit called me and told me that they are on their way to pick me up for a barbecue and return me in the morning.
“My first reaction was to be upset at a brand new electric razor that had been in the car,” he said. “After I calmed down, I realized it was a miracle that I had been saved.”
Maj. I emphasized that the first thing he discovered in the IDF his identity.
“If I had not joined the army, I would have stayed like other members of my high school class who are not aware of their roots in the Jewish people,” Maj I said. “In the schools, they don’t teach about the history of the Christians in the Holy land, not about the Jewish roots nor the Aramean roots. My friends do not know their own personal history. This is made worse by the general Israeli society which views them primarily as Arabs. This is how they see themselves. This is a historic mistake and a shame. It’s a shame when a person does not know himself.”
Maj I noted it was more difficult for a Christian soldier than those belonging to other minorities.
“In terms of belonging to the army, the Bedouin and the Muslims, have people who help them integrate and the IDF embraces them. The Druze and the Circassians have one strong and organized body. The Christians do not have an organized and strong presence in the IDF, not nearly enough.”
Despite the anti-IDF sentiment among many Christian Arabs, Maj. I is proud and unintimidated.
“I’m not afraid even when I wear my uniform in the Arab town, Nazareth,” Maj I said. “Sometimes I deliberately walk around there in uniform in shops of Christians so they will learn not to be afraid. There is a Christian officer in Nazareth who opened a cafe after his army service. Muslim hoodlums tried to force him to pay protection money but they did not succeed. He was not afraid and did not give up, compared to other Christians who had not served in the IDF and paid the money to the hoodlums.”
He sees many benefits to his service as well.
“My Hebrew has improved greatly and I feel very connected to Israeli society,” Maj I said. “My children study in Jewish schools because I know that in private Christian schools and in public schools in the Arab sector, they learn nothing about their identity and their roots. Nothing about the circumcision of Jesus in Jewish Bethlehem, and nothing about the lives of Christians in the holy land before the Arab-Muslim conquest.I prefer that my son learn about his early Christian roots in a Jewish school.”
Despite the advances, Maj. I still feels a strong undercurrent in his community against serving in the IDF in particular and against integrating into Israeli society in general.
“There are strong elements among the Christian community and the Arab sector who want us to remain ignorant,” he said. “They want a rift to exist between the Christians and the Jews, they want to cut us off from the state of Israel. I hope to help break the stigma and the false belief that the state is out to persecute us. My sister enlisted in the army. After me, everyone in my family enlisted. It’s not even a question in our family anymore whether to enlist or not. It’s a given. I am excited by this because we are advancing and will become part of those who defend the Holy Land.”
Maj. I sees his IDF service as an essential part of his faith.
“Without the State of Israel, the Christians have no connection to this land,” Maj. I said. “Those who feel that they do not belong here should pack their bags and board a flight because if there is no State of Israel, no minority can live here. There are Christians who think they are Arabs who came here with the Muslims. That is wrong but it’s not easy to change people’s beliefs, even if they are wrong. That’s what they’ve been taught for years and years.”
Maj. I believes that the American Christian community can help Israeli Christians.
“Most of the Christian clergy in Israel are afraid to say what they think even if they think as I do,” he said. “It is important that Christians from around the world give us spiritual support. They should come visit our towns and villages and get to know us, to join together. We should celebrate Christmas together, here in Israel, the Holy Land. It is very important that the youth and the Christian soldiers will see of that’s the Christian world, from churches around the world, appreciate our service.”
“I ask that Christians around the world ignore the Arab media and anyone who publishes propaganda against the State of Israel. Pick up the phone, come see, meet us and hear us. Don’t be ignorant. Find out what happens to the Christians around the Middle East and understand why it is important for the State of Israel to exist.”
“You should understand why it is important for the Jewish people to have a state; it is the only country in the Middle East that allows Christians to live in peace, freedom, and security. So instead of hurting it, weakening it and turning it into an easy prey for terror and enemies around it, you must be proud of the Jewish and democratic state that defend its minorities”.
This interview was provided to Breaking Israel News by Amit Barak was one of the initiators of the historical movement to integrate Christians into the IDF and the Israeli Society. Amit is an expert in Christian-Jewish relations, in Israel and abroad.