How live the quadruple identity of being Arab, Palestinian, Christian, Israeli? 120,000 Arab Christians living in Israel must meet this challenge every day. Father Rafiq Khoury from the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem traces some lines along which an answer might be possible.
About 120,000 Christians, from all the denominations, live within the 1948 borders of the State of Israel (without counting East Jerusalem). Most of them are in Galilee, where the Melkites are in a large majority, but there is also a significant presence of other Churches (mainly Latins, Maronites, Greek Orthodox). These Christians are not a foreign colony implanted in the country from goodness knows where, with no one knowing how they came here. Rather, they have been rooted in the country since the beginning of Christianity; they are part of the land’s identity, and the land is part of their identity. They are Arab Christians, Palestinians, living in the State of Israel. But things aren’t that simple.
Since the establishment of the State of Israel, they have been in a new situation and faced with a reality for which they were not prepared. The question of their identity is posed in a new way: Who are we? What is the meaning of our presence here and now as Arabs, Palestinians, Christians living in Israel? How can we reconcile these various elements of our identity? Which elements of this identity should be given priority?… Obviously, these questions plunge the Christians into disarray and confusion, and feeling lost, they do not know how to define themselves.
They are obviously Arabs, but since the establishment of the State of Israel, they have been cut off from their cultural and national roots. They are also Palestinians, but the fact that they are separated from their compatriots by the 1948 borders places them in a situation of confusion and trouble. They are Christians, but their Christianity is not enough to determine their incarnated identity. They live within the State of Israel, but how can they identify themselves with a Zionism that considers Israel to be a Jewish State for the Jews? How can they accommodate themselves to a situation in which they are considered more like second-class citizens, not to say third-class, because of their small number? Are they Israeli citizens? But what class of citizen? How can they reconcile the fact that they are Israeli citizens while being Arab Palestinian Christians? In the midst of the pluralism in which the Christians are situated, with whom should they identify? With the Israeli Jews? They feel very different from them. With the Muslims, with whom they share the language and culture, but from whom they differ because of their faith? … There are countless questions and they are far from theoretical. Rather, these are existential questions, the outcome of which implies practical options and choices. It would seem that these people are faced with having to square a circle. On this basis, one can understand that they are in disarray, lost among these various elements of their identity.
The questions are countless, and so are the answers. Some consider themselves to be Arabs first of all; others, Palestinians with an Israeli passport that they did not choose to have; still others see themselves simply and exclusively as Christian, without any national or cultural reference (but then another question arises: What kind of Christian? … Orthodox? Melkite? Latin? Maronite – and what does this or that mean?); others finally consider themselves to be Israelis and would rather not to hear anything else. But we can see that these theoretical or practical solutions alienate them from a part of themselves, whether they want this or not. Faced with the State of Israel, they vacillate between absolute refusal (this State is not ours!) or absolute assimilation (let’s be realistic!). But we can see that these attitudes are not exactly restful. The challenges of the lived reality constantly place them in crisis situations. Is there a third way between absolute refusal and absolute assimilation? It would seem that there is, but what and how?
It would seem that a solution could be found in the light of their faith. But there too, another question arises: What faith are we talking about? Obviously, a faith that is purely sociological is not capable of giving orientation to Christians in their reflection on their identity and the choices that flow from it. But the faith of these Christians is more a sociological reality (of course without generalizing). It is far from being a personal and ecclesial faith. This fact places us before a fundamental pastoral question: What can we do so that these Christians might be able to pass from a sociological faith to a personal and ecclesial faith? The question is huge, and we ask ourselves to what extent the various Churches are aware of this question and consequently, to what extent they are committed to responding to it. So we can see that this question of identity brings with it many other questions that are no less fundamental. Moreover, Christians turn to their Churches in order to get an answer to the question regarding their identity. But these Churches are also in disarray and do not have a clear or tidy suggestion or precise guidelines to give to their faithful.
Let us come back to the option of faith (“in the light of our faith”). Faith would help the Christians living within the State of Israel to find themselves, or at least to find lines of reflection that could bring them out of the impasse. For this option of faith would help them to reconcile the various elements in their identity. Thus, they would take on the fact that they are Arabs with a cultural and national identity that they cannot avoid. They are also Palestinian and belong, with their own specificity, to the Palestinian people as a whole. There too, this element of their identity is inescapable. They are also Christians, and they know that their Christ does not separate them from the reality of their society, just as their society should not separate them from their Christ.
But in that case, how can all this be reconciled with their Israeli citizenship, which is a fact, but one they did not choose and with which they are more in latent or open conflict? Regarding this, it must be said that for them the issue is not that they are fighting for equal rights with the Jewish Israeli citizens, but more that they are fighting so that their presence – along with that of all the Arab citizens of the State of Israel – be defined within the very nature of the State of Israel, so that this State might really be the State not only of a part of its citizens, but of all of them. But there we are faced with another question: how does the State of Israel define itself? Is it a State only for the Jews, or is it a State for everyone? It is obvious that Israel is turning more and more towards an exclusive option, that is to say, towards being a State for the Jews. That is why it behaves towards non-Jews more as if they were separate entities without a fixed national identity (divide et impera).
Thus, if the Jews of the State of Israel are invited to define themselves on the background of this reality, the Christians – like the other Arabs in the State of Israel – are also invited to define themselves on this same background. In this context it becomes possible to get out of having to square the circle, for the good of all… But we are still very far from that.
For all these reasons, the Christians living within the State of Israel deserve our full understanding, our sympathy, our support, and our love.
Fr. Rafiq Khoury