It was not just any conference. Even the word "historic" would not do it justice. This was nothing short of the shift of an ancient paradigm.
For a long time we had grown accustomed to thinking about the Middle East as an Arab region. But this region, the vast majority of which was actually originally not Arab, was conquered in the seventh century by tribes hailing from the Arabian Peninsula. They imposed their religion, their culture and their language on the indigenous population, and to top it all off, claimed ownership of the land in the region.
But the social and diplomatic firestorms currently raging around us have begun to chip away at this monolithic point of view among various ethnic groups, whose identities are actually different than the ones we have lazily attached to them, and their voices are beginning to be heard loud and clear: "We are not Arabs," they are saying. "We are Christians who speak Arabic."
At the "Israeli Christians: Breaking Free? The advent of an independent Christian voice in Israel" conference in Jerusalem, one after another, Israeli Christian representatives took to the stage and greeted the audience with a "moadim l'simcha" ("times of joy" – a common Jewish holiday wish of good tidings). The first speaker was the Rev. Gabriel Naddaf, a Greek Orthodox priest in Nazareth and spiritual leader of the Israeli Christian Recruitment Forum. Naddaf is an impressive man, who speaks in a reserved tone, but is nonetheless articulate and resolute. "I am here to open the public's eyes," he said. "If we want to refrain from lying to our own souls and to the general public, we must say clearly and unwaveringly: enough!"
"The Christian public wants to integrate into Israeli society, against the wishes of its old leadership. There are those who keep pushing us to the margins, keeping us the victims nationalism that is not our own, and of a conflict that has nothing to do with us," he said.
Naddaf spoke of the Christian roots, planted deep in this land since the dawn of Christianity. This is where Jesus Christ's doctrine first emerged. The Christian faith, he said, came out of the Jewish faith and its biblical roots. As far as Naddaf is concerned, what happened in the seventh century was an Arab invasion from which the Christians also suffered. He added that he wasn't very proud of the Christian crusades either, and distanced himself from them.
He surveyed the dire situation currently faced by Christians in Arab states, and said that the realization that Israel is the only country in the region that protects its Christian minority has prompted many Arabic-speaking Israeli Christians to develop a desire to contribute to the state of Israel. That is how the Israeli Christian Recruitment Forum came to be.
Naddaf quoted the founder of the forum, Maj. Ihab Shlayan, as saying: "The Christians will not be made into hostages, or allow themselves to be controlled by those who wish to impose their nationality, religion and way of life upon us. We will not agree to hide behind the groups that control the streets. We want to live in Israel -- brothers in arms and brothers in peace. We want to stand guard and serve as the first line of defense in this Holy Land, the Land of Israel."
"We have broken through the barrier of fear," Naddaf went on to say. "The time has come to prove our loyalty, pay our dues and demand our rights." He spoke about the death threats that he and his friends face, and added that despite the hardships they continue forward "because the State of Israel is our heart. Israel is a holy state, a strong state, and its people, Jews and Christians alike, are united under one covenant."
Naddaf was followed at the podium by Lt. (ret.) Shaadi Khalloul, the spokesman of the Israeli Christian Recruitment Forum and an officer in the Israel Defense Forces Paratroopers Brigade. Khalloul, a scholar who studies the history of the Christian faith in the region, spoke about the eastern Christian identity that had been stripped of his people. Over the last three years, he has fought Israel's Interior Ministry over recognition of his community as Aramaic Christians.
We are "B'nei Keyama," which means allies in Aramaic, he said. He has nothing against the Arabs, but it is simply not his identity. It is especially problematic for him because being associated with the Arabs pulls him into a conflict that is not his own, entirely against his will.
Khalloul said that the way to integrate into Israeli society was through military service in the IDF, which he described as a melting pot, but also through education. It turns out that Israel's Christian population is not educated in their own history, only the history of the Arabs and of Islam.
"The typical Christian student thinks that he belongs to the Arab people and the Islamic nation, instead of speaking to the people with whom he truly shares his roots -- the Jewish people, whose origins are in the Land of Israel."
Adding to that point, Rev. Naddaf stepped in and said, "It is unthinkable that our children will be raised on the history of the Nakba and on the hatred of Jews, and not be taught their history."
It was no coincidence that Khalloul chose the Aramaic word for allies to describe his people. In his view, Israeli Christians are not mercenaries, as they might be perceived, but in fact allies. "We want to defend the holy land alongside the Jews," he insisted. He mentioned the Christians' support for the establishment of a national homeland for the Jews in the 1947 UNSCOP Committee. In a letter to the committee at the time, the Maronites rejected any reference to the land of Israel as Arab land.
Khalloul said further that global Christianity supported them, but refrained from making the support public because of the fact that Christians in the Middle East are hostages in the hands of Islamic forces.
Remarking on the ongoing debate surrounding the issue of a Jewish-democratic state vs. a so-called state of all its citizens, Khalloul said that he preferred a Jewish state that takes care of all its citizens over a state governed by all its citizens, without a Jewish identity.
"Several decades ago, 80 percent of the Lebanese population was Christian," he recalled, "but the 20% Muslim minority imposed their Arab identity on them and many of them left. Today, only 35% of the population is Christian."
Syria, too, he added, is comprised of Christians and Kurds who are not Arab. "Where is the respect for these groups? For their history and their culture?" Only in a Jewish state, he concluded, will different groups be given the right to exist.
Naddaf then interjected and said, "That is not just [Khalloul's] opinion. The entire forum shares this view."
The last representative to take the stage was Capt. Bishara Shlayan, whose initiative to establish the Christian Israeli Party was first reported in Israel Hayom this past July. Following the report, Shlayan was bombarded with responses from all over the world.
"We were raised on Arab political parties," he said, "the communists, and then the National Democratic Assembly. In time, I realized where these Arab parties were taking us -- only against Israel."
He said that Islam was imposing itself on the Christians in the region. Thus, for example, the ancient "Miriam's Spring" evolved into the "Nazareth Spring." In his youth, he had received a red flag, he recounted. But today, he sighed, "our children are being raised on the green flag, on anti-Israeli culture."
"We need to create a different culture," he continued. "We need to hand out Israeli flags to every child. Education begins here. You enter a school in Nazareth, and you will not see a single Israeli flag. They don't recognize it. You will only see Palestinian flags."
Shlayan is well aware of the claims that Israeli Christians are not afforded all the rights to which they are entitled. "That may be," he said, but "you have to begin by pledging loyalty to your country and serving it. I believe that."
All the above is only part of what was said at the recent conference of the Liaison Committee of B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem and the Ecumenical Theological Research Fraternity in Israel.
The Christian communities' march toward the heart of the Israeli consensus has an iconoclastic significance. It is reminiscent of Abraham's smashing the idols and thereby smashing certain thought conventions and patterns. It is important not only on the inter-faith and theological level; it is also important to Israel's efforts to prove our rights to the world. Parts of the Christian world see us as the crucifiers of the Palestinians, even though this could not be further from the truth. Therefore, when the Israeli Christians stand by the State of Israel and declare that this is the Land of Israel and not Palestine and that Jews did not steal this land but rather returned home as the Bible prophesied, it has immeasurable significance.
We, as a society and as a state, must embrace these courageous people, who spoke from the very deepest recesses of their hearts. We must help them, provide for them and integrate them into our society. And no less importantly, we must protect their lives. Our lives and our future depend on it.