Stemming the exodus of Israeli Christians

  • September 25, 2009
{mosimage}TORONTO - Avishay Braverman, Israel’s Minister of Minorities, is as good a Jew, as Jewish a Jew, as anyone could hope to meet. And he’s praying that “the Spirit of Jesus” will guide the leaders of Israel and its neighbours over the coming months and years.

“The basis of religion is not about domination. People often take religion and abuse it for domination,” Braverman told The Catholic Register while on a stopover in Toronto Sept. 15. “It’s about acceptance.”

Braverman is the first Minister of Minorities in the modern history of Israel. He counts full inclusion of Arab Muslims, Druze and Christians in Israeli society as Israel’s number two priority after a viable peace process with a just conclusion.

“Of course the Israeli Arabs vote. Of course there is the highest standard of living for any Arabs in the neighbourhood,” said Braverman. “But we didn’t give them fair resources, infrastructure and education and employment.”

Thanks largely to international support, Israel’s tiny Christian minority runs some of the best schools in Israel and Israeli Christians have better overall education achievement levels than the majority Jewish population. Israeli Christians are leaders in business, the arts, education — but young Christians are still leaving.

When Israel gained independence in 1947 Christians made up seven per cent of the population, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. Today they are 2.1 per cent.

In a Sept. 8 address at Westminster Cathedral in London, Latin-rite Patriarch Fouad Twal projected that the Christian population of Jerusalem would fall from about 10,000 to about 5,000 by 2016.

“Ongoing discrimination within Israel threatens Christians and Muslims alike,” Twal said. “From limiting movement and ignoring housing needs to taxation burdens and infringing on residency rights, Palestinian Christians do not know where to turn.”

The best educated are turning up at the airport with a one-way ticket to North America or Europe.

“These days it comes easier just to buy the ticket, get on the plane and move to wherever you want,” said Ziad Hanna, vice president for research at Jasper Design Automation in Mountain View, Calif. “I’ve done it in my life twice.”

“I personally don’t think I will leave the country,” said Imad Telhami from his home in a Druze-dominated area in northern Israel. “And I hope that my children won’t think to leave the country. But in my family I have half of the family outside the country.”

Braverman, a former World Bank economist and president of Ben-Gurion University, believes economic opportunity — more and better jobs — will keep Christians in Israel. He’s working with both Telhami, chief operations officer with Israeli clothing giant Delta Galil Industries Ltd., and Hanna, who plans to move back to Israel next year and establish a research and development hub in either Nazareth or Haifa.

But there’s more to social inclusion than just a chance to make money, said Telhami.

“It’s a question of how we can get people to feel they are not a minority,” he said.

Despite the high levels of achievement and honour in the Telhami family, no Telhami will ever be mayor of the Druze village where he lives or gain any other elected leadership position.

“I am a minority within a minority,” he said. “The majority always will win.”

It’s not that Telhami completely dismisses the role employment can play. He claims there are 15,000 to 20,000 Arab-Palestinian university graduates in Israel who can’t find jobs, including about 1,000 computer engineers.

“I’m very involved in creating jobs to help us to be involved with the Jewish companies, mainly in high tech,” he said.

Braverman’s first priority for Israel — a two-state solution for the 60-year-old Israel-Palestine conflict — would be good for everybody, not just Christians. But it wouldn’t necessarily stop the flow of Christians out of the region, said Hanna.

“There are many, many obstacles,” he said.

Braverman points to polarized, poisonous, petty politics as a negative for Christians and other minorities. A proposal earlier this year by the far-right Yisrael Beitenu party to require an oath of allegiance, and recent attempts to prevent Palestinian teachers in Arab schools from using the word nakba (Arabic for disaster) to refer to the establishment of Israel and corresponding, unresolved refugee crisis are examples of Israeli politicians scapegoating minorities, Braverman said.

“It was done in order to get more constituency (votes),” he said. “Because from love you don’t get constituency. But from hatred you get constituency.”

Despite his success in Silicon Valley, Hanna is absolutely intent on moving his family back to its homeland in northern Israel next summer. It’s not easy to exchange your heritage, history, family and friends for a good job, he said.

“The whole ecosystem is around, and it’s not that easily given up,” he said.

Peace and opportunity in Israel may well persuade some of the Arab Christians in the West to move back home, he said.

“If you look at the history, Christians have been a bridge between the East and the West, between various cultures,” Hanna said.

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