Sunday, January 1, 2012

Arab Christians in Israeli Politics: A Brief History

In the following article, written exclusively for Diwaniyya, Daphne Tsimhoni, a guest on part three of our miniseries on Palestinian and Arab-Israeli Christians, discusses Arab Christians in Israeli politics. The new Diwaniyya Short will be released tomorrow — so keep posted! 

Until the mid-1970s the Arab Christian Knesset members formed 40-50 percent of all Arab MKs. They were particularly prominent in the communist party, the only legitimate party that spoke for the national aspirations of the Arabs in Israel during those years.

Read the full article after the jump. 



Arab Christians in Israeli Politics
By Daphne Tsimhoni

During the first decades of the State of Israel, Arab Christians filled the political vacuum created by the exodus of the major Palestinian Muslim dignitary families, the political leadership as well as the majority of the urban Arab middle class as the result of the 1948 war. Hence, Christian representation in the Knesset (Israeli parliament) became outstanding, exceeding by far their numeral strength and proportion of the Arab minority. This phenomenon was due to the doubling of the Christian proportion in the Arab population up to 20 percent following the 1948 war, their higher westernized education and their becoming the majority of the Arab urban population in Israel.

Until the mid-1970s the Arab Christian Knesset members formed 40-50 percent of all Arab MKs. They were particularly prominent in the communist party, the only legitimate party that spoke for the national aspirations of the Arabs in Israel during those years. Arab Christians, most obviously Orthodox Arabs, have been prominent activists in this party since its inception in the early 1940s. This was due to the ongoing struggle for the Arabization of the Greek orthodox patriarchate of Jerusalem, a struggle that gained Russian support from its inception in the late nineteenth century. Its failure strengthened the ties of the Orthodox Arab activists with the Palestinian Arab national movement as well as their search for a substitute secular identity in which they would be accepted as equals.

The Arab Christian communist Knesset members did not consider themselves as representing the Arab Christians per se, but rather the Arab minority at large. For many years, Tawfiq Tubi (Orthodox Arab) and Emile Habibi (Anglican Arab) were prominent representatives of the communist party in the Knesset and led the struggle for equal civil rights for the Arabs in Israel. The Zionist establishment considered the communist party and its Arab Christian Knesset members as extreme anti-Zionist even though this party recognized the State of Israel since its establishment and, since the early 1990s, has advocated the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state alongside the state of Israel.

Arab Christian prominence in Israeli politics has gradually declined since the 1980s. This was the outcome of the declining Christian proportion of the total Arab population in Israel, and simultaneously, the gradual growth of Muslim educated white-collar professionals and the expansion of the Islamic movement.  Arab national parties expanded and extended their appeal to the expanding Arab Muslim centers. Furthermore, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the worldwide decline of communist ideology brought about the decline of the Israeli communist party and the secession from it of a secular nationalist Arab party, Balad (National Democratic Alignment) in the late 1990s. Led by its charismatic Greek Catholic intellectual Azmi Bishara, Balad offered a secular Arab nationalist and an uncompromising anti-Zionist ideology excluding the communist ideology that many Christians and Muslims resented. Bishara appealed to young educated Arab intellectuals including many young Christians who were frustrated by their failure to achieve equality in the Jewish state. Bishara left Israel in 2007 suspected of espionage.

Altogether, the number of Christian Knesset members dropped from three to four during the 1960s down to one in the current Knesset: Hanna Sweid, one of the three communist Knesset members. The total number of the Arab Knesset members grew to fourteen. Arab Christian representation in the Knesset has become marginal matching approximately their proportion of the Arab minority. They are still prominent in non-parliamentary socio-political organizations.

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