As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu concludes cantankerous negotiations to finalise his right-wing cabinet, Palestinian-Israeli evangelicals are hoping for something better.
Alienated by campaign rhetoric stigmatising Arab citizens as an electoral threat, they turned in response to the source they know best: the Gospel.
In doing so, they seek to reverse a disturbing trend of isolation from society as a whole, and in particular their Jewish neighbors.
‘Are we not asked to be the salt and light of the earth?’ asked Revd Azar Ajaj, president of Nazareth Evangelical College, in an open letter shortly after the Israeli elections.‘How important, then, to show love to those who have been styled as our “enemies”. In fact we are asked to be peacemakers.’
And from April 16-18, he gathered 60 local and international leaders to discuss how.
The ‘Evangelicals and Peacemaking’ conference was sponsored in part by the Baptist Mission Society UK. It urged participants as Palestinian Christians in Israel to seek justice and reconciliation to create a state for all its citizens.
Present at the conference was Salim Munayer, head of Musalaha, which since 1990 has bucked the trends of intifadas and settlement building to call for peace between Israeli Jews and Palestinians.
The election rhetoric was quite discouraging, Munayer told Lapido Media.
Netanyahu rallied his supporters saying the Arabs were coming out to vote ‘in droves’. His foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman told Ayman Odeh, head of the Arab Joint List which placed third in total Knesset seats, ‘you’re not wanted here.’
Meanwhile the Joint List – a merger of secular, communist, and Islamist parties – included the symbolic presence of a politician calling for a caliphate in Jerusalem. It received the strong endorsement of Hamas.
Pressed between a regional rise in Islamism, mirrored by the gains of religious Zionism, Christians are being squeezed.
And as a result, they are withdrawing from both.
Evangelical leaders estimate their numbers in Israel are only around 5,000, among 157,000 Christians and 1.4 million Muslims. Israel’s population is 7.91 million, according to the 2012 census.
‘Most interaction between Palestinian Christians and Israeli Jews comes by necessity, not as a result of a relationship,’ Munayer told conference attendees. ‘We see them at school, at the bank, but much more must be done.’
And it has never been worse, according to his research co-authored with Jewish professor Gabriel Horenczyk from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The October 2014 issue of International Journal of Psychology details how Christians have soured toward Jews.
In 1998, the predominant attitude of over 200 Arab Christian adolescents surveyed was of integration with Israeli Jewish culture. By contrast, the attitude toward Arab Muslim culture was one of separation.
But 10 years later, adolescents exhibited a primary posture of increasing separation from both.
‘Many of us have given up on trying to improve our relationship with both the Jews and the Muslims of Israel,’ Munayer said. ‘We say it is a waste of time, they are not going to change, they are becoming more religious, and they don’t want us.’
Munayer’s Musalaha is doing all it can to fight the reality of this withdrawal. It has created a three-hundred-page curriculum on reconciliation between distinct peoples, applying its principles during inter-ethnic summer camps and encounter groups.
But he increasingly aims to influence society as a whole, not only at the grassroots but also in academic engagement. Munayer received his PhD from the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies at Cardiff University, and is collaborating with a number of young Israeli Christian and Jewish scholars to further his research.
For example, in a survey of 700 Muslims, Christians and Druze, Sammy Smooha of Haifa University found only fifty per cent of Christians have Jewish friends they have visited at home. But 57 per cent have experienced discrimination, and thirty per cent reported receiving threats or humiliation.
These and other findings were presented at a January conference on Palestinian Christian Identity in Israel, co-hosted by Musalaha and the Hebrew University. It was unprecedented, Munayer said, for an Israeli university to sponsor such an event.
And it is an Israeli Jew who is helping Ajaj take his baby steps toward peacemaking, moving beyond his simple convictions.
‘Very little is being done to build bridges with the Jews,’ he told Lapido Media. ‘I’m still in the beginning of the journey and I pray that good things come out of it.’
In October last year Ajaj participated in an interfaith dialogue at a Jewish conference centre. A rabbi from the village of Kiryet Tiv’on, ten miles from Nazareth, invited him to speak at his synagogue during Hanukah and explain the Ten Commandments on his radio program.
In May they begin a six-month experiment to bring eight from each community to discuss matters of faith and society.
‘We are classified as enemies, but we don’t accept this,’ Ajaj said of the national political discourse. ‘So we must encourage those who are silent to take action and express respect for the other.’
Ajaj hopes the April conference can empower Nazareth Evangelical College as a centre for theological education in peacemaking. But as a minority within a minority within a minority, there is only so much they can do.
To help, Ajaj recently invited leaders from seven different denominations to a conference on Christianity in the Holy Land. Several said it was their first meeting with an evangelical.
But with Christians withdrawing into a self-imposed ghetto mentality as Israeli Arab citizens are labelled a demographic threat, these evangelicals are calling for a halt.
‘If we want a better future built on respecting and loving the “other”, then let us take part in building it,’ Ajaj wrote. ‘Otherwise, those with other values will determine what this future will be.’
This article was first published at Lapido Media.