Melkite Greek Catholic Archbishop Elias Chacour holds a Byzantine-style crucifix. (photo: Philippe Lissac/Godong/Corbid)
Mourners in Haifa carry the coffins of Israeli Arab Christians killed by mortar attacks during the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah war. (photo: Eliana Aponte/Reuters/Corbis)
Archaeological evidence reveals that Israelite kingdoms existed in what is today Israel from at least 1200 B.C. The Jewish people have inhabited the land since, albeit in widely varying numbers and degrees of cultural and sociopolitical importance.
The modern State of Israel is young. In the aftermath of World War II, waves of Jewish refugees from Europe flooded Palestine, which the British administered under a mandate established in 1922 by the League of Nations. In November 1947, the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into two independent states, Arab and Jewish, and to place the Holy City of Jerusalem under international jurisdiction. The departure of British troops in May 1948, the declaration of the State of Israel and the subsequent war between the Arabs and Israel provoked a massive refugee crisis and opened the door for the development of a Jewish state.
Demographics. Over three-quarters of Israels seven million people are Jews, representing a melting pot of cultures that originated in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Some 20 percent of Israels population is Arab. Most Israeli Arabs are Sunni Muslims and make up about 16 percent of the Israeli population. Israels Arab Druze community makes up about 1.5 percent of the total population.
At the time of the creation of Israel, Christians numbered some 149,000 people — almost 20 percent of the total population. Of the 750,000 Palestinians who fled their homes between 1948 and 1949, some 52,000 were Christian, about 35 percent of the entire Christian community or 7 percent of the total number of refugees.
Today, Israeli Arab Christians number less than 150,000 people — about 2 percent of Israels total population. The largest community is Melkite Greek Catholic, with an estimated 95,000 faithful. Others include the Armenian, Greek Orthodox and Latin and Maronite Catholic communities. The majority of Arab Christians — about 110,000 — live in Haifa, Nazareth and in the Galilee.
About 300,000 people classified as non-Jewish live in Israel, most emigrated from traditionally Orthodox countries of Eastern Europe. Some 30,000 non-Arab Christians — Filipinos, Moldavians and Romanians — also live there.
Sociopolitical situation. Since its creation, Israel has been a democratic state with a parliamentary system of government. While it has no formal constitution, Israeli law combines elements of English common law, regulations from the British Mandate and individual Israeli laws, such as the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty, which seeks to safeguard civil rights. In personal matters, Jewish, Christian, Druze and Muslim legal systems take precedence.
Discrimination against Israeli Arabs, nevertheless, is commonplace. On 31 July, 2003, the Israeli government passed the Citizenship and Entry Into Israel Law (5763), which makes Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank ineligible for Israeli citizenship should they marry an Israeli citizen. Though a temporary emergency measure, the law has been extended annually by the Knesset (Israels parliament). The law has prevented thousands of couples from living together as man and wife. For those who do reside in Israel, it prevents them from obtaining health insurance, work permits and other benefits.
The Knesset is currently reviewing an amendment to the law, the so-called loyalty law, which will require all those seeking citizenship to be loyal citizens to the state of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and respect its laws.
Israels health and education systems are the best in the region and consistently rank among the best in the world. Health care is universal and all Israeli citizens and permanent residents have access to quality care. Education is universal and compulsory from preschool to grade 12. The Israeli government supports most schools, segregating them into four groups: state-secular, state-religious, Ultra-Orthodox and Arab, the latter includes secular and parochial schools. Schools in predominantly Arab communities emphasize Arabic language, history and culture, but require Hebrew, English, mathematics, science and the humanities.
According to experts, the quality of education in Israeli Arab communities pales in comparison to Jewish communities. Arab schools receive half of the per capita budget assigned to Jewish schools. Arab students also have the highest dropout rates and lowest achievement levels in the country.
Economic situation. Israels economy is the most advanced in the region, with highly advanced sectors in agriculture, finance and technology. From 2001 until the global financial meltdown, Israels GDP grew by 5 percent each year. Yet, 56 percent of Israeli Arab families live below the poverty line, including 68 percent of Israeli Arab children. Of Israels 61 poorest towns, 48 are Arab.
Unemployment has hit hardest Israels fastest-growing communities: 65 percent of Ultra-Orthodox Jewish males and 27 percent of Arab males are unemployed. Generally, Israeli Arabs face stiff competition for jobs in agriculture and construction from guest workers. Stagnant local economies and Israeli Jewish reluctance to hire Israeli Arabs also contribute to the problem. In addition, a lack of job skills and poor schooling prevents them from entering Israels competitive workforce.
Religious situation. Israels Jews and Arabs — Christian, Druze and Muslim — generally live in segregated neighborhoods and towns. They send their children to separate schools and have little personal contact with one another. Studies show that Israeli Jews express negative attitudes toward Israeli Arabs; more than 75 percent of Israeli Jews would not agree to live in a building with Arab residents. Around 50 percent feel fear when hearing someone speak Arabic, though Arabic is one of the official languages of the State of Israel. More than 50 percent think that the Israeli government should encourage Arab emigration.
In mixed Arab communities, Druze and Muslims often discriminate against or harass their Christian neighbors. On occasion, tensions have erupted in violence, resulting in injuries and damage to Christian-owned property.
Church leaders — who form an integral part of the church of Jerusalem — report that Christian youth often undergo an identity crisis. Israeli Arab Christian youth generally feel alienated from Israeli Jewish society and excluded from Israeli Arab Muslim society. In response, churches focus attention on developing cultural and social activities that bring Christian youth together and affirm their identities. Christians, however, continue to settle abroad or move to the larger more affluent cities of Nazareth and Haifa, which have large, vibrant Christian communities.