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Onward Christian Soldier: Life as a Non-Jew in the IDF

 By Adam Eliyahu Berkowitz January 8, 2019 , 4:23 pm

In February, the IDF will promote a Christian soldier to the rank of lieutenant-colonel, making him the first soldier of his faith to achieve that rank. This comes as the result of a six-year process intended to help the indigenous Christian community integrate into mainstream Israeli society.

The identity of Maj. I must remain secret since he is slated to enter a high-level/high-risk security position. Maj. I, a Greek-Orthodox Christian and a resident of Nazareth Illit, the Jewish town next to Nazareth, is married and the father of a nine-year-old boy and a five-year-old girl. He describes himself as an Armenian-Israeli Christian. The obligation to serve in the Israeli army applies only to Jews, Druze, and Circassians. Christians are not required to serve in the IDF and when Maj. I joined the IDF in 1999, only a few Christians volunteered, mostly serving in the Border Police. He graduated high-school with honors from the Salvatorian Sisters German Catholic School in Nazareth.

Maj. I stated that in his community, there was no animosity or fear of enlisting in the IDF. The vast majority of Christians chose to forgo military service in favor of continuing their studies and acquiring an education. Maj. I noted that among the Arabic-speaking Christians there are also those who opposed serving in the IDF for political reasons, mostly atheists, communists, or Pan-Arabists. Maj. I emphasized that this is an extreme and shrinking minority whom he perceives as being “detached from reality.” He also noted that these are generally people who are in denial of their Christian roots and history.

“The environment in which most Christians in Arab towns live is fertile ground pressuring and threatening men against enlisting,” Maj I said.

Upon completion of high school, he was accepted to study mechanical engineering at the Technion in Haifa but said that he was not at peace with himself. At the time, he had a Jewish girlfriend who was about to be drafted into the IDF. Maj. I already felt that he was an Israeli but also felt that something was missing. He decided to volunteer and join the IDF but as someone who did not attend a Jewish school, Maj. I  had no prior knowledge of the IDF. He lacked information about the recruitment process, about the service, the various IDF units, and the myriad possibilities available to those who served. He described his prior knowledge of the IDF as being “a soldier has a weapon and he is doing negative things.”

His father spoke with several Jewish friends who connected him with the IDF recruitment office. The recruiter informed him that he would be drafted into the Bedouin battalion.

“I had no idea what it was about,” Maj I said. “My personal information was not checked. I had completed a full matriculation certificate with high marks on the psychometric (pre-university) exam. Because of my lack of knowledge about army procedures, I was easy prey to be thrown into any unit they wanted. Like a few other Christians who volunteered and did not know anything, I was sent to the Bedouin battalion.”

“When I realized that this was a Bedouin unit I refused. The Christians do not have the professional ability or personal characteristics of the Bedouins. Even though we speak the same language, they are culturally cohesive and I would not fit in.”

Maj. I noted that later experience confirmed this belief.

“The Bedouins form a professional battalion with unique characteristics that is capable of performing functions that no Christian or Jew can carry out.”

Maj. I was also intent on serving in a multicultural unit that more closely mirrored Israeli society at large.

“I believe the Christians must serve in units in which everyone is familiar with all the different aspects and of Israeli society,” Maj. I said. “It is therefore very good that there are no homogeneous Christian units.”

Maj. I was transferred to the Golani infantry brigade and it proved to be a trial by fire.

“I did not get along very well,” Maj. I said. “I told everyone that I’m an Arab Christian. That’s what we learned at school; that we are Arabs. We have the same music, the same food, the same language as the Arabs. I have no problem with Arabs, not with the music, not with the good food and not with the rich language, but today I know that this is not my true identity.”

Self-identifying as an Arab, albeit a Christian-Arab, led to interpersonal conflicts with the Jewish soldiers in Golani. But Arabic is his mother-tongue and that proved to be enormously useful to the IDF. Maj. I was placed in a communications course and then in the Signal Corps. From there, he rapidly advanced.He received a Certificate of Appreciation for an operation in which he took part and that led to him being accepted into officers’ training. He served as an officer in an artillery battalion, and from there, advanced to other positions in different units, locations, positions, and ranks.

“Over the years, I went to four years of studies on behalf of the army,” Maj. I said. “I completed studies in electrical engineer and during the course of my studies, I was involved in recruiting young Arabic-speaking Christians to the IDF. Currently, I’m in the Military Academy, Command and Staff College and in February I’ll get a position in the Navy where I will be promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel.”

Maj. I was wounded by shrapnel during a Hezbollah bombardment of a facility he was commanding in Southern Lebanon 19 years ago. In 2012, he was serving as an officer in the Armored Corps in Operation Pillar of Defense on the Gaza border. At nights, he slept in his car near the tanks. A group of reservists serving in the area invited Maj. I to join them for an overnight barbecue, promising to return him to his tanks in the morning. He returned the next day to find that his car had taken a direct hit from a mortar. Reserve soldiers of the unit called me and told me that they are on their way to pick me up for a barbecue and return me in the morning.

“My first reaction was to be upset at a brand new electric razor that had been in the car,” he said. “After I calmed down, I realized it was a miracle that I had been saved.”

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