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Haneen Zoabi’s Threat to Nazareth’s Christian Heritage

At first glance, Haneen Zoabi might seem a strange candidate for Israeli efforts to burnish its democratic reputation abroad. Zoabi spends much of her time and energy trying to tear down Israel’s public image, and would have you believe Israel is no democracy at all, but rather an apartheid, fascist state. But that very same behavior is, to many, sufficient to disprove Zoabi’s claims.

That’s because Zoabi makes those claims from her perch as an Arab Muslim member of Israel’s Knesset. She keeps that lofty place in the parliament while doing far more than agitating against Zionism: her actions speak louder than–though still in concert with–her words. In 2010, Zoabi and another Arab legislator were passengers on the infamous Mavi Marmara, the Turkish ship of armed activists attempting to break Israel’s military blockade of Gaza and to help the Hamas government of the Gaza Strip.

Now Zoabi is attempting to make a related career move, though this one would concern Israel’s Christian minority more than its Jewish majority. The New York Times notes that Zoabi’s entry into the Nazareth mayoral election threatens to unseat its mayor of 20 years as well as stir up local tensions:

There is a lot to be said for tradition and continuity in a city revered by Christians as the childhood home of Jesus. Though the city’s population of 80,000 is now about 70 percent Muslim, much of the economy of Nazareth, considered the capital of Israel’s Arab minority, depends on the tourism generated by its Christian past.

“This is one of the most well-known cities in the world, the place where Christianity started,” said Mr. Jaraisi, a Christian, whose hair and mustache have turned white on the job.

But others in Nazareth say it is time for change. Mr. Jaraisi has been elected mayor four times, with the votes of both Muslims and Christians, he is quick to point out. Now, in the municipal elections scheduled for Israel’s local authorities on Tuesday, he is facing a serious challenge.

Even if the city weren’t majority-Muslim there would be nothing inherently upsetting, one would hope, about the prospect of a Muslim candidate defeating a Christian candidate for the mayoralty. Nazareth is symbolic of Israel’s Christian minority; that they happen to be a minority in Nazareth isn’t exactly shocking.

But the Times projects an air of nervousness in the city about Jaraisi’s possible defeat at Zoabi’s hands, and this has much to do with how Zoabi personifies two trends in the Arab world that have not been too kind to Christians. The first, and most obvious trend, is referred to outright in the Times piece:

One of the challenges that Mr. Jaraisi is facing is what Wadie Abu Nassar, an Arab Israeli political analyst, calls “the Arab Spring argument — that it is time to change.” Another is an accusation of mismanagement, Mr. Abu Nassar said.

As just the latest brutal attack on Egyptian Copts attests, the Arab Spring does not conjure images of freedom for the Christians of the Arab world. It has instead been open season on this persecuted minority, and any suggestion that the tide of the Arab Spring would come to Nazareth would be a frightening prospect, to say the least.

And Zoabi has long been at the forefront of the other trend, though the Times’s subtle presentation of it shows its mainstream appeal:

Nazareth, Ms. Zoabi said, should be a cultural center for the 1.6 million Palestinian citizens of Israel. “Nazareth is not just a city,” she said. “It is a symbol of the homeland that we lost.”

Notice that first part is not in quotes. The reporter, Isabel Kershner, simply writes that Israel’s Arabs are all Palestinians. The identification of Israeli Arabs as Palestinians is not automatic or universal. Israeli Arabs who consider themselves Palestinians tend to either claim roots in Mandatory Palestine before 1948 or consider the entire State of Israel occupied territory and an illegitimate state. (Or both.)

Zoabi embraces this merging of the Palestinian identity with the Israeli-Arab identity–which, in many cases, simply replaces Arab identity with Zoabi’s ideology of armed resistance against the state in whose parliament she serves. It erases, for example, the identity of Israel’s Arab Christians who don’t identify with the Palestinian cause.

In July, a group of Greek Orthodox Christians in Israel formed a political party to support Arab participation in the Israel Defense Forces. The group was led by a Christian Arab from Nazareth and had the support of Father Gabriel Naddaf, a Greek Orthodox priest against whom Zoabi reportedly led a vicious campaign and who was banned from entering Nazareth’s famed Church of the Annunciation for his show of patriotism and loyalty to Israel.

These Arab Christians from Nazareth (and elsewhere) proudly identify as Israelis. Zoabi and the New York Times plainly ignore that and label them Palestinian. The only way, in fact, that the categorization of all Israel’s Arabs as Palestinians could make any sense (to use that term loosely) is to someone who believes that the entire land is rightfully and legally Palestine. That Zoabi seems to buy into this bodes ill for Nazareth’s Christians. That the Times plays along suggests the media’s attitude toward the plight of Christians under the Arab Spring, which often borders on indifference, will only continue.

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