• FEATURES \ Oct 09, 2002
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    A minority within a minority
A minority within a minority Two interesting facts about the Christian-Arab minority in Israel are not widely known. One, among all of the countries of the Middle East excepting Lebanon, Israel has the largest Christian minority of all. Two, this group has notched the most impressive achievements in the realms of education and health. Dr. Alex Lowenthal, chief of the Health Ministry's Public Health Service, puts it this way: "The Christian Arabs have the finest health indicators in Israel. Better than the Jews."

Following the War of Independence, which was particularly cruel for the Christian villages of the Galilee, involving land confiscation and deportation, the number of Christians in the country fell sharply, only managing to reach 34,000 in 1960. But since that time, the population has steadily increased, reaching 111,000 by 2000. It is the only Christian population in the Middle East to have increased. Of course, the proportion of Christians to Muslims and to Jews in Israel has not kept pace, since the Christians have a lower natural growth rate. Between 1967 and 2001, the Christian population increased by 1.8 percent per annum, as opposed to 4.4 percent among Muslims.

Conversely, the very same factor - small families - that reduced their proportion of the general population is partly responsible for the extraordinary accomplishments of this minority: the infant mortality rate among Christian Arabs in the 1996-1999 period was 4.9 per thousand births (among Muslims it was 9.5, among Jews 4.8). Over the years, infant mortality within this community has continued to decline. By 2001, it recorded one of the lowest rates in the world: 2.6 per thousand - the same as in Scandinavia and Japan.

In the realm of education, the Christians go straight to the head of the class. They attend university at the rate of 323 per thousand (for those born in the 1965-1969 period), as compared to 108 Muslim and Druze per thousand and to the national average, which is 131.

Although the percentage of Christian Arabs among all Arabs in Israel is only 10 percent, they represent more than one-quarter of the Arab labor force, due to the higher rate of working women. There is no data on their economic status, but as opposed to other rural Arab settlements, the economic ranking of their villages is good. For example, Jish and Mi'ilya are in sixth place out of ten - like Arad - and Fasouta is in fourth place, like Safed.

These data are of interest, for two reasons: one, they refute the argument that Israel is racist in the way it treats its Arab citizens, that it is essentially an apartheid state. The data do not refute allegations of deprivation or discrimination in the budgetary allocations to local authorities, or the representation of Arabs in commercial, public and governmental bodies. Nevertheless, they do prove that not only the government but also the community, family and local authority bear responsibility for the wide gaps between Jews and Muslims.

How can one explain the differences between Muslim Arabs and Christian Arabs? There is no difference in the government's treatment of or allocation of resources to the two populations; nor is there any difference between the two in terms of their fervor for Palestinian nationalism.

The discrepancy in infant mortality, for instance, is attributed by the Health Ministry to the fact that Christians do not marry within the same family, despite their small numbers, due to religious and cultural prohibitions. Cultural differences are also responsible for the different size of the families, and the participation of women in the work force.

So long as there exists a national conflict between us and the entire Arab population - including all of its constituent elements - we will not be able to realize the full equality that we must attain. In the meantime, however, it would be absurd if we did not make it possible for every person in Israel to maximize his or her own potential, and the potential of the Christians - dwindling in every other country of the Middle East except Israel - is extremely high.

There is one more conclusion to be reached: the immense difference between progressive Israel and the Arab world, which suffers from backwardness and repression, is unexpectedly reflected in this aspect, as well - that of a Christian minority trying and succeeding to preserve its tradition in a land that is both the cradle of its religion and a Jewish state. This, despite having to contend with the difficult circumstance of being a minority within a minority, living in a state that is itself a minority that lives within a hostile majority.