The Knesset's Labor, Welfare and Health Committee held a very stormy debate on Wednesday over the proposed recognition of local Christians as a minority separate from the rest of the Arab population.
The debate centered around a new bill sponsored by Member of Knesset Yariv Levin (Likud) that would acknowledge Christians as their own independent minority for the purpose of representation on local councils and the Advisory Committee for Equal Opportunity.
In effect, such a law would legally differentiate between Chrisitans and Arabs, most of whom are Muslims.
In an interview earlier this month, Levin said that his proposed legislation makes perfect sense because "we (Jews) have much in common with the Christians. They are our natural allies, and a counterweight to the Muslims who want to destroy the country from within."
Arab MKs on the committee (all of them Muslim) responded with predictable outrage.
"Levin wants to divide the Arab public, which is already oppressed. We won’t be his slaves," insisted MK Jamal Zahalka (Balad), while MK Hanin Zoabi (pictured) said the bill would only increase Arab hostility toward the Jewish state.
To counter the arguments of the Muslims, the committee also heard from Shadi Haloul, who has been at the forefront of a Nazareth-based movement that is encouraging young local Christians to join the Israeli army and embrace their Aramaic heritage, rather than an imposed Arab identity.
"I'm proud to be Christian," Haloul told the committee. "We have a right to self-definition as well." Pointing to the Muslim representatives, Haloul went on to urge the committee's Jewish members, "Don't listen to those racists."
At that point, Zoabi reportedly called Haloul a "coward," and dared him to take this message to the streets of Nazareth, where local Muslims and unsympathetic Christians would "give you the proper response."
The thinly-veiled threat earned Zoabi ejection from the hearing.
The reality is that Haloul and others involved in the movement have been taking this message to the streets of Nazareth and many other Arab towns for well over a year now.
At times that effort has brought violence against them, but more often than not young Christians are identifying with the message and throwing off the hatred for Israel with which their previous "Arab" identity had saddled them.