Minority Israelis speak at GMU

Mohammad Kabiya, an Israeli Bedouin who served in the IDF, speaks at George Mason University. Photo by Jared Foretek.

A touring group of Israeli reserves members came to George Mason University last week to try to shake up the boycott, divestment and sanctions debate on campus. Their weapon: none of the speakers was Jewish. Their message: Israel is not to blame for the lack of lasting peace in the region.

Five members of Reservists on Duty — Muslims, Druze, Bedouins and Christians — told 40 students that they all consider themselves proud Israelis and blame Palestinian leadership for the conflict. “I would like to tell you that there is always hope,” said Nizar Graisi, a Christian from Maalot-Tarchisha, when asked about the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace. “But [the Palestinians] have to stop the hate and the incitement in their schools.”

The Feb. 22 event was sponsored by George Mason Hillel.

Mohammad Kabiya, a Bedouin who finished his service in the Israeli Air Force’s search and rescue division last year, said the Israel Defense Forces is a mix of diverse backgrounds and religions.


“Christian people, Jewish people, Muslim people and Druze, all calling themselves ‘my brother,’” Kabiya said. “Only in the IDF.”

He said he often gets asked why, as an ethnic minority, he feels such a connection with and loyalty to Israel. He showed photos of him and his fellow soldiers riding horses draped in Israeli flags through their village.

“We feel that we are citizens of the State of Israel and we have equal rights,” Kabiya said. “And it is our duty to protect our country.”

In general, Arab citizens of Israel are exempted from mandatory military service. The exception are Druze and Circassian men. The IDF does not release exact numbers for the number of Bedouin and other Muslim and Christian volunteers in the army, according to the Jerusalem Post.

Reservists on Duty was formed in 2015 to combat the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, said its founder, Jonathan Nizar Elkhoury, a Christian who fled his native Lebanon with the Israeli withdrawal in 2000 and now has Israeli citizenship.

He said the group tries to take its message directly to anti-Israel campus groups, sometimes drawing protest, though there was nothing of the sort last week at George Mason. And even in a friendly setting, Elkhoury said, many students just don’t know about the diversity in the Israeli military.

“I see a lot of wrong images about minorities in Israel, saying that we’re living under apartheid, saying that discrimination and racism is built into the system, and it’s wrong.” he said. “I want to change that. So we’re trying to expose as many students, as many activists no matter what their views toward Israel to these stories.”

Graisi spoke of his time after the military at the University of Haifa, where he said many students were openly critical of Israel.

“These students say anything they want,” Graisi said. “Many say things that are anti-Israel and nobody restricts them.”
But the reservists also said they’re not trying to paint an overly rosy picture of the Jewish state, particularly in terms of race and ethnicity. Graisi said he faced racism in Israel. But for minorities to combat prejudice, according to Elkhoury they must embrace their Israeli identity, not try to disown it.

“Israel is not perfect,” Elkhoury said. “But if we want to change something, to begin with, we need to be an integral part of the society.”

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