May 25, 2019

The Zionist Lebanese-Christian Refugee

Jonathan Elkhoury

Twenty-six-year-old Jonathan Elkhoury is a Lebanese Christian who became an Israeli citizen and now fights anti-Zionist activists on U.S. college campuses. 

During the course of his work, he’s been accused of being a Mossad agent, a child-killer and an apartheid enabler. Some insults, he said, are so absurd they are frankly amusing. Such as the time he was accused by an American activist for Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) of “stealing” the Arabic language. 

Others, however, cause Elkhoury profound consternation. When liberal elites label him a “token Arab” or a “pet” of Israel’s public relations machine, Elkhoury’s rarely ruffled feathers are positively rankled. “They tell me, ‘You’re only doing this because you want to justify yourself to the Jews,’ ” he said. “I’m always surprised that these kinds of comments come from people who advocate free thinking and freedom. What do they think? That I’m brainwashed? That I don’t have my own mind to decide what to think for myself?”

Elkhoury arrived in Israel from Lebanon when he was 9. His father had been an officer in the South Lebanon Army, Israel’s primary ally in the struggle against Hezbollah in the 1980s. When Israeli forces withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000 and the Lebanese militia disbanded, Elkhoury’s father was forced to flee to Israel. A year and a half later, Elkhoury, his mother and older brother joined him, escaping Lebanon via passage through Cyprus. Elkhoury was told only that the family was taking a vacation to the United States, but he knew something was afoot when his grandparents and uncles came to see them off at the airport. “It wasn’t a regular goodbye. Everyone was crying,” he said. 

Under Lebanese law, it is illegal to have any interaction with Israelis. Fearing imprisonment or worse, the Elkhourys severed all ties with the rest of their family.

After graduating from high school, Elkhoury did two years of national service at Rambam Medical Center in his hometown of Haifa, where he was awarded the prestigious Health Minister’s shield. Today, Elkhoury advocates for Arab Christians and other minorities to join the army or national service programs. 

“During the course of his work, he’s been accused of being a Mossad agent, a child-killer and an apartheid enabler.

He is also a project coordinator for Reservists on Duty, a nongovernmental organization that was established to combat the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. Together with other minority representatives, he travels to the U.S. to counter some of the vitriol on campuses, especially during Israeli Apartheid Week, an annual series of university lectures and rallies, which has been held on campuses in February or March annually since 2005. 

Pressed on hot-button issues like whether he believes Israel can be both a Jewish and democratic state, Elkhoury is unflinching. “Is it a problem? Not at all. It is a Jewish state but I, as a minority, enjoy full rights to express myself and to criticize the government when needed.

“One thing I won’t accept is the discussion about Israel’s right to exist,” he said. “Of course the Jewish people have the right to their own state.” 

During a UC Irvine event in May 2017 hosted by Students Supporting Israel (SSI), Elkhoury and his fellow panelists were escorted out by police after dozens of SJP activists violently stormed the event.

But Elkhoury shrugs it off. “We will never be afraid to speak out,” he said. “What’s shameful is the unwillingness to engage in discussion. When else would they have the opportunity to listen to a Muslim, a Druze, a Bedouin and a Christian [citizen] of Israel and ask them the hard questions?”

Still, it’s not all bleak. He’s been approached many times by SJP members who heard him speak. “I call it planting the benefit of the doubt,” he said. “It’s not an overnight change. But it’s enough for them to go out and question and try to discover the truth.”