Israeli Christian Community, Neither Arab nor Palestinian, Are Fighting to Save Identity

With fellow Christians under attack around the Mideast, the campaign by Israel’s Aramean community to gain formal minority status has become more urgent. Meanwhile, some of its teens are joining a pre-army program.

Gil Eliyahu

BARAM NATIONAL PARK, Israel – One camper here says she plans to join the Israel Defense Forces and become a “fighter” after she graduates high school. The boys relaxing in the grass nearby nod their heads to indicate that they plan to do the same.

None of the teenagers attending this late-summer camp in the Upper Galilee – located among the ruins of a Christian-Maronite village whose residents were expelled in the 1948 War of Independence – are Jewish. But don’t call them Arabs either. These Arabic-speaking Christians insist on identifying themselves as Arameans, descendants of an ancient people who originated in what is now Syria and Iraq. In recent months, as their fellow Christians around the Middle East have been increasingly coming under attack, this community’s campaign to gain recognition as a separate minority in Israel has taken on a new urgency.

“We are not part of the Israeli-Arab conflict, but somehow we’ve been pulled into it,” laments Shadi Halul, director of the week-long Aramean Heritage Camp and a former lieutenant in the IDF Paratroopers’ Brigade. “We are not Arabs, and we are not Palestinians.”

As the day draws to a close, 75 campers gather in a shady spot around Halul, who teaches them about their Aramean roots, shares stories about the suffering of Christians in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq in the past and at present, and explains the importance of serving their country – among the few in the region, he notes, where Christians are not threatened.

Roughly 130,000 Christians live in Israel, the vast majority of whom identify as Arabs. They are a tiny minority among the estimated 1.65 million-strong, overwhelmingly Muslim Arab population of the country, whose loyalty to the state is sometimes called into question, especially during the recent war in the Gaza Strip.

Along with members of the Aramean community who do not want to be identified as Israeli Arabs because they don’t consider themselves “Arab,” there are many others who reject that label, but for very different reasons: They prefer to be called “Palestinian citizens of Israel” rather than "Israeli Arabs," as the Jewish majority tends to define the entire group.

It makes sense, then, that someone like Halul would be active in the relatively recent and rather controversial campaign to promote Christian enlistment in the Israeli army. The 38-year-old father of two (who feels so strongly about his Aramean heritage that he even named one of his sons Aram) serves today as spokesman of the Israeli Christians Recruitment Forum, a movement founded two years ago by Father Gabriel Nadaf, a Greek Orthodox priest from Nazareth.

Nadaf has been condemned widely and even had his life threatened for what many Arabs perceive as cooperating with Israeli government efforts to drive a wedge between Christians and Muslims. Moreover, the warm embrace Nadaf and supporters have received from the ruling Likud party and right-wing organizations – because of the community's desire to show its loyalty to the state – has created deep ambivalence among Israelis on the left, concerned about whom this unlikely alliance might be serving.

Danny Zamir, who runs the Mechinat Rabin pre-army preparatory program, was, therefore, a bit surprised when Nadaf and his associates approached him earlier this year and suggested that a first group of Christian teens participate in his endeavor. After all, the program, named for Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin who was slain in 1995, is known for its center-left political affiliation.

“Initially, the whole idea was very strange to me, because like many Israelis, I tend to clump the Arabs together,” recounts Zamir. “But eventually, I was convinced. These people really do not identify with Arab nationalism.”

About 30 predominantly Aramean Christian teens, among them six girls, participated in a pilot program this summer at the Rabin center in Haifa, the majority of them from villages in the Galilee, Nazareth and Haifa.

The idea, Zamir explains, is to make the pre-army leadership training program a permanent option for Christian high-school graduates who are either interested in joining the army or in engaging in other forms of national service when they complete their year at Mechinat Rabin.

Not all his friends on the left were pleased with Zamir’s decision to open his program to the young Christians. “There was a Knesset member from Meretz [a left-wing party] who called to express her disapproval,” he reports.

Small Aramean communities still exist in several Middle Eastern countries, as well as in the West, the largest of them in Sweden, where many members still speak the ancient language of Aramaic. Thanks to intensified efforts in recent years, members of the community in Israel have begun to revive the language, using it in their prayers and teaching it in their schools.

New ID nationality

As part of the campaign to gain recognition, several hundred of these citizens recently signed a petition demanding that the Ministry of Interior change their nationality on their Israeli identity cards from “Arab” to “Aramean.”

Their counsel is Yael Katz Mastbaum, the attorney who represented the late author Yoram Kaniuk in a landmark case that allowed him to remove “Jewish” from his identity card, and replace with “without religion.” The Ministry of Interior has promised a response, Mastbaum says, but if it is not forthcoming, she intends to take this case to court as well.

Halul estimates that “thousands” of Christians in Israel identify today as Arameans, and not as Arabs.

“Once our status is formalized, I believe that anywhere from 30,000 to 40,000 will want to register right away, and within a few years, it will be the majority of Christians in this country,” he predicts.

Experts on the Israeli Christian minority are less convinced. “They’re a fringe group and don’t at all represent the mainstream,” says Sammy Smooha, a professor of sociology at the University of Haifa. “Most Christians in this country identify as Arabs and don’t buy their [the Arameans'] story. In fact, the original leaders of the Arab nationalist movement were Christians.” Smooha also rejects claims by Halul and other members of his forum that the number of Christians volunteering to serve in the IDF has risen dramatically in recent years. “From the figures I’ve seen, it’s been pretty steady,” he says.

Dr. Amnon Ramon, a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, sees in the Arameans' “attempt to invent a new nationality,” as he describes it, a way for this Christian group to curry favor with the government.

Actually, he notes, many of the families who identify as Arameans, like Halul’s, were expelled from the village of Biram 1948. By distancing themselves from Arab society, Ramon says, many hope they can convince the government to allow them to return to their old homes, as they’ve been promised for years. It is no coincidence that the site of their heritage camp is on the ruins of this town.

At best, Ramon believes that “a few hundred families” in Israel identify themselves today as Arameans or “Arabic-speaking Christians,” though the numbers could grow if the persecution of Christians in neighboring countries continues.

By early evening, the campers in the park are gathering up their belongings and getting ready for the trip back home, which will take most of them to the nearby village of Jish, also known as Gush Halav. Before they leave, Halul asks if any are willing to show off for his visitor and sing “Our Father who art in Heaven” in Aramaic, which they just learned today. Several teenage girls, all dressed in short shorts and sleeveless tops, are happy to take on the challenge.

“You see how they dress?” Halul nudges the visitor, after they’ve completed their performance. “Just like the Jews. Where could they get away with that in any other country but here?”

Gil Eliyahu