The Israeli Minister Who Made a Revolution in the Arab Christian Community

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Father Gabriel Naddaf and Gideon Sa'ar at a celebration in Upper Nazareth, October 2014. Credit: Gil Eliahu

Some politicians dedicate highway interchanges and some pass bold legislation, but as Gideon Sa’ar steps down as interior minister to take his “time-out” from politics, he can claim credit for establishing an old-new nation, the Arameans.

To celebrate the government’s recognition of this community, Sa’ar met with 50 Christians who consider themselves Arameans, not Arabs. They met in a long room on the second floor of the Plaza Hotel in Upper Nazareth.

“It’s a historic and revolutionary change,” Father Gabriel Naddaf told Sa’ar. “Only great people make revolutions, and you have become part of the vision.” Indeed, “Only great people make revolutions” was the phrase that adorned a special certificate handed to Sa’ar.

The event was led by Father Gabriel’s Israeli Christian Recruitment Forum, which has encouraged Arabic-speaking Christians to serve in the Israel Defense Forces. But behind the scenes, the battle for the Aramean nation, whose ancient origins lie in northwest Syria, has suffered a schism.

One leader was conspicuous by his absence: Shadi Halul, who in 2007 launched the effort to win Israeli recognition of the Arameans. He told me by phone he’d be pleased to be the Aramean Herzl – in fact a special event had been planned for him at the interior minister’s office, though it wasn’t clear when.

Theodor Herzl at the Fifth Zionist Congress, 1901.

“Other than prayers, Father Gabriel doesn’t know a word of Aramaic. I speak to my son in Aramaic,” Halul said, adding, however, that the two men were united in their goals. He also adamantly denied that he had joined Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, as someone at the event suggested.

Tuesday was the high point of Halul’s life. His son Yaqub became the first person whose Aramean nationality appears on his Israeli birth certificate. For his first two years on Earth, Yaqub had no birth certificate as he waited for the new version. “He got excited about that certificate,” Halul said.

Then Halul made a remarkable assertion: The biblical matriarchs Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel were Aramean, from the family of Laban the Aramean, and if religion is transmitted via the mother, then the biblical patriarch Jacob was Aramean! “Laban the Aramean was a swindler, but the Jews and the Arameans are one people who are now reuniting,“ Halul said.

Of course, it wouldn’t hurt to recognize the Aramean nation, and as a fan of esotericism, I’d say it’s the most creative step the current Israeli government has taken. The more nations the better. Anyone who feels himself Aramean should be Aramean.

But when it comes to Sa’ar and some of his fellow celebrants, recognition of the Arameans appears less motivated by love and more by an interest that these people not be deemed Arabs. In other words, it’s an effort to divide the Arab nation by isolating the tens of thousands of Christians who would be deemed Arameans.

Rather than speaking to one another in Aramaic, everyone at the tables spoke in Arabic, which was also the language of the presentations. There was nothing Aramean at the event launching the Aramean nation – no flag, no nothing.

The shadow of the Islamic State

“Arabs are a swearword. It says terrorist,” said Samer Juzain, the bodyguard for Sa’ar and Father Gabriel at the gala. He wore a shirt from the Defense Ministry’s security division to go along with his sunglasses and earpiece.

At first I thought the tattoos on his arms were in Aramaic, but it turned out they were the names of his two daughters — in Chinese.

“I’ve always felt Aramean, never Arab,” he said. “When they call me an Arab it’s embarrassing. They’ve turned us into Arabs by force, as ISIS is doing now. Otherwise they’ll behead us.” Juzain kept silent when I asked him what he did for a living, though he made every effort to be photographed.

The event began with lots of pictures of Father Gabriel with politicians, including MK Ofir Akunis (Likud) and pictures from right-wing group Im Tirtzu’s website, not to mention pictures of IDF weapons. In the background blared stirring music. Parallels were constantly drawn with the Zionist movement and Herzl.

Beneath the picture of Sa’ar, the Lord Balfour of the Arameans, was the saying “I hereby declare the Christian-Aramean nation,” along with references to Herzl’s famous saying “If you will it, it is no dream.”

In his speech, Sa’ar really did feel a bit like Lord Balfour. “Every public figure who achieves a position that can have an impact on the public wants to do the right thing,” Sa’ar said. “ How does one make decisions that change reality? At the end of the day, I ask what I have changed.”

“You have made history,” Father Gabriel told him, to which Sa’ar replied: “My decision comes not as an individual. I made it in the name of the Jewish people. We appreciate your determination to change your fate and to link it to Israel’s future.”

The strange thing is that Israel recognizes the Aramean nation but not an Israeli nation, the nation that I for one belong to. Such recognition could have obviated a lot of sectarian problems in Israel. And then they say the world is anti-Israel.

“I am not Arab. Period,” said a kindhearted 77-year-old, Elias Khoury of Nazareth, who has started studying Aramaic in the Galilee village of Jish.

“As Christians we have no place left in the Middle East to live in peace other than Israel. In Lebanon too we went through hell, because of Hezbollah. In the Byzantine period, before the Muslim conquest, we were Aramean Christians,” he said, harking back to the seventh century and the fall of Byzantium. It’s a process he’s trying to reverse 1,400 years later on the back of one Gideon Sa’ar.

In addition to Father Gabriel, who spoke at the event sporting a gold crucifix, the acting mayor of Upper Nazareth, Alex Gadalkin, addressed the group.

Just a shade from the table of honor sat suspended mayor Shimon Gapso. He has been indicted for bribery, but he was praised by every speaker. The head of the World Zionist Organization’s department devoted to combating anti-Semitism, Yaakov Hagoel, promised that with God’s help “we will free him.”

Gapso was a leader in the effort to recognize the Arameans, and he admitted that much of this has to do with not being Arab. “Being Arab today is being identified with ISIS,” he said. “They want to be equal.”

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