A 42-year-old man wanders through the streets of the Galilean town of Jish affirming the fact that he is Aramean. It says so on his T-shirt, in three languages: Hebrew, English and Aramaic. Shadi Khaloul is a Maronite Christian, one of 3,000 people living in the town situated on Highway 89, on the site of the ancient Jewish town of Gush Halav. Christians and Muslims live there in fragile coexistence, but Khaloul has an additional identity. He is Aramean, one of several hundred people in Israel recognized as members of that ancient people.
The fact that the broader Israeli public is largely unaware of the existence of these people and regards them as Arabs underlies the fact that the voices of Arameans remain unheard in the turmoil surrounding the nation-state law, which defines Israel as the state of the Jewish people. In the law’s aftermath, Haaretz embarked on a cross-country journey in search of smaller minorities which are neither Jewish nor Arab.
Many Israelis would be surprised to learn of an Aramean people living here, but their language – the Semitic language used in ancient times in the Land of Israel and its environs – is known to every Hebrew speaker, since numerous Aramaic words made their way into contemporary Hebrew. Khaloul devotes much effort into reviving Aramaic and instilling it into the younger generation. He’s known in Jish as the Aramaic Eliezer Ben-Yehuda [reviver of modern Hebrew]. “Thanks to your Ben-Yehuda you got not just the revival of your language but the restoration of a people with national sentiments,” he says in describing his goals, presenting a bookcase full of Aramaic books in his home.
Alongside history books there are old sacred books, as well as modern schoolbooks used by local pupils in their weekly Aramaic studies hour allocated by the Ministry of Education. “We want more” says Khaloul, telling of an Aramaic summer camp and a Jewish-Aramean pre-military academy which he’s proud of having established. He later lays out his vision of an Aramaic-language kindergarten, school and even an entire community, “so that our identity is not eradicated.”
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Anyone who knows Khaloul, who heads the Aramaic Society in Israel, knows that these are no pipe dreams. Aramaic for him is not just an ancient tradition but a living language he uses on WhatsApp, on TV and when listening to music in his car. His resumé includes an impressive victory, in getting the state to recognize Arameans as a nation. This achievement was marked four years ago, when then-Minister of Interior Gideon Sa’ar instructed his ministry to register this category in the population registry.
Until then the state considered Khaloul an Arab. “I’d wake up daily and wonder why they’re trying to impose a different identity on me,” he recalls. The struggle was prolonged and exhausting, culminating in Khaloul’s obtaining academic opinions from around the world, confirming the existence of an Aramean people. The change went into effect last year, but in order to obtain the desired recognition Arameans need a court ruling determining that they qualify. Only then can they submit a request to change their registration at the Ministry of Interior. Khaloul says that there are currently 1,700 Arameans living in Israel, but the new recognition potentially raises this number to 135,000 people.
When asked how he sees himself he says: “I’m an Israeli like you, Christian in my religion and Aramean is my nationality.” He served as an officer in the paratroopers. To this day he remembers the Jewish soldier of Moroccan descent who called him a “dirty Arab” during an argument. “I told him he was more of an Arab than I was, telling him about the Arameans,” he recounts with a smile. They subsequently became friends. He accepts the nation-state law for a simple reason: “I don’t want to fight Jews but to live alongside them in a Jewish state.”
A mass in the holy language
Far to the south, in Be’er Sheva, Catholic priest Piotr Zelasko prepares for another mass, delivered in Hebrew. Zelasko has lived in Israel for 10 years and leads the southern branch of Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel. The community, numbering 500 members, has been around since the 1950s. “A Catholic praying in Hebrew sounds exotic, something from another world, but we have an important role: to remind the Church that Christianity is Judaism’s little sister,” he says in perfect Hebrew.
The vast majority (99 percent, says Zelasko) of Catholics in Israel are Arabs. The Hebrew speakers among them are thus a minority within a minority. They come from different origins such as Filipino children born in Israel; non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union; Arabs whose Hebrew is better than their Arabic and a sub-group calling themselves “Jewish Catholics.” “This term used to be impossible but the younger generation accepts the idea that just like there is an atheist Jew or a Buddhist one there can also be a Catholic one, linking someone to their Jewish roots through Christianity.”
Be’er Sheva residents are quite astonished to find a church in their midst. From the street it looks like an ordinary apartment building, lacking any signs disclosing the activities going on inside. “We operate quietly and discreetly since we don’t want to convert anyone,” stresses Zelasko. He’s a strange bird in the Negev capital. “When asked if I’m a priest ‘like in the movies’ I answer in the affirmative,” but his Facebook page shows that he’s a scuba diver, a soccer fan and enjoys traveling around Israel and the world.
Zelasko is not a citizen or permanent resident, but is here with a clergyman’s visa. The status of his flock varies. Their common denominator, other than religion, is Hebrew, which links them to Israel despite their different backgrounds. The state defines them using the disparaging term “other.” This category includes 418,000 people, or 4.7 percent of the population. They include non-Arab Christians, people with no religious designation (often family of Jewish immigrants) and people with other religions such as Buddhists, Hindus, people of the Baha’i faith and Samaritans.
The latter group, Samaritans, includes 800 members, concentrated in Holon and on Mount Gerizim near Nablus. “We’re not Jews, Christians or Arabs,” says Shahar Yehoshua. “We’re an inseparable part of the People of Israel and descendants of the ancient Israelites wandering the desert. We belong to the tribes of Efraim, Menashe and Levi, who settled in the Shomron (Samaria) area.”
Yehoshua is a banker and one of the residents of Ben-Amram Street in Holon (named after Moses), the living heart of the Samaritan community. “The Sabbath is the same Sabbath and the festivals are the same festivals,” he says in comparing Samaritans to Jews. He qualifies this by stating that the Samaritans observe only the holidays that are mentioned in the Torah (Pentateuch), such as Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret. They don’t celebrate Hanukkah and Purim, which were instated later. “Our children go to regular schools so they too dress up on Purim and eat jelly doughnuts at Hanukkah, but I don’t read the Book of Esther at synagogue,” he notes.
Before the designation of “nation” was removed from ID cards there was some confusion regarding the status of Samaritans. “I was labeled Jewish while my wife was labeled Samaritan-Jewish. The clerk at the registration office wrote down whatever she felt like.”
When his 38-year-old son Guy is asked how he defines himself he says: “First of all I’m Israeli, part of civil life here. After that I’m Samaritan, just like you’re Jewish.” With respect to the nation-state law the two differ in their views. The father, who was born in Nablus and came to Israel as a young man, says the law doesn’t hurt them. “We’re the original Israelis here.” His son disagrees. “It’s a nuisance. We love this country, we’re pro-Zionist and serve in the army, but the words of the anthem relating to a Jewish soul are meaningless for us.”
On a Friday afternoon preparations for the Sabbath are in full swing in the neighborhood. The women cook and do not enter the synagogue, while men attend services dressed in traditional white garb. A difference between Samaritans and Jews is apparent on the doorstep of the synagogue, as Guy asks guests to take off their shoes. He quotes a relevant biblical verse as justification. The synagogue contains no chairs or tables. Everyone sits on a wall-to-wall carpet, praying towards Mount Gerizim, the holy site near Nablus they go to three times a year. This is where they believe Joshua placed 12 stones after entering the Land of Israel.
Tzadok Yehoshua, 87, lives beside the synagogue. He was born in Nablus before moving to Tel Aviv and then to Holon, after President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi initiated the founding of their neighborhood in order to gather the community in one place. “We never left the land, we arrived here with the Israelites,” he says proudly. When asked if the young generation follows the traditions he shakes his head and says that he fears the traditions will be preserved for “perhaps another decade.” His nephew Guy protests, saying that this was the same thing they used to say when Tzadok was born and yet nothing has changed.
This community, originating in the United States, can accept no new members. Its members obtained permanent resident status in 2003, with a few becoming citizens after serving in the army, but the state does not allow anyone new to settle in Israel. The community currently numbers 4,000 people, most of them living in Dimona.
Nagila Bat-Yisrael is 42. She was born in the States and came to Israel in 1974. “Today community members cannot immigrate but we hope for the best,” she says. When asked about the nation-state law she says it’s hard for community members since they are not citizens. “My daughter has no American or Israeli passport. It’s very difficult for her to visit her grandparents in the U.S.”
The community has faced difficulties ever since they started arriving in the 1960s, following a messianic vision of their leader, Ben Carter. “We use the term Hebrews, not Jews, since there were other tribes besides Judah,” says Yoyachin Ben-Yisrael, the community’s spokesman.
“It was hard at first since people weren’t used to seeing Afro-Americans here,” he says. Their urban “kibbutz” is reminiscent of an American town or African village. It’s clean but very crowded, with English the dominant language. Only vegan food is sold and they all wear their characteristic colorful clothes, made by women of the community. “We feel good here,” says Nagila, “we know our purpose. It’s all for the glory of our Creator, despite the difficulties we face.”