(Reuters) – In the green hills of Galilee, where Jesus is said to have preached two thousand years ago, a group of Aramaic speakers seeking to revive the language of Christ are celebrating a victory in their quest to safeguard their heritage.
In a place where tensions are high over questions of ethnicity, faith and citizenship, members of the Christian sect have obtained the right to change their designation in the population register from “Arab” to a new classification. ethnic: “Aramaic”.
The group that has called for the change is small, a few hundred people at most, but their campaign is part of a larger debate over identity issues in the Holy Land and Israel’s treatment of its Arab minority.
Supporters say Israel’s agreement to allow the group to define themselves as “Aramaic” is a sign of ethnic tolerance.
But critics call it an attempt by the government to encourage divisions within its Arab population, which largely defines itself as Palestinian and makes up about a fifth of the country’s 8.2 million citizens.
Others say it is also another reflection of the reality of Arabs in Israel, where many Arab citizens say they face discrimination.
Shadi Khalloul, a former Israeli army captain, heads the Aramaic Society in Israel, which lobbied the government for change. His two-year-old son, Yacov, is the first in Israel to be listed as Aramaic.
âIt’s a spiritual question, to feel that I am equal among equals, that I am no less than them – Jews, Arabs, Circassians, Druze, Italians, Greeks. My ancestors would be proud, âsaid Khalloul, who volunteered for the army, which enlists Jewish men and women at the age of 18 but exempts Arabs from conscription.
The activists are all from the village of Jish and belong to the Maronite Church, which took root in Lebanon in the 5th century. Its liturgical language is Aramaic, whose dialects are spoken only by a few hundred thousand people around the world.
Speaking at the ceremony marking the change in October, Interior Minister Gidon Saar said Aramaeans had suffered persecution, oppression and discrimination in the Middle East, and that Israel was building as a home for Jews, who themselves suffered persecution, “must protect this minority.” and enable it to preserve its culture and heritage.
But not everyone in the Arab village of 3,000 people is happy.
âThey are ashamed of their ethnicity,â said Marvat Marun, 39. âI am an Arab, a Christian Maronite Arab and proud of it. My roots are Palestinian.
DIVIDE AND RULE
Knesset member Basel Ghattas, of the Arab Balad party, said Israel’s recognition of the minority was aimed at sowing divisions and animosity among the Arab population.
“This is a divide and rule policy, not to see us Arabs as part of the Palestinian Arab nation or a national minority, but as a collection of small ethnic groups and to sow conflicts and divisions among us, âsaid Ghattas, who is a Christian.
The Justice and Peace Commission of the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries, the Catholic Church of the Holy Land, has called on those considering changing their list to “regain consciousness”:
“We are Christians, Palestinians, Arabs,” he said in a statement. âIsrael does not need Christians who have distorted their identity, who position themselves as enemies of their own people and who become soldiers for war.
âServe yourselves, serve your people and serve Israel by staying true to the truth, that is, true to your identity as Christians, Palestinians and peacemakers.
Father Yousef Yakoub, a leader of the Maronite Church in Haifa, took a more conciliatory approach.
âIt is not the vocation of the church to intervene in the way people identify themselves, but to build a culture of communion and openness to others,â he said.
It was not clear how many people eligible for the new designation would in fact make it beyond the original group. The Interior Ministry has yet to define the formalities, so Khalloul’s little boy is the only Aramaic Israeli so far.
Chen Bram, an anthropologist at the Hebrew University, said the campaign of the Aramaic speakers of Galilee can be seen in a broader political context.
âIt shows us that it is difficult to be Arab in Israel and that there is a growing polarization in Israeli society. “
Israeli society has a de facto hierarchy in which Jews are at the top, Bram said. The closer you are seen to the Palestinians, the lower you are, and “if you stand out from this group, you make it easier for yourself to contact the authorities and gain support for your culture,” he said.
About 83 percent of Israeli Arabs are Muslims and about eight percent Christians, according to the Israeli government’s statistics office. The others are Druze.
Fady Mansour, 36, intends to change his list to Aramaic, and said he was partly motivated by social advancement.
âArabic is inferior in Israeli society,â he said, speaking from the stone steps of Jish Church. âWhen there is a (Palestinian) attack, people shout ‘death to the Arabs’. Why do I have to be included in this? “
Bram says the formal recognition of an Aramaic ethnicity is also linked to a recent push by Israel to recruit Christian Arabs into the military.
Christian Arabs have traditionally stood alongside Muslims on Israeli-Palestinian issues, which means they do not volunteer for military service.
“This is causing great controversy among Christian communities,” Bram said of the decision.
The new designation could help the Aramaic community of Jish with another campaign, this one on land.
Many of the Jish have roots in Birim, a nearby village whose Maronite inhabitants were expelled by Jewish forces during the 1948 war of Israel’s founding. Israel razed the village in 1953, sparing only its church and its steeple.
In a legal battle that stretches back decades, the villagers of Birim campaigned to be allowed to return and rebuild.
No longer being classified by Israel as “Arab” could help the community separate its claim from the issue of the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
Hundreds of Palestinian villages and towns were razed, left empty or occupied during the war, and their inhabitants fled or were evicted. The Palestinians demand that up to five million refugees and their descendants be allowed to return.
âI don’t care about the right of return, about the Palestinian struggle. I want to rebuild an Aramaic village, âKhalloul said.
Nadim Issa, 59, who organizes Aramaic Society meetings in his cellar, said: âThe day will come when we will rebuild Birim. Just as they granted us ethnicity, they will give us back our lands.
Aramaic, a Semitic language related to Hebrew and Arabic, was once the common language of the region, but Arabic largely replaced it after the Muslim conquests of the 7th century.
The language was perhaps most widely brought to the world’s attention in Mel Gibson’s 2004 film âThe Passion of Christ,â which was shot in Aramaic, Latin and Hebrew.
During a visit to the Holy Land last May, Pope Francis and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a brief disagreement on camera over the language spoken by Jesus.
âJesus was here in this country. He spoke Hebrew, âNetanyahu said. âAramaic,â added the Pope. âHe spoke Aramaic, but he knew Hebrew,â Netanyahu retorted.
Aramaic is, however, in danger of disappearing.
Eleanor Coghill, linguist at the University of Constance and researcher for the Cambridge Neo-Aramaic Database Project, said the Syrian civil war and the progress of the Islamic State in Iraq have severely affected some of the few indigenous Aramaic speaking communities still living in their homelands.
âWhile it’s good to hear that communities elsewhere are interested in their Aramaic heritage, it is difficult to fully revive a language as a living language,â Coghill said.
Khalloul’s group runs Aramaic lessons for children in Jish, a small village that descends from a hill near the Lebanese border, where more than a third of the population is Muslim and Arabic is the language of everyday.
âI felt like the younger generation was getting lost and that our history and our heritage was fading. We go to church and recite Aramaic like parrots, not knowing what we are saying, âKhalloul said.
âThis treasure bequeathed by our fathers must be protected and not abandoned in the face of globalization and Arabization.