Christians in the Holy Land: Don’t Call Us Arabs

Aryeh Tepper

Aryeh Tepper

Director of Publications and Online Educational Programming, American Sephardi Federation; Academic Director, Glazer-BGU Israel Studies Seminar for Chinese Students

click for full bio >>

~ Also in this issue ~

~ Also by Aryeh Tepper ~

From the Blog

Long identified as part of the country’s minority Arab population, Israel’s Christian community has recently begun asserting its own unique identity—one that is deeply tied to the Jewish State of Israel. Meet the Arameans.

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu strode into a banquet hall in the northern Galilee town of Upper Nazareth on a mid-December evening in 2014, approximately 1,000 people rose to their feet and gave Netanyahu a standing ovation. Was this typical election-year enthusiasm?

It was enthusiastic for sure. But it was hardly typical. The crowd consisted of Arabic-speaking Christians who insist that they are not Arabs. Instead, they consider themselves “Arameans,” and the event, hosted by the Forum for Christian Enlistment in the Israel Defense Forces, was a Christmastime coming-out party for a community that is celebrating a recent Israeli decision to legally recognize their old-new identity.

Thanks to that recognition, Israeli-Arameans are now on the same footing as other Israeli minorities, such as the Druze and Circassians. And like them, Aramean Christians want their sons to join the IDF. Indeed, Arameans who spoke at the Upper Nazareth event (only a minority of whom actually speak Aramaic, although the aspiration is to revive the language) repeatedly emphasized their desire to defend what they believe is the one state in the Middle East that protects Christians and allows them to practice their religion in peace.

The movement to recognize a separate Israeli-Aramean identity is not new. It began modestly enough in 2007, when a member of the Maronite Church from the Northern Israeli town of Gush Halav, IDF Major (res.) Shadi Chaloul, met with a soon-to-be Knesset member from the Likud, Yariv Levin. Chaloul persuaded Levin that Arameans should be considered a distinct minority in Israel. Until then, almost all Israeli Christians simply self-identified and were considered to be “Arabs.”

Their argument in favor of a distinct Aramean national identity was surprisingly easy to make, and seized with greater urgency in the Christian community, as Israeli Christians have seen the fates befalling their co-religionists and other minority groups across the Middle East as the promise and peril of the Arab Spring has unfolded. From Copts in Egypt, and Christians and Kurds and Chaldeans in Syria and Iraq and beyond, nowhere are Christians and other minorities of all faiths more secure or free, than in the Jewish State.

Aramaic-speaking Christians have lived in the Middle East since the dawn of Christianity itself. Indeed, Jesus himself was an Aramaic-speaking Jew. Things changed, however, when Arab Muslim armies exploded out of the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century CE and conquered much of the Fertile Crescent and North Africa. The empire they built quickly began to impose their faith and culture on the regions it occupied.

As a result, Aramaic was slowly buried as a spoken language in favor of the new empire’s lingua franca—Arabic. This transition should be familiar to students of Jewish history. Before the Muslim conquest, many Middle Eastern Jews also spoke Aramaic. The classic compendium of Jewish law and lore, the Talmud, was written in the language. But after the Arab conquest, Jews began to adopt their own dialects of Arabic, and the Talmud slowly became unintelligible to everyone but a small scholarly elite.

Israeli-Aramean leaders attend an event thrown by the Forum for Christian Enlistment in the Israel Defense Forces. Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower

Bedouin and Druze dignitaries attend an event thrown by the Forum for Christian Enlistment in the Israel Defense Forces. Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower

During the same period, some Aramean Christians were converted to the new Arab-Islamic order, while others retained their distinct identity. They did so by holding on to their Christian faith, which used Aramaic as the language of prayer, even as Arabic became the language of daily life. Despite the extraordinary pressures placed on its speakers, Aramaic managed to survive into the 20th century as a spoken language, mainly in a few Christian villages in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. In an incident that is by no means irrelevant to the Aramean push for recognition, one of those communities, the Eastern-Orthodox Christian village of Ma’aloula, was recently overrun by Islamist forces fighting in the Syrian civil war.

The story of Aramean Christians in Israel is illustrated by what transpired in Chaloul’s hometown of Gush Halav. Before 1948, Aramaic was taught in local schools. But after the founding of the state of Israel, Israeli-Arameans were categorized as “Arabs,” and thus compelled to study Arab culture, history, and language. Since the Israeli Education Ministry made no provisions for teaching Aramaic in public schools, the language was preserved in the Maronite liturgy and private initiatives like the Aramaic language program that Chaloul and his brother Amir launched in Gush Halav.

To be fair, the Israeli decision to address Arameans as Arabs should be seen in context. The idea that Arabs, irrespective of religion, constitute one nation was promoted by some Middle Eastern Christian intellectuals throughout much of the 20th century. Indeed, it remains popular in certain Christian circles today, including in Israel. Self-professed Aramean Christians will tell you, however, that it was an idea born out of their community’s political vulnerability. To survive in an Arab-dominated Middle East, they had to “become” Arab. But the idea that adopting an Arab national identity would work to their benefit has been shattered in recent years, as the rise of ultra-radical Islam has resulted in attacks on Christians in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq that sometimes border on ethnic cleansing.

Once Chaloul won over Levin, however, a movement for change began to gain momentum. Levin was elected to the Knesset in 2009, and quickly began to advocate on behalf of Israeli-Arameans.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center) speaks at an event thrown by the Forum for Christian Enlistment in the Israel Defense Forces. Next to him is Father Gabriel Naddaf. Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center) speaks at an event thrown by the Forum for Christian Enlistment in the Israel Defense Forces. Next to him is Father Gabriel Naddaf. Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower

This seemed to create a snowball effect. In August of 2012, parallel to Chaloul’s efforts, IDF Major Ihab Shlayan—an Eastern-Orthodox Christian—founded the Forum for Christian Enlistment in the IDF. Shlayan believed that Israeli-Arameans should no longer tolerate “the lies” that compelled Israeli Christians to kowtow to Arab sensibilities. He recruited a Greek Orthodox priest from Nazareth, Father Gabriel Naddaf, to head the organization. A somber man who projects an intense sense of mission, Father Naddaf shared Shlayan’s views, and added greatly to the forum’s prestige.

Father Naddaf’s public career began over two decades ago. In 1995, he was appointed to serve as a priest at Nazareth’s Church of Annunciation. Soon after, he began a quiet campaign to change his church and community. Father Naddaf believed that the Eastern Orthodox Church should teach Israeli Christians their history. Why do Israeli Christians consider themselves Arab, he wondered, when “none of the apostles was an Arab? … There is nothing in my roots that says I am an Arab.”

But he was warned by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch not to “cause provocations,” and over the years his quiet efforts bore little fruit. When the “Arab Spring” led to brutal attacks on Christian communities across the Middle East, however, Father Naddaf decided “enough is enough.” The time had come to “cast off the fear and the lies.”

Joining forces with Shlayan, Father Naddaf called upon Israeli Christians to acknowledge that they are not Arabs and enlist in the IDF. Since Father Naddaf made his call to serve, Christian enlistment has increased threefold. But Father Naddaf believes that if Israel would throw its full weight behind its Christian citizens and demonstrate zero tolerance for anti-Aramean incitement, the numbers would increase even more dramatically. The enthusiastic response to Prime Minister Netanyahu in Upper Nazareth—only 300 people attended the forum’s initial conference in 2012—lends credence to this claim.

Father Gabriel Naddaf. Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower

Father Gabriel Naddaf. Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower

While Shadi Chaloul is moved by a deep love of his Aramean heritage—he speaks Aramaic at home with his young son, Aram—Father Naddaf is animated by an intense religious conviction. His religiously-inspired fearlessness is distinctly Middle Eastern; a reflection of the inner freedom one often finds among genuine believers, regardless of their particular faith. Father Naddaf believes that “Something divine is happening here.” And consistent with that newfound inner freedom, he is willing to say things he and many others in his community would not have dared to say before: Shattering one of the most precious Arab nationalist taboos, he asserts that the Land of Israel belongs to the Jews and that the Palestinian people are a fiction, a nation invented for the purpose of undermining Jewish sovereignty. If it were up to Father Naddaf, Jews would pray on the Temple Mount and Israel would retain sovereignty over the entire West Bank.

Unsurprisingly, Father Naddaf is under attack from various quarters, primarily because of his support for IDF service. A member of the Palestinian Authority went so far as to forge a statement in the name of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate announcing Father Naddaf’s dismissal. Israeli-Arab political figures have engaged in incitement against him, and calls for his death can be found on Israeli-Arab social media.

The threats are no joke. In December, 2013, his son Judaan was brutally beaten because of his father’s beliefs. But Father Naddaf appears undeterred. “We have broken through the fear,” he says. “We are speaking the truth.” And he both talks the talk and walks the walk: Judaan was drafted into the IDF this past December, choosing to serve in an elite combat unit.

It’s easy to be cynical about Israel’s acceptance of Aramaic identity. The disparaging version, sometimes offered in the international press, goes something like this: In order to guarantee their future hegemony, Jewish Israelis are pursuing a strategy of divide-and-conquer toward the state’s Arab minority. Having succeeded in co-opting the Druze and Circassians, the Israeli government has recognized Aramean identity in order to divide Christian Arabs from Muslim Israelis.

This conspiracy theory can only sustain itself, however, by ignoring the context of the current Middle East. As The American Spectator reported in 2012, “There has been a flowering of non-Arab identity among the region’s Christians.” And one thing these various awakenings have in common is an emphasis on reviving the Aramaic language. Interestingly, inspiration for that revival comes—to a certain degree—from Israel and Zionism. According to David Dag, an Aramean activist living in Sweden, “If Israel could be revived, why not Aram?” Shadi Chaloul says, “We were inspired by the reviver of the Hebrew language, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda.”

But the assertion of non-Arab identities is not limited to Aramean Christians. If one steps back and looks at the “Arab world” as a whole, one can see minorities from North Africa to Iraq emancipating themselves from what they believe to be an imposed Arab identity.

Consider the Berbers, a people indigenous to North Africa whose presence long predates the Muslim conquest. After 14 centuries of Arab hegemony, denial of the Berbers’ cultural and linguistic rights is still the norm. For example, while 10 percent of the Libyan population is Berber, under the Qaddafi regime, it was illegal to give children non-Arabic names. Needless to say, things haven’t gotten much better during the chaos that followed Qaddafi’s fall from power.

In Algeria, 25 percent of the population is Berber, but Arabic remains the state’s only official language. Oppressed by the country’s Arab majority, Algerian Berbers openly identify with the Jewish people and express their admiration for Israel.

It is illegal to give children non-Arabic names in Morocco as well, even though the population is 10 percent Berber. Nevertheless, a Berber-Jewish friendship association was established in 2008, and the association’s head, Ahmed Adghirni, openly defended the group in a televised debate with an Algerian pan-Arabist.

“Arab identity” is something particular to Arabs, and does not concern the Amazigh [Berbers] or North Africans of other identities. … For the Jews too, Arab identity is of no concern. … If only the Arabs had believed in friendship with the Jews all these years, we would not be seeing rivers of blood flowing among the Arabs themselves, or between the Arabs and the Jews. … I find it objectionable that anyone … could have an aversion to the word “friendship.”

Moving east, consider the case of the Egyptian Copts. They are direct descendants of the civilization that built the pyramids, and practitioners of one of the world’s most ancient forms of Christianity. Their language is all that remains of the ancient Egyptian tongue. Despite the fact that Copts constitute 10 percent of Egypt’s population, Egypt calls itself the “Arab Republic of Egypt,” and during the heyday of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arabism in the 1950s and ‘60s, the brief union between Egypt and Syria was named “The United Arab Republic.”

Today, however, Copts such as the poet Fatima Naoot like to remind Egyptians that her people lived in Egypt long before Arabs left the Arabian Peninsula, and that Copts were forced to adopt the Arabic language. When asked during a 2013 television interview if she wanted “the word ‘Arab’ … removed from the … ‘Arab Republic of Egypt,’” Naoot replied, “My son Mazen, throughout his school years, would write ‘the Egyptian Republic.’ He told me that he would flunk geography because of it, and I said to him, ‘You might flunk geography, but you will succeed in history.’”

To the south of Egypt, South Sudan gained independence from the Arab-Islamic state of Sudan in 2011. Most South Sudanese are a mix of non-Arab ethnic groups who practice Christianity or some form of traditional African religion. The leaders of the new state formalized their emancipation from Sudan by making the country’s official language English instead of Arabic.

Perhaps the best-known case of a non-Arab Middle Eastern minority that continues to resist political and cultural Arabization is the Kurds. Seventh-century Arabic sources refer to “Kurds,” meaning that they were present in the Middle East before the Arabs arrived. Yet the modern Kurdish aspiration for political independence has been consistently frustrated. The low point for Kurds living among Arabs came in 1988, when Saddam Hussein ordered a large-scale chemical weapons attack on Iraq’s Kurdish population. This is widely considered to have been an act of genocide, but the Kurds didn’t receive any assistance at the time, only after-the-fact sympathy and subsequent help building a Kurdish autonomous zone in Northern Iraq. This nascent Kurdistan is now under brutal attack from radical Arab Islamists.

This brief survey of minorities suffering from Arab political domination makes the idea that the area stretching from North Africa to Iraq constitutes the “Arab world” seem slightly absurd. The Middle East consists of a plurality of identities—Arab, Berber, Coptic, Jewish, Aramean, Alawite, Druze, Kurdish, Yazidi, etc.—and one of the main obstacles to the emergence of a pluralistic and democratic order in the region is the destructive concept of a purely “Arab Middle East.”

Israel deserves considerable credit for being the only Middle Eastern state that cultivates pluralism within its borders. But even though Israel is committed to protecting the individual and collective rights of its minorities, Aramean Christians still face a number of serious problems regarding the future of their community; and it’s not clear if Israel’s political establishment is fully prepared to help them.

Consider the question of education. Aramean Christians would like to establish a separate educational directorate within Israel’s Ministry of Education, parallel to directorates operated by the Druze and Circassians. Father Naddaf believes that it is essential for Israeli Christians to learn their history in order to continue the momentum generated by Israel’s recognition of their Aramean identity. At the moment, however, Israeli Christians must learn Arab-Islamic history.

The Israeli response to the Aramean request has been problematic. All the ministers from Netanyahu’s outgoing government have agreed to meet with Aramean Christian representatives except for one: Minister of Education Rabbi Shai Piron. What’s more, Aramean Christians claim that the director of the Education Ministry’s northern branch, Dr. Orna Simhon, has been singularly unhelpful. According to Amit Barak, a representative of the NGO The Face of Israel, who has accompanied Aramean Christians during their meetings with government officials, the Ministry of Education is simply afraid: They don’t want to upset the more volatile elements in Israeli-Arab society.

Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower

Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower

There is also the issue of the very real threats that have been made on Father Naddaf’s life. Police have set up cameras outside of his apartment building and monitor his safety around the clock. The problem is that while the police have identified a number of those guilty of incitement against Father Naddaf and filed charges, the State Attorney’s Office hasn’t followed through on any of these cases. Barak also attributes this unresponsiveness to fear of rocking the boat. During Father Naddaf’s speech at the Upper Nazareth event, however, he turned to Prime Minister Netanyahu, mentioned the threats that have been made on his life, and complained about the lack of response. Netanyahu, who by all accounts is a friend of the Aramean Christian community and genuinely interested in advancing their interests, nodded rapidly and repeatedly. Only time will tell if those inciting against Father Naddaf will see their day in court.

But it’s not only the State Attorney’s Office that has failed to come to the aid of Father Naddaf. Self-proclaimed defenders of minority rights on Israel’s Liberal-Left—such as the Meretz party—are opposed to distinguishing Israeli Christians from Israeli-Arabs. Shadi Chaloul considers Meretz’s position to be hypocritical and cowardly: Hypocritical for not supporting the Aramean cause, and cowardly because they are afraid of angering Israeli-Arabs. Father Naddaf has also tangled with Meretz. During one stormy Knesset session, he accused the party of, in effect, encouraging violence against him.

How are we to understand this strange alignment of political forces? Apparently, the fundamental issue is whether Israel should strive to appease the Arabs both inside and outside its borders, or stand up to the Arab political imperialism that has defined the Middle East for far too long. It is true that the pan-Arab aspiration to establish a single Arab state from Morocco to Iraq has collapsed; but the belief that the Middle East is somehow essentially Arab, and that non-Arab minorities should refrain from asserting their identities, remains very much alive.

Opponents of recognizing a separate Aramean identity claim that it constitutes an attack on Israel’s Arab minority. But the real problem seems to be that granting official recognition to Aramean Christians implicitly proclaims a very old and dangerously subversive truth: The Arabs are not native to most of the Middle East. Their origins lie in the Arabian Peninsula, in what is now Saudi Arabia. And when their armies spread out across the region, there were already people living there, many different peoples. And however many times those peoples have been persecuted, exiled, or sometimes—one regrets to say—slaughtered, they are still there. This is the same truth that was implicitly proclaimed, whether Israeli Jews are conscious of it or not, when sovereignty was returned to the Jewish inhabitants of the Land of Israel.

That is not to say that the region’s Arabs, like Israel’s Arabs, are not an indelible part of the Middle Eastern mosaic of identities. But this does not give them the right to dominate those with other, equally legitimate identities.

Israel’s recognition of its Aramean minority is thus not an attack on anyone. It is a long-delayed recognition of the right of all the Middle East’s minorities to define their own identities on their own terms.

Banner Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower