Hardly anyone in Israel can speak 4,000-year-old Aramaic. Now, the Israeli decision to recognise “Aramean” as a distinct nationality in the country’s population register is fuelling the ire of Israeli Arab leaders, who accuse the government of inventing a category of peoplehood to “divide and rule” the Arab minority.
The Interior Minister, Gideon Saar, signed an order earlier this week that will enable those who identify themselves as Christian descendants of the ancient Aramean people – who originated in what is now modern Syria – to register as Arameans rather than as Arabs, as has been the practice. Media reports, which could not be confirmed, estimated that 200 families in Israel would be affected.
Judging from the pronouncements of Shadi Halul, chairman of the Aramean Christian Society in Israel, relations between Arabs and Arameans have not always been positive.
He highlighted the 8th-century Arab-Islamic conquest in the region as a negative turning point for Arameans. “Arabic language was imposed on us but that doesn’t mean we became Arabs,” Mr Halul told The Independent. “We are not the same nation. The important thing is that now we will not have imposed on us an identity that isn’t related to us, Israel has done justice to the Aramean people.”
Mr Halul said he had been trying for seven years to get the ministry to endorse the nationality. For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, making a new nation – at least bureaucratically – dovetails with his government’s recent efforts to treat Christians as separate from Muslims, for example by encouraging them to do military service. Mr Halul is a member of a committee that promotes military service for Christians.
Haaretz, a news website, reported that Mr Saar’s decision was based on three professional opinions that concluded that Aramean met conditions including a historical heritage, religion, culture and common language.
Mohammad Barakeh, an Arab member of the Knesset, ridiculed those identifying themselves as Aramean as being “a most negligible minority”. He said: “I don’t know if there are five or 10 of them.”
He added: “Instead of dealing with the distress and discrimination of all the Arab public, they try to divide us. They are playing with history. Palestinian Christians are Arab-Palestinians in every sense. The Aramean people established their kingdom in Syria in the 5th to 7th century BC. This attempt to go so far back in history just to divide us is delusional. The divide-and-rule game will not help anyone.”
But Yariv Levin, a legislator from Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party who lobbied for the change, told Israeli journalists: “When I allow them to register separately I am not coercing them into doing anything, but rather am giving them the option to be who they want to be.”
According to Yitzhak Reiter, a Hebrew University scholar, Aramean identity is used by a small group of Christians to make themselves distinct from Arabs so that they will be treated as Israelis. “There is a political purpose: to make them closer to Israeli Jewish society. That’s why they are adopting an ancient linguistic and cultural identity.”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies