“Then said Eliakim and Shebna and Joah unto Rab-shakeh: ‘Speak, I pray thee, unto thy servants in the Aramean language, for we understand it; and speak not to us in the Jews’ language, in the ears of the people that are on the wall.’” (Isaiah 36:11)
After a short but intense campaign, a small community of Christians in Israel can now identify themselves the way they choose: as Arameans. These Arabic-speaking Christians do not see themselves as Palestinians, or even as Arabs, but rather consider themselves a separate nationality derived from the ancient Aramaic-speaking communities in the area of Syria and Iraq.
The recognition came down Tuesday in a letter from Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar to Population Authority chairman Amnon Ben-Ami, instructing the latter to accept “Aramean” as a nationality for national identification certificates.
He explained his decision came on the recommendation of three experts from three different institutions, who said the Supreme Court had found “the Aramean nationality clearly exists, and has the conditions required to prove its existence, including historical heritage, religion, culture, origin and common language.”
To be considered Aramean, an individual must be able to prove that he comes from the Middle East, is conversant in the language and is a member of one of the following Christian denominations: Maronite, Orthodox Aramaic, Syriac Catholic, Greek Orthodox or Greek Catholic.
IDF Maj. (res.) Shadi Halul, a former paratrooper and current Aramean Christian community leader, expressed his support for the move.
“It is a historic decision and a historic change for the relations between Christians and Jews in the state of Israel,” he said. The policy “is proof that Israel protects its citizens and the identity of its minorities, unlike all the Arab nations around us.”
“We are not part of the Israeli-Arab conflict, but somehow we’ve been pulled into it,” Halul told Haaretz earlier this month. “We are not Arabs, and we are not Palestinians.”
Halul currently serves as spokesperson for the Israeli Christian Recruitment Forum, begun two years ago by Father Gabriel Nadaf of Nazareth. Nadaf is an outspoken proponent of greater cooperation between his community and the Jewish state, something which has drawn a lot of condemnation and even threats.
Nadaf called the move a “brave decision by the interior minister.
“All Christians from the 133,000 Christians who live in Israel and belong to one of the Eastern churches can now be listed as a Aramean,” he said.
Earlier this year, the Israeli Knesset also passed a law differentiating between Arab Muslims and Christians. According to bill sponsor MK Yariv Levin, “It’s the first time there is a separate representation for Christians. Soon we’ll expand on this and give [Christians] all the separate representation they deserve.”