Israel: Seven years of official recognition of Aramean Syriac identity

JISH (GUSH HALAV), Israel – Since 2014, Syriacs can ethnically register themselves in the Israeli National Population Registry as Arameans. Where Syriacs were before often seen as “Arab Christians,” they were now able to officially register a defined Aramean nationality in their Israeli identification documents.

One of the advocacy organizations that has strongly lobbied for this official recognition is the Israeli Christian Aramaic Association (ICAA). It has its stronghold in Upper Galilee in Syriac Maronite and Syriac Melkite villages. The ICAA is an organization that stands up for the rights of the Syriacs in Israel and works to strengthen the Christian Aramean-Syriac identity and Syriac language in Israel, the emancipation of the Aramean nationality away from Arab nationality, and the reconstruction of emptied Syriac Maronite villages in northern Israel. ICAA partners with the U.S.-based Christian pro-Israel Philos Project, among others.

In Israel, citizenship is different from the ethnic designation “nationality.” Nationality is based on distinct variables such as religion, language, origin, and cultural and social values. According to the Israeli Central Bureau for Statistics, some 74% of the 9.2 million Israeli citizens are Jewish nationals and 21% belongs to the Arab nationality. Druze nationals number around 148,000 and (Muslim-) Circassian nationals more than 4,000.

Since 2014, Syriacs can ethnically register themselves in the Israeli National Population Registry as Arameans in their Israeli identification documents. According to the Israeli Statistics Bureau there were some 177,000 Christians living within the borders of the state of Israel at the end of 2019. Around 80% of them is designated Arab nationality.

The official Aramean nationality in Israel has so far not attracted a substantial number of adherents. Because of the lack of reliable figures, a best unverified estimate is 1,000-3,000. The Christians in Israel who qualify for Aramean nationality are the Syriacs who adhere to the Syriac Maronite Church (~10,000), Syriac Orthodox Church (~5,000), Syriac Catholic Church (~3,000), Assyrian Church of the East (~1,000), and the Syriac Rum or Melkite Catholic Greek Church (~80,000) – the denomination “Melkite” is derived from the Syriac word for “king”, malko or malka.

Besides in Israel as Arameans, the Syriacs are only officially recognized in Iraq as Assyrians-Chaldeans. The Syriac language is only officially acknowledge in Iraq and in the Democratic Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria.