A Case for the Aramean Nationality in Israel

By Hiyutho Dilan

In Israel, citizenship is different from nationality. Nationality is an ethnic designation and based on distinct variables such as religion, language, origin, and cultural and social values. Of the 9.2 million Israeli citizens, 74% are of Jewish nationality and 21% are of Arab nationality. According to the Israeli Central Bureau for Statistics, Druze nationals number around 148,000 and (Muslim-) Circassian nationals more than 4,000. In 2014, the state of Israel recognized a new nationality by officially introducing the ethnic designation Aramean in the Israeli National Population Registry. From September of that year, “Arab Christians” could register in their Israeli identification documents a defined Aramean nationality — in principle intended as an alternative to the Arab Christian designation.

According to the Israeli Central Bureau for Statistics, there were some 180,000 Christians living within the borders of the state of Israel at the end of 2019. Within the borders of the state of Israel, the majority of Christians live in the northern Israeli cities of Nazareth (~20,000), Haifa (~30,000), and Shefa-Amr (~12,000). The number of Christians in Israel is much higher than those living in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem combined. Emigration has taken a heavy toll on Christian presence in those areas where their number has decreased to an estimated 50,000.

Around 80% of Israel’s Christians have designated Arab nationality. But “many aren’t actually Arab; they are Aramaean.” In an article about Israel’s Christian population, the Jerusalem Post, explains that 90% of the Christians who are designated Arab nationality are Greek Catholics or Greek Orthodox.

“… the traditional Christian Aramaean language (Aramaic) and culture was replaced by the Arabic language and culture so thoroughly that many Christians who are actually of Aramaean descent no longer understand the true historical roots of Christians in Israel. Their Aramaean roots and culture has been nearly eradicated by hundreds of years of Arabic culture and language.”

The Aramean nationality in Israel has so far not attracted a substantial number of official adherents. In the absence of reliable numbers, the best unverified estimate is between 1,000–3,000. But there is potential. The Christians in Israel which are eligible for the Aramean nationality are the Israeli Syriacs who adhere to the Syriac Maronite Church, Syriac Orthodox Church, Syriac Catholic Church, Assyrian Church of the East, and the Rum Melkite. The denomination “Melkite” is derived from the Syriac word for “king”, malko/malka, and used to designate the people originally belonging to the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch but who joined the Byzantine or Greek Church after the dogmatic difference of the first centuries and because of imperial persecution.

The different Syriac Churches. Image: Wikipedia.

Syriacs: Arameans, Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Canaaneans (Phoenicians)

The Syriacs are the Arameans, Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Canaaneans (Phoenicians) and their common and characteristic features are their transition in the first centuries of Christianity into the Syriac people, the development of Christian Syriac heritage, and their use of the West and East Syriac language in daily life and liturgy (although the Syriac Melkites dropped the Syriac language already in the eighth century in favor of Arabic). Syriac Christianity and the Syriac language became the defining features for the people in their associated geography and formed a Christian Syriac identity. West and East Syriac are part of the Aramaic language family. In the western part of the Fertile Crescent, Syriacs use West Syriac (Suryoyo/Surayt) and in the eastern part East Syriac (Suryaya/Sureth).

With the growing divisions within the Church and the spread over different empires, Syriacs were subdivided over several ‘Glaubensnationen’ (Church-denominated nations or millets) in what are now the countries of Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, and Iraq. Under foreign rule, Syriacs lost much of their adherents, strength, influence, and linguistic depth. Their ancient homelands were conquered by Arabs, Turks, and Kurds. But Syriacs survived as a people, and they overcame genocides, Dhimmitude, repression, hardship, and systematic state policies which denied their ethnicity.

From the second half of the nineteenth century, times of “The Great Game”, budding nation-states, an Ottoman Empire in decline, and growing English and French imperialistic aspirations and colonial influence in the Middle East, Syriacs began reviving their ancient ethnic roots and their historical cultural richness. Archeological discoveries and Western missionary activities were major drivers for the revival of the Syriac people’s Aramean, Assyrian, Chaldean, and Canaanean (Phoenician) ancestry, history, and heritage.

Commotion and Mistrust

With the recognition of the Aramean nationality, the state of Israel in fact “created” a separate Christian ethnic component and introduced a distinction between Christians and Arab Muslims living within its borders.

This caused much commotion, mistrust, and anger with Arab Muslim nationals and Palestinians calling it a cunning attempt by the Israeli government, (inter-)national Zionist organizations, and the pro-Israel and evangelical Christian lobby in the U.S., to court Israeli Christian citizens. Courting the Syriacs, especially the Maronites, including former members of the South Lebanese Army, was aimed to conscript them for the Israeli army, to bite of a chunk of the Arab population and was a targeted division of the Arab component, they said. If the West and Russia love the Christian Syriac people so much, where is their lasting concern for the existential and dire situation they are in, they argued. Except from occasional and short public outcries, what did the West, with Israel as its forward post in the Middle East, and Russia really do for you Christians, they argued further.

Claims were put forward by Arab nationalists that no such historical Aramean nation, states, or people with distinct ethnic, linguistic, and religious characteristics ever existed. Such remarks are upsetting, as they try to severe a peoples’ roots and deny a peoples’ historical evolution: Arameans evolved into Syriacs and adopted and developed Syriac Christianity as opposed to the paganism of their Aramean ancestors. The same goes for the Chaldean, Assyrian, Canaanean (Phoenician) Syriacs. This does not make a Syriac less Aramean, Assyrian, Chaldean, or Canaanean (Phoenician).

Case for the Aramean Nationality

Considering the situation of the real and existential threat of Syriac presence in the Middle East, there is a solid case for assuming the Aramean nationality in Israel for the West and East Syriac Orthodox, Catholic, Maronite, and Melkite Christians. So far, Arab nationalism and Muslim dominance has been disastrous to the Syriac people in their homelands in the Middle East.

Assuming the Aramean nationality in Israel goes against attempts to fully unify the adherents of the different Syriac Church-denominational communities. However, considering there is no real chance that the Israeli government will officially accept the Syriac nationality, and considering the potential political, economic, and cultural advantages that can be gained, it is a most serious option to consider for all Syriacs in Israel. That is, if assuming the Aramean nationality opens doors to teaching in the Syriac language and own institutions of education in Israel, funding for cultural and social development, diplomatic channels now not open, and potential funding flows from Western lobby groups, then the advantages of assuming an Aramean nationality in Israel outweigh the disadvantages and any Arab reprisals.

It needs to be made clear to the Palestinian and Arab people that the assumption of the Aramean nationality does not constitute animosity to the Palestinian people or their cause. It is not an attempt by Syriacs to weaken the position of Arab Muslims in Israel. For Syriacs, it constitutes an existential question of future existence in the Middle East. Again, Arab nationalism and Muslim dominance has brought little, so far, to the Syriac people in their homelands in the Middle East.

The views expressed in this op-ed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of SyriacPress.