A Missing Link
Israel is a land of great diversity: with people of different racial, ethnic, religious, cultural and political backgrounds trying to coexist within a small area. Some groups, albeit tiny, are able to lay unmistakable claim to the land from ancient times. Coexisting with the Jewish people since the time of the patriarchs are the Arameans, descendants of Aram, from the Biblical line of Shem in Genesis. In fact, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Rebecca, and Laban were all directly descended from Aram.
The Arameans grew to become a large group, living throughout Israel and Syro-Phonecia (what is now Syria and Lebanon). They were among the first to develop the proto-Hebrew language and script, which is incredibly similar in style and form to the modern Hebrew block script – completely different from Arabic and its precursors. As the tribes of Israel were led into captivity in Babylonia in the late 500s BCE, Aramaic became the lingua franca of Assyria and Persia. After the Jewish exile, and well into the first century CE, Aramaic was the common language in Israel. Aramaic is found in all three parts of the Tanach (the Hebrew Bible consisting of the Torah, the Writings and the Prophets), including large sections of the books of Daniel and Ezra. A few of the traditional Jewish prayers are recited in Aramaic to this day, most notably, the Kaddish, which extols the glory and greatness of G-d. The Talmud and several translations of the Hebrew Bible were written in this ancient language, as Hebrew was reserved, even then, as the Holy Language, not the common, everyday tongue spoken in the home and marketplace.
From the latter centuries BCE to the present day, the Jews and the Arameans have lived side by side peacefully for the most part. During the time of the Roman occupation, at the time of Jesus of the Galilee region, many of the followers of this young, Jewish rabbi were Arameans as well as Jews. In the Gospels, Jesus is seen traveling up to Tyre and Sidon (in Lebanon) to visit the Jewish communities there. It is on one of these journeys that he encounters the Syro-Phoenician woman and cures her daughter. Ultimately, a Jewish and Aramean Messianic movement in the early first century CE, Christianity was born amid great turbulence and persecution from the Jewish non-believers in Jesus as Messiah and from the Romans.
Today, the Aramean peoples survive as a missing link, direct descendants of these first Christians, complete with their own Tanach, Gospels, and liturgy still chanted in the ancient Aramaic tongue. They stem directly from the original church in Antioch in Syria, founded by the Jewish apostle, Peter. Following their spiritual leader, Saint Maroun (350-410 CE), contemporary and friend of St. John Chrysostom, Maroun was a deeply spiritual hermit who founded the first monastic system in the Middle East. His followers became known as the Maronites. The Maronites fall under the Eastern Catholic Rite of the Antiochene tradition. Faithful to the Holy See of Peter in Rome, they are incorporated into the Roman Catholic Church. Still, to this day, their Mass, their sacred liturgy, has its roots deep in the Jewish liturgy of the Holy Temple periods. Unlike the Byzantine, Greek, Coptic, Armenian or Roman Catholic rites, their heritage has preserved songs to Zion; the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem; and a strong connection to the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and to David and Solomon, all whom they see as sharing a common lineage.
In the 8th century, as the Arab Muslims rose to power and began to dominate the Middle East, the Jews and the Aramean Christians fell under tremendous persecution with forced taxation, slavery and genocide for those who refused to convert to Islam. The Maronites, who had strongholds throughout what is today Syria and Lebanon, fought against the Muslims, even hiding and protecting their Jewish brethren. They were strongly entrenched in the mountains of Southern Lebanon and Northern Israel in the region of the Galilee. They erected Maronite monasteries and churches throughout the area. Today, even though the monasteries have been destroyed and replaced by mosques, these predominately Arab towns in the Galilee region still hold Syriac/Aramaen names: Deir al Assad (the Monastery of the Lion); Deir Hanna (the Monastery of St. John); Toran; Deir al Naim (the Pleasant Monastery); and Mount Meron.
The Maronites went on to form alliances with the Crusaders against the Islamic forces bent on a takeover of the Holy Land. Being Catholics, they eventually came under the protectorate of France in the 1630s. Educated under the Jesuit system, they became cultured in the ways of the West and rose to high positions in Lebanon both economically in business and politically. In the early 1900s the Middle East was carved up after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Countries which had never before existed were created and new border lines were set by the French, British and Russians under the 1916 Skyes-Picot Agreement. The French gained control of Lebanon; Britain got British Palestine, now Israel. The Maronite Patriarch remained strongly committed to the Jewish people and to the Zionist cause. In 1937, on the threshhold of World War II, the Patriarch extended the invitation for Jews to settle in Northern Lebanon to escape Nazi persecution. The Jews and French-Lebanese Maronites started a Resistance Movement against the Nazis who were also united with the Muslims. Several Maronite communities still existed in Northern Israel at the time. They always believed in defending each other as allies in a free land. It is important to note that these Syriac/Aramaic Maronite Christians living in Israel for centuries, do not consider themselves as Arabs but as Arameans. They are Aramaic Christians, descendants of one of the first churches outside the Holy Land. They are not Muslim, a group originating from the Saudi peninsula.
As if the modern situation in Israel is not complicated enough, events get even more mixed up during the War of 1948 between the newly recognized State of Israel and the surrounding Arab nations. The Galilee region was a hotbed: it was a mix of Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze and Circassians. By this time, Arabic was the spoken language of the local non-Jewish populations. For the Christians, Aramaic was reserved as the liturgical language only. Spread throughout Northern Israel at the time, were members of the Arab Liberation Army, Muslims from Syria and Lebanon who desired the overthrow of the Jews and to expel them from their ancestral homeland in the North. They waged a full fledged military operation, going against the UN Resolution of 1947. In turn, the IDF retaliated full force to put down the Arab Muslim insurgents. The peaceful little border town of Kfar Biram/ Bar Am was caught in the middle. Bar Am was inhabited only by Maronite Christians. In late October, 1948, the Israeli army took four rifles (the only weapons they had) from the Maronites of Kfar Biram (Bar Am), issuing them written receipts. There was no battle. On November 7, the Israeli Minister of the Interior issued the Maronite Christians Teudat Zehut (national identity cards) giving them full Israeli citizenship. They were then (mistakenly?) ordered to temporarily leave Biram, and to take refuge in the southern Lebanese mountains until the war was over. They returned in early 1949 to the neighboring town of Gush Halav (Jish) as Bar Am had been cordoned off as a military zone. Those who tried to enter the town would be arrested. In 1951, the Supreme Court of Israel ruled to give the Maronites back their home town. Then for some unknown reason, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion gave direct orders for Bar Am to be completely razed. It stands as rubble to this day except for the small, stone Maronite
Catholic Church which dates back to the 1600s. The Maronites moved from Bar Am to the neighboring village of Gush Halav (Jish). That is what makes this a particularly unique case. These displaced persons forced off their land were full Israeli citizens with support from many different government leaders. Even so, they harbor no bitterness; only look to the future in which they hope to rebuild an exclusively Aramaic Christian Maronite community on their old property.
Over the last two decades, the Middle East has been ground zero for the ethnic cleansing of minority populations by the Islamist extremists, most of whom are backed by Iran. Christian groups living in the Mid East have fallen from 40% to 4%. Those refusing to submit to Muslim law have faced population displacement, and cultural genocide – absorption, acculturation and destruction of significant landmarks, documents and artifacts. Lebanese law now forbids its citizens from entering Israel or having any contact with Israeli authorities. Ironically, this does not apply to the Druze, but only targets Christians, as Lebanon has become increasingly Islamicised. In the past few months, Lebanon has arrested several Maronite Christians they label “activists” for trying to revive the ancient Syriac/Aramaic language (which had been widely used in the region of Southern Lebanon/Northern Israel until the early 1900s) just as the Jews resurrected ancient Hebrew into a modern conversational tongue.
Enter Shadi Khalloul. Khalloul, a resident of Gush Halav (Jish), is a full citizen of Israel. He is also a modern-day Aramean, a missing link, a bridge. In 1993, he became the first Christian officer in the Israeli Defense Forces, serving as a lieutenant in the paratrooper division. After his military service, he studied International Business and Finance in the United States. While at university, he took a course in Bible as Literature, where he proved that the Syriac Maronite Church of Antioch was still in existence by displaying the several centuries old Aramaic copy of the Gospel According to St. Mark that he had brought with him. With a renewed vision, Khalloul then decided to return to Israel to be an advocate for the Israeli Aramaic Christians. Still a Captain in the Reserve Units, he has gained much respect from his fellow Israeli Jews. His goals are to foster awareness and understanding for his people and to revive the Aramaic language, culture, and identity of the Aramaic peoples while encouraging them to integrate fully into Israeli society.
Captain Khalloul hopes to achieve this in several ways. First, is lobbying to have their national classification changed from Arab to Israeli Aramaic Christian. He has seen firsthand, the dangers of anti-Zionist, anti-Semetic “Arabization” of many Israeli Christians, who usually live in mixed Muslim and Christian communities. In 2012, he started an Israeli Christian Officers’ Forum, to help meet the needs of his fellow Christians both as their advocate and in their integration into the predominately Jewish Israeli Defense Forces. In 2014, Khalloul along with Major Ihav Shlayn, founded the first fully integrated gap-year pre-military program (Mechina) for both Jews and Christians entering the army. This way the two groups would understand each other; the importance of the Zionist movement and Jerusalem as central to both faiths; their shared histories and commonalities emphasized. These will be the future leaders and communicators in years to come.
In the Israeli Arab schools, with the majority of the students from Muslim backgrounds, classes are taught in Arabic. The Koran is taught exclusively. Muslim prayer times and holy periods are observed. The Arab version of history is taught, which is often a distorted version of actual events. Captain Khalloul would like to see the inclusion of the Aramaic Christian youth into the Israeli public school system – fully Israeli and fully integrated with the Jewish youth, as full partners. Not as “other.” At present, he is trying to raise money for shuttle services which would transport the fifty Maronite children from Jish to a school in a neighboring Jewish community 20 km (12 miles) away. As most of these Maronite children have grown up bi-lingual in Hebrew and Arabic, Khalloul is an advocate of after school programs in their home communities which also teach Aramaic as a spoken language. Recently, the Israeli government gave him permission to have Syriac/Aramaic taught in the Gush Halav/Jish elementary school through Khalloul’s lobbying efforts. It is a first step.
There are over 130,000 Eastern Rite Christians living in Israel – 10,000 are Maronite Catholics. All too frequently, they have had to escape their mixed Muslim/Christian communities – which are becoming dominated in demographics by Muslims leading to the persecution of Christians – to live in pluralistic Israeli cities that are predominately Jewish, like Haifa and Karmi’el. They want to be seen as fully Israeli, but this is often difficult, as the Jewish population sees them only as Arabic. Shadi Khalloul hopes to change this misconception. He is building bridges both within the non-Maronite Christian community and other Christians groups in Israel as well as across the Jewish population. Sealed by martyrdom for the sake of freedom, democracy and faith, a monument to the tewnty-two fallen Christian soldiers of the IDF is in the works to be erected in Northern Israel. Besides being a memorial to these Christian soldiers, Khalloul hopes it will promote awareness of the shared sacrifices of his brethren to the State of Israel.
Captain Shadi Khalloul is a busy man. Still an active commander in the Reserve Units of the IDF, he is also involved in many other projects. He is the chairman and founder of the Israeli Christian Aramaic Association. From July 31-August 7, he is organizing and raising funds to offset the costs of a summer camp for over 120 Israeli Catholic youth who will come from all parts of the country. The theme for this camp is what it means to be an Aramean-Israeli Christian- fully aware of and preserving their ancient roots, language and liturgy in the modern world; fully educated; and fully serving their country as model citizens. As if this was not enough, Khalloul is a fellow in the international Philos Project, promoting awareness of the plight of the Christians in the Middle East and fostering positive relationships between Christians and Jews throughout the world. He has worked with the Nazarean Project, a non-profit organization under Mercury 1, which has helped rescue and resettle Christian families facing persecution, trafficking or death in the most war-torn Islamic nations. He was the first Christian Aramean to run as a candidate for Knesset, the parliament of Israel, under the Jewish Zionist party.
In a time where the future seems uncertain at best for many of the Middle Eastern Christians, Shadi Khalloul is arduously trying to change that. Tirelessly working to build friendships and cooperation between Christians and Jews, both in Israel and abroad, he lectures throughout Israel and the world. Shadi is a proud Israeli citizen deserving of much honor.
There is a biblical passage from Deuteronomy 26, recited by the Jewish people every year at the Passover Seder: My father was a wandering Aramean. Hauntingly ancient and yet timely; rich in depth and meaning, it is a reflection for us today. It should serve as a humble reminder of our inter-connectedness. Being surrounded on all sides by enemies who want to see the Jews and Christians of Israel annihilated once and for all. It is time that we learn to work together in unity as part of the
free and democratic society of modern Israel. Captain Shadi Khalloul is one of those special persons dedicated to that cause. To support his work, or for more information he can be followed on Twitter @shadikhalloul; on Facebook under Shadi Khalloul Risho; and also through aramaic-center.com.