Christians seeking Aramaic identity in Israel meet obstacles

As a way to adapt to Israeli nationalism and gain favors from the Jewish state, a group of Christian churches are stressing their Aramaic rather than Arab identity, Marta Wozniak-Bobinska reports in the journal Nations and Nationalism (online in June). The Aramean movement in northern Israel, which is also active in other countries, seeks to recover an Aramaic language and heritage among Middle Eastern Christians, most notably through the Israeli Christian Aramaic Association (ICAA). In 2014, Israel allowed several Maronite churches originating in Lebanon to identify as Aramean, allowing them to volunteer for conscription into the Israeli army. Aramaic Christians are following the model of the Druze, who were integrated as Israelis and effectively conscripted into the military. But so far, only a small number of Aramaic Christians have signed up for conscription. Leaders have also cited the cost and effort involved in claiming an Aramean identity as a factor discouraging Maronites from trying to do so. During the pandemic, Israeli authorities allowed these Christians to change their identity at no cost, but when it was learned that there might be 15,000 to 30,000 people eager to claim such a status, they reinstated the fee.

Group of Aramaic Christians with priest (source: Aviram Valdman / The Tower –

Officially, Maronite and other Orthodox leaders have not supported Christians’ move to an Aramaic identity. But some clergy and lay leaders and the ICAA have taken up the Aramaic cause and dispute the accusation from other Arab Christians that they are participating in Israel’s “divide and conquer” strategy in discarding their Arab identity. For example, the Aramaic leader Shadi Khalloul and his brother Amir said that such an identity change would increase security for their community and provide access to resources and political representation. Wozniak-Bobinska adds that “Aramean nationhood has sufficient historical legitimacy to attract a number of Israeli-born Christians who experience cognitive dissonance [in] officially belonging to the Palestinian nation. Besides, the Aramean revival is a broader, global phenomenon, and the ICAA has been recognized, supported and praised by the Aramean leadership in Europe.” But Arameans, Maronites, and Christians in general constitute too small a group to gain much political relevance in Israel, where officials have treated the development with neglect and ambivalence. “Many Israeli officials perceive local Christians as part of the wider ‘Arab problem,’” Wozniak-Bobinska writes, “with only a few politicians eager to include minorities in the boundaries of the dominant Jewish consensus, especially if these communities prove their ‘more acceptable’ non-Arab origin.”

(Nations and Nationalism,