Shadi Khaloul
Shadi KhaloulCourtesy

Israel made a promise to the Aramaean Maronite residents of Kafr Biram in 1948. IDF officers and high ranking Israeli officials, such as Israeli President Haim Weizmann, told them that they would be able to return to their homes two weeks after vacating the north Galilee town so that the army could clear the region of Arab enemies.

Instead of returning to Biram, they were evacuated to Jish (Gush Halav). And there they remain to this day.

Not allowed to return to their homes, the Aramaean leaders took the case to the Supreme Court which decided in favor of the villagers. For some reason, Ben Gurion was not prepared to accept the court decision and, in 1953, he had the homes razed, leaving only the church standing. In the meantime, most of the village’s 12,800 dunams were divided among new Jewish settlements in the area. All they are asking for now is 1000 dunams of their land upon which to rebuild their village, the only Aramaean village in all of Israel.

Khaloul, 46, has taken it upon himself to do what he can to bring the Aramaean community home to Biram. This has taken him in a circuitous route. He left his job in high-tech marketing to focus full-time, as President of the Israeli Christian Aramaic Association (ICAA) in partnership with the Philos Project as a senior fellow, on promoting the integration of the Aramaeans into Israeli society. This includes encouraging IDF conscription, ensuring their rights and that they share in the burdens of citizenship, plus advancing the study of Aramaic as a spoken language. The Philos Project website writes that “Shadi has spearheaded the revival of Syriac Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke while on earth, and fostered a renaissance of Aramean national identity.”

Khaloul spoke with me on Zoom.

Question: Who are the Aramaeans?

Also known as Maronites, we are Christians, with various church affiliations. We are indigenous to a huge region – southeastern Turkey, northern Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and northern Israel. Our sacred books and prayers and your sacred books are written in the same language, Aramaic, and, since our peoples developed in parallel from ancient times, and have similarly suffered under Moslem rule, we have a natural affiliation with one another.

This is why, in 1946, the Maronite Church in Lebanon and the Jewish Agency in Palestine signed a secret treaty to support each other in their respective efforts – for a Christian country, Lebanon, and a Jewish country, Israel, within a larger Moslem environment.

Question: Did you grow up speaking Aramaic?

No. I grew up praying in Aramaic and speaking the local language, like Jews in the United States grow up praying in Hebrew and speaking English.

Question: What stories did you grow up on?

We lived in Biram, a closed community, an isolated island within a Muslim region: to our north, Shiites, and to the south, Sunnis.

When I would sit with my 90-year-old grandmother about their lives before the State of Israel was established, I would hear about the abuse they suffered, about being treated as dhimmis [second-class citizens] by the Arabs who occupied this land.

For example, I heard a story from an old lady, about 93 years old then, about how they killed her infant brother in front of her; they pushed his carriage, and he was killed when his head hit the ground. She also described going down to the spring to get water. The Muslims made them wait until everyone else had water before they were allowed to take any.

Every time that I sat with my grandfather, he cursed the Turks. One story was when Turks kidnapped my aunt’s husband and she asked where he was. They did not answer. They dragged her, pregnant, until, in the middle of the path, she had a miscarriage and serious injuries from this maltreatment. After this, she was unable to have children.

The Turks and the Arabs behaved similarly toward us throughout history. Throughout the ages, Muslims moved into Christian and Jewish towns and either Islamized them or made them leave until the towns became Muslim towns. From these stories, I understood on which side of history we Aramaeans had to be.

I also heard stories of the good relations we had with the Jews of Tzfat who would come to Biram for vacations in the summer. During the Arab riots against Jews in 1929, they blockaded Jewish neighborhoods in Tzfat; at night time, on mules, men from Biram snuck them food and water. In 1982, one of the residents of Biram described this in a letter to Prime Minister Begin.

There are also stories about Holocaust survivors who fled through Syria and Lebanon, entering Israel via Biram and Marjayoun.

We are closer to the Jews than any other people. Our two peoples are based on the same book. Nobody is closer to us than the Jews.

Question: In 2014, you succeeded in having the Aramaean people added to the list of nationalities in the citizen registry. What led you to take on that mission?

I would wake up every morning with the feeling that something is wrong. Why are they calling me something that has nothing to do with me? I couldn’t understand it: calling me an Arab Christian. I never could connect with that term. In fact, it was hurtful and insulting. This made me sad. To wake up every day and see this written on my Identity Card.

Question: How did you achieve that recognition?

There were some families in our community who tried to change it in the past. They even went to the Supreme Court and failed. So they lowered their heads and gave up.

I was not prepared to give up. How did we come to be called Arabs, the same as those who committed genocide against us in their waves of conquest and occupation? I wasn’t prepared to accept this.

My luck was that I had served in the IDF, and was taught that there is no such thing as “cannot.” If you want something, do it. Keep going until you succeed.

When I wondered why those before me had failed to convince the leadership to acknowledge us, I understood that it was a lack of awareness about our people on the part of the Israeli leadership.

So I asked myself, who I am doing this for? For myself, I answered. That was when I decided to learn how to speak Aramaic. Others will acknowledge your identity or not, I thought. Just let me learn Aramaic. I asked the priest to teach me and a small group of 11 others to speak the language. He taught us for six months.

Then I told him I want to teach the children and he announced in church that children can sign up to learn to speak Aramaic. Ninety-five children signed up. That was in the year 2009. We began teaching and saw that the community was behind this: the children were studying Aramaic every Friday. And their parents were paying for it.

But this was not enough. It was the first stage toward gaining recognition – the language. We needed to raise awareness in the media. Using my connections from the IDF, I found media personalities who reported about the initiative to revive Aramaic as a spoken language in Israel. This was followed by international media reporting on this as well. Suddenly it gained momentum and people came to see our children learning Aramaic.

With this increased awareness, I requested that Aramaic be taught in the schools. Then we needed to train teachers who would teach the language in the schools because I was only a volunteer. We needed something official under the Education Ministry that was not dependent upon me.

So we brought a teacher from Tur Abdin, a region in southeastern Turkey where Aramaic has been spoken continuously throughout the ages.

After this, our Aramaean identity was recognized by the state, and children born can now be registered as Aramaean.

Question: Why have you not been allowed to resettle in Biram?

I don’t know.

In 1954, the same Patriarch from Lebanon who had signed the secret agreement with Ben Gurion in 1946 sent his deputy, the Archbishop of Beirut Ignatius Mobarak, to Tel Aviv to meet with him. Ben Gurion ignored him, sending clerks instead. For us, that was a betrayal.

Despite that betrayal, we continued to be in good relations and to operate within the law with all the governments, requesting that they honor their promise to us. It was the left that screwed us over, not the right.

Menachem Begin promised he would correct the injustice that was done to ‘our Maronite brothers’ if he would win the elections. Then Defense Minister Arik Sharon manipulated the situation and prevented Begin from carrying it out.

Begin wrote to one of our leaders, saying that what he had intended to do could no longer be done due to the Lebanon War and that he would continue to try to correct the situation, adding the sentence [Khaloul says wryly]: “In the meantime, we sacrificed many of our people to save your people.”

Question: Are you not angry?

I want the good of the country. By hurting us they are hurting the country.

Question: How do you convince young people to go into the IDF if the country betrayed your people? You even set up a pre-IDF program for Jews and Aramaeans.

Even sons of the SLA [South Lebanese Army] fighters in Israel, also Maronites, continue to volunteer for the army even though many of their needs have been neglected. Why? We are not mercenaries. There is an ideology behind this. There is an understanding of the context that many Jews do not have. Pardon me for saying this.

You don’t understand that many of us see the Jewish minority -- for you are a minority in the region -- as allies, and volunteering for the IDF is natural. Helping the Jewish state is a natural thing to do to ensure our survival and that is, in the end, common to both of us.

Some are angry and refuse to cooperate with the state until the state returns us to Biram.

My approach is to continue with our plans – there is now recognition of the Aramaean People and, as a People, we need a settlement, housing, education specific to us. Just like the Arabs have their own schools, the Jews have their own schools, the Druze have their own schools, the Circassians. Each People has its own characteristics and its own unique needs.

I set up the pre-IDF program because I want to show, from my personal experience in the army, that this country gives us exactly what we need, and it depends on our attitude and approach to life here. I want them to stop listening to the “brainwashing” in the schools under the Arab sector education system and the Arab media. I want them to learn Hebrew, to become familiar with the Jews – the majority – and to integrate into Israeli society by means of IDF service and higher education.