On a hot August day in the Galilee, a group of schoolchildren in the Arab Christian village of Jish counted diligently, from one to 10, after their instructor. But the words, though similar to Arabic and Hebrew, were neither.
”Chada, tarteyn, telat, arba, khamesh,” they recited, ”shet, shva, tamney, teysha, asar.”
At this unique summer camp, some 85 children were being immersed in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke and in which the Gemara — one of the Talmud’s two major books — was written. Once the Middle East’s lingua franca, Aramaic is an almost vanished language today. But the camp organizers and the families of these children hope to resurrect it. Moreover, they aim to carve out a new national identity based on that resurrection.
It’s a campaign that Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the father of Modern Hebrew, would readily understand and, perhaps, applaud. But in today’s Israel, it’s a campaign fraught with controversy.
Aram, the Maronite Christian group that organized the camp, is spending long hours huddling with a team of lawyers, preparing papers to submit to Israel’s Supreme Court later in October. They are seeking formal recognition of their nationality as “Aramaic,” rather than Arab, by the State of Israel.
Watch video of children at the Aramaic Center:
Other communities registered in Israel as national groups, such as Arabs, Druze and Jews, receive important legal status in Israel and, with this, certain kinds of communal recognition, such as their own respective education systems within the Ministry of Education. The leaders of Aram say they are not seeking anything like that for now. The recognition would be largely symbolic. But the group has greater long-term ambitions that include uniting Maronite Christian communities throughout the region as a cohesive ethnic group separate from the greater Arab societies with which they have long been intertwined. And recognition from the government of their national claim would undoubtedly greatly empower Aram, enabling it, among other things, to collect more donations from abroad.
Currently, the Interior Ministry registers Maronite Christians in Israel as “Arabs,” unlike in Lebanon, an Arab country, where they are recognized as ”Maronites,“ a separate religious and national group. Four years ago and once again earlier this year, the Interior Ministry denied requests from Aram asking to be recognized by the government as a distinct national group. Now Aram is bracing for a legal battle with the ministry in front of the high court.