In first, Israeli Christian child registers as Aramean

Yaakov Halul, 2, listed under newly recognized nationality on legal documents; transportation minister hails decision

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Shadi Halul, head of the Aramaic Maronite Heritage Center, in Gush Halav in northern Israel, on August 9, 2013. Halul is the father of Yaakov, 2, who was officially recognized as the first Aramean by the Interior Ministry (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)
Shadi Halul, head of the Aramaic Maronite Heritage Center, in Gush Halav in northern Israel, on August 9, 2013. Halul is the father of Yaakov, 2, who was officially recognized as the first Aramean by the Interior Ministry (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

A first Israeli-Christian child registered as an Aramean on Monday, a month after the Interior Ministry announced it would recognize the national identity on legal documents.

Yaakov Halul, 2, from Gush Halav in the Galilee, also known as Jish, was formally defined as an Aramean on his Israeli identification papers in a move hailed by Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz.

“Against the background of persecution and destruction of non-Muslim minorities in the region, including the ancient Aramaic people, the decision is infused with special, important significance, and highlights the unique character of the State of Israel,” Katz wrote in a Facebook post Tuesday.

Outgoing Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar was set to officially announce Israel’s recognition of the Aramean minority at an event Tuesday.

Several Arab Israeli MKs have argued that the new classification, which allows Israeli Christians to revoke their “Arab” association, forges a cultural divide between regional Christians and Muslims, but the father of Israel’s first official Aramean disagreed.

“There is no divide and conquer [rule] or anything here,” Cpt. Shadi Halul, who heads the Christian IDF Officers Forum, told Channel 10. “Israel has done justice with those seeking their personal identity, and the people opposing it are racist and are denying the existence of national minorities in the region.”

Halul added that the Arameans preceded the Arabs in the region, namely in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. “We’ve preserved our unique language, and we still pray in it in church. We have a strip of land, we have customs, weddings, everything operates differently, that you are not familiar with — not like in the Arab and Muslim communities.”

In September, the Interior Ministry ruled Israeli Christians would be able to define themselves on legal documents as Aramean.

The move was the culmination of a years-long process by some Israeli Christians to carve out an identity distinct from Muslim Arabs in Israel. In February, a bill drawing a legal distinction between Israel’s Muslim and Christian Arabs was approved by the Knesset, recognizing Christian Arabs as a separate minority in Israel for the first time.

The Interior Ministry contended that in order to be recognized as Aramean, one should be conversant in the Aramaic language, and come from the Maronite, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Syriac Catholic or Orthodox Aramaic factions, the i24 news outlet reported.

The Christian Aramaic Association said Israel will “greatly benefit” from the decision, adding that the move righted “a long-standing wrong,” according to i24.

Aramaic, a Semitic language, was for centuries spoken by an array of communities and ethnic groups across the Levant, including Jews and early Christians. Parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Biblical Book of Daniel, and a majority of both the Babylonian and the Jerusalem Talmud are written in different dialects of Aramaic.

Many scholars believe Jesus himself spoke primarily in Aramaic, and the language is still prominent in the liturgies and prayer services of several Eastern Christian communities, especially in the Middle East.

Israel’s Christian Arab citizens account for roughly 10 percent of Israel’s 1.5 million Arab citizens. The Christians, a minority within a minority, have excelled scholastically and professionally in Israel while steadfastly maintaining their Arab nationalism and Palestinian identity. However, IDF enlistment among the Christian population has seen a sharp increase in recent years, despite the fact that military service remains voluntary for the community.

Lazar Berman and Adiv Sterman contributed to this report.

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