In Israel’s battle to form a coalition government, the spotlight turns to ethnic Aramean Christians long overlooked by Jewish politicians
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The prospect of a record close election last month sent Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu campaigning for out-of-the-way votes, including in northern Galilee among the country’s often neglected indigenous Christians.
Netanyahu—who has spent 15 of his 71 years serving as prime minister (1996-1999 and 2009 to the present)—is in the political fight of his life. The Likud Party he leads increasingly is dependent on sprawling coalitions to govern. The latest fracture in the coalition forced voters to the polls yet again on March 23, the fourth national election in two years.
While his place at the top of the party is secure, support for Netanyahu nationwide is eroding. That’s despite an unprecedented period of security and prosperity for Israeli citizens and a coronavirus vaccine program that’s second to none.
Likud by far secured the most votes, winning 30 seats in Israel’s Knesset to 17 for second-place center-left party Yesh Atid. But it takes 61 seats to govern. The scramble to form a coalition government out of the country’s eclectic slate of 13 parties—which range from ultra-Orthodox to Arab Islamist and from secular hard left to nationalist right—began long before the polls had closed.
For Netanyahu, who has dominated the center-right secular Likud Party since the 1990s, this contest is happening against the backdrop of a courtroom drama. He faces indictments in three cases involving bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. The pandemic delayed the proceedings until this month. Supporters dismiss the charges as politically motivated and have galvanized Likud support around Netanyahu, who pleaded not guilty in February. But a prime minister has never faced criminal charges while in office, and daily coverage contributes to his declining popularity.
No number of votes is too small in so close an election. That reality and Netanyahu’s legal troubles drove him to northern Galilee last month, where Jesus carried out most of His ministry, and where Christian residents date their lineage to the calling of the first disciples. Christians make up about 2 percent of the Israeli population, or 177,000 people, with 70 percent living in the north. They play an important role in a governing coalition Netanyahu and others find up for grabs. For these Israelis—overlooked or overrun for centuries—waiting out a political crisis isn’t new.
Shadi Khalloul knows how to wait. The reserve captain in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) for more than a decade has coaxed Israel to recognize its Aramean Christians as a distinct ethnic-religious group—separate from the country’s main non-Jewish group, Israeli Arabs, a term broadly defining the country’s Muslims.
Khalloul invited the main party leaders to visit northern Galilee, seeking their support (in exchange for his) to improve education and security, among other needs. Netanyahu, said Khalloul, was the first actually to come: “He is the only one who sees the importance of our vote. He did not neglect us.”
For weeks Khalloul messaged with Netanyahu’s son Yair, who took an interest in the Aramean story and had visited the area. But it was the record close election that forced the incumbent Likud leader to campaign among non-Jewish voters, and that finally brought him to Galilee. He sought out Khalloul, a Christian Syriac Maronite, one of the ancient Catholic-affiliated churches, as a representative for all the Christians there.
Netanyahu made the northern swing a week before the election, first visiting Tuba, an Arab Bedouin village overlooking the Jordan River north of the Sea of Galilee. Then he headed west to Jish, also known in Hebrew as Gush Halav, the mixed Christian-Muslim village where Khalloul lives with his family. The Arabs of Tuba, like the Christians in Galilee, have long supported the Jewish state. Yet both saw their historic villages destroyed by IDF soldiers in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War (or War of Independence).
At a meeting with about 140 Christians in Jish, Netanyahu learned from Khalloul about one of those villages, Bar’am, a town with a history cluttered centuries before Israel’s modern-day founding. The ruins of its synagogue boast columns and cut stone from the Roman era, and the Old Testament prophet Joel reportedly is buried there. But Jews departed with Arab conquest.
An Ottoman-era tax registry from the 1500s names 114 households and 22 bachelors, all Muslims whose taxes were paid in wheat, barley, goats, and beehives. But the surrounding region was rich in Christian villages and wealthy olive merchants, though many slowly migrated to larger cities. From a high of about 2,000 recorded residents at the turn of the century, Bar’am, according to the first state of Israel census in 1948, was a town of 1,050 Christians, all Maronites but one Greek Melkite family.
Such a past, coupled with religious sites and artifact finds, gave the area historic value to Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike. But it was its strategic value—atop fertile highlands just meters from the border with Lebanon—that made it vital for Israel’s forces fighting the Arab Legions in 1948. The IDF occupied Bar’am and later destroyed it.
Around the same time an estimated 700,000 residents of what was until then known as Palestine who were forced to flee and relocate or who fled from fear during the war. Most were Arab Muslims but many were Christians. The case of Bar’am was unique, Khalloul points out, because its residents already were Israeli citizens, and not hostile towards the new state. “My grandfather was told to leave for two weeks and come back,” said Khalloul, “but he was never allowed to return.”
Today Bar’am is a desolate relic of a town marked by its stone church and ancient synagogue. Only the foundation walls of most buildings remain, surrounded by overgrown fields, with remnants of orchards and olive groves.
Abandoned military watchtowers sit in sight of a rigid security fence at the Israeli-Lebanon border. Climbing a watchtower, as I did with Khalloul in 2018 at sunset, the dots of lighted Maronite towns in Lebanon are visible across the hills—territory now controlled by Hezbollah.
Khalloul, 45, was born long after the Arab-Israeli War in Jish, where his family relocated. He attended Arab schools in Haifa, with Arabic the primary language, not the Aramaic spoken by his grandfather and generations of Middle Eastern Christians. “Our history was gradually being swallowed by Arab and Jewish history, and yet we were ethnically and religiously tied not only to Maronites, but to Christian people all over the Middle East. We are the earliest believers of our faith, and we are losing it.”
In Haifa Khalloul and his brother persuaded a priest to teach them advanced Aramaic. Khalloul went to school in the United States and served in the IDF as a paratrooper before returning to Jish. In 2007 he founded the Israeli Christian Aramaic Association (ICAA), a nongovernmental organization to restore and strengthen the Christian minority in Israel while reviving traditional belief and practice.
The group focuses on raising up new local Christian leaders, hosting youth camps and summer programs. The long tables on Khalloul’s patio fill with student guests for dinner most summer nights. In a region where Christian populations are widely in decline, the Christian population in Jish is growing through the work of ICAA, largely while avoiding the politics of grievance that characterize many Palestinian leaders.
The ICAA philosophy encourages loyalty as citizens of the state of Israel along with service, including mandatory military service. Ultra-Orthodox Jews and Israeli Arabs traditionally have been exempt, and many Christians avoided conscription by identifying as Israeli Arabs. ICAA encourages Christians not to hide their identity, supports a training program to help Christians get along with Jews during their mandatory military service, but also encourages young Christians to defend their full rights as citizens.
“We live in a sensitive region surrounded by those who want us to fail,” said Khalloul. “We have to work harder and pursue positive engagement.”
ICAA’s political clout has grown as it has lobbied for government recognition: winning in 2014 recognition for Aramean Christians as a separate minority group, and for Aramaic as one of Israel’s official languages.
A 2019 Supreme Court ruling further boosted education options for Aramean Christians, allowing them to send their children to either Jewish or Arab schools and requiring municipalities to provide transportation to accommodate them. The ruling cited the Christians’ “right to preserve and nurture their identity as members of a unique minority group.”
Those efforts have sparked a revival of Aramaic instruction not only in Galilee but also in the West Bank (where most Christians do not hold Israeli citizenship). The Ministry of Education now supports an Aramaic course in Jish for first through eighth graders, and a similar program is growing in Beit Jala near Bethlehem. ICAA has helped to create curriculum supporting Aramaic instruction.
The March visit by Netanyahu, in effect, endorsed the Christian community’s recent gains. His arrival in Jish marked a “sea change” in Jewish-Christian relations, said Robert Nicholson, president of the New York–based Philos Project, where Khalloul has served as an advocacy fellow. “It sent a signal to the Israeli public that non-Jewish communities are a vital part of the national fabric and that patriotic Israeli minorities, whether Aramean or Arab or otherwise, deserve to be recognized.”
It also went a long way to securing votes for the Likud party, as Netanyahu toured the town and its church and met with Christian families. Khalloul has twice run for seats in the Knesset himself, in 2015 and 2019, but under Yisrael Beiteinu, or Israel Our Home, the right-wing Zionist party that split from Likud and is led by Avigdor Lieberman.
After the visit Khalloul didn’t hesitate to say he would switch support to the Likud party. Such a move could be significant: Lieberman, who in the past has been part of a coalition government with Netanyahu, has ruled it out over the corruption charges against him. So losing Christian votes to Netanyahu may in the end weaken the opposition’s chances.
Khalloul also petitioned Netanyahu: to establish in the education ministry a Christian section separate from the Arab section; to take action against organized crime proliferating in the Galilee region, including in Nazareth; and to rebuild Bar’am, where Khalloul hopes to establish an Aramean study and research center.
Former Prime Minister Menachem Begin promised to rebuild Bar’am in 1977, Khalloul reminded Netanyahu. “You have given me a new mission that I need to do,” Netanyahu replied.
Whether that’s campaign-speak won’t be clear unless Netanyahu prevails, yet with dismal voter turnout on March 23 (67 percent), any clear path to victory evaporated.
Post-election the Likud leader fought to hold onto support from Orthodox parties on the right, while at the same time doing the seemingly impossible: Besides courting the Christian vote, Netanyahu appeared to win over the Islamist United Arab List (known as Ra’am).
No Arab party has ever been part of an Israeli government, much less a right-leaning one in a coalition of Jews, Arabs, and Christians. But the two Arab parties, long kept to the fringes of Israeli politics, looked poised to be kingmakers heading into the April 5 certification. In order to win, the country’s leading Jewish politicians can’t ignore the demands of Arab voters. Khalloul is working to make sure they can’t ignore Galilee’s Christians either.
Netanyahu’s opposition, calling itself the “change bloc” and led by the center-left, second-place Yesh Atid, has struggled for a leader equal to Netanyahu. On April 5, President Reuven Rivlin, according to Israel’s parliamentary process, gave Netanyahu the mandate to form a coalition. His party received the most nods in the Knesset but by a slim margin. Many, like Khalloul, believe Israel will head to a fifth election, sometime in August or September.
In the Middle East, internal instability carries risks—particularly as Israel seeks to normalize relations with key Arab countries and ward off Iran’s aggression. Netanyahu has spearheaded that mission, working with the United States.
“I’m worried,” said Khalloul. “Israel must have a stable government.”
—WORLD has corrected this story to include details about Bar’am, whose residents were documented Israeli citizens when they were ordered to leave in 1948, and to reflect that Netanyahu’s son Yair, not Netanyahu himself, visited there.
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