Doing right by our Maronite minority

We often complain that we live in a tough neighborhood, surrounded by a sea of hostile peoples that will never accept us no matter how hard we try. It’s ironic, then, that we’ve continued to snub one of our only potential friends in the region — the Maronite Christians. For the past 64 years, Israel has never missed an opportunity to do wrong by its own Maronite minority, who unlike most of the populations of the Levant, profess no pan-Arab sentiment or religious extremism, and despite our mistreatment of them, continue to be loyal citizens and supporters of the Hebrew state.

Two years before the birth of Israel, in 1946, the head of the Maronite Church, Patriarch Antoine Arrida, (who had helped German Jews escape during the Holocaust) wrote that he “expressly and fully recognizes the historical link uniting the Jewish people to Palestine, the Jewish people’s aspirations in Palestine, and the Jewish people’s right to free immigration and independence in Palestine.”

As early as 1937, the same Patriarch Arrida gave a now forgotten speech in a Beirut Synagogue in which he unequivocally stated that, “The Jews are not only our ancestors, but our brothers. Our origin is the same, our language is almost common, our father is their father. We are proud to belong to the same race.”

Indeed, the Maronites, who until the Lebanese Civil War made up the majority of the population of Lebanon, have always likened themselves more to the ancient Arameans and Phoenicians of the Fertile Crescent than they have to Arabs, whom they view as more recent arrivals from the Arabian Peninsula. Moreover, although the Maronites’ ancestral tongue of Aramaic ceased being used as a primary spoken language in the 17th century, it has been retained as the language of liturgy and prayer, and the Levantine Arabic dialect that the Maronites speak today is marked by significant Aramaic influence. 

Recently however, inspired by Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the father of Modern Hebrew, and by Kfar Nisi, a Maronite Monk who launched Suryoyo Sat, the first Aramaic TV station, Shadi and Amir Khalloul, two brothers from Jish, the only Maronite majority village in Israel, have taken it upon themselves to revitalize their ancestral Aramaic into a modern, living language for everyday use by their people. With the approval of the Education Ministry, they’ve begun teaching the language at the village school, and have so far met with considerable success. And like Ben Yehuda’s son Ben-Zion, Shadi’s son Aram became the first native speaker of Aramaic among the Maronites in modern times.

It was through reading about Shadi and Amir that I first became interested in the Maronites. I presumed that such a unique ethnoreligious group might shed some light on the ancient genetic landscape of this region, and decided to write my thesis on the genetic ancestral origins of the Maronites.

This past weekend, I had the honor of visiting Jish, which is called Gush Halav in Hebrew, to collect DNA samples for my project, and was met by overwhelming hospitality and warmth. But as I learned more about Israel’s mistreatment of the Maronites, I was also overcome by a sense of great shame. My generous host Shadi Khalloul, a former paratrooper in the IDF, related to me that he and about half of Jish’s Maronites are descendants of refugees from the nearby abandoned village of Bir’am which lies a few kilometers away and straddles the Lebanese border. He explained that the Maronites of Bir’am were always sympathetic to the Zionist cause, and had even helped smuggle Jews into Israel from Lebanon during the mandate period. Despite their loyalty, the residents of Bir’am were forced from their homes following the War of Independence in 1948. However, unlike most of the Palestinian refugees, the former inhabitants of Bir’am, who at that time were card carrying Israel citizens who had never been hostile to the Jews, were promised by the IDF that they’d be able to come back to their homes after two weeks. They are still waiting to return.

The ruins of Bir'am today

Despite this shameful stain on our history, the Maronites, unlike other refugees of ’48, have remained patriotic Israeli citizens, many of whom have volunteered to serve in the IDF, police force, and civilian national service. The most famous example is that of Elinor Joseph, the first female Arabic speaking combat soldier, who was born in Jish and currently serves in the IDF’s Caracal battalion.

Over the years, many notable Israelis such as Eri Jabotinsky, Moshe Arens, and Menachem Begin have taken up the cause of righting the wrongs of the past and pressed for returning Bir’am to the Maronites. Even Pope John Paul II, a great friend of Israel and the Jews, has lobbied for them. Unfortunately, it was decided by the powers that be that the Maronites are to remain exiled in Jish as to not create a “precedent”. The descendants of the Maronite refugees have long since scaled down their request and today simply desire that the old church and ruins of Bir’am, which lie on only a small part of their ancestral lands, be turned into an Aramaic-Maronite village (Yishuv Kehilati) and heritage center. Even this humble request has gone unanswered.

Returning Bir’am to its original inhabitants, in addition to being the ethical thing to do, could also confer great benefit to Israel. The image of Israel as a democratic state which protects the rights of all of its citizens would be strengthened. Our relations with Maronites, who today make up about a third of Lebanon, and with Christians worldwide would be improved. It could even inspire Israel’s other minorities to cease their hostilities and help them realize that loyalty to the state will be rewarded.

As opposed to the other wrongs that Israel has committed against the Maronites over the years, such as abandoning our Maronite allies in Lebanon in 2000, or indiscriminately bombing otherwise apathetic Lebanese Maronite targets during the 2006 War against the Shiite Hezbollah (traditionally a Maronite enemy), the wrong perpetrated against the Maronites of Bir’am is easy to correct. Israel should finally do right by its Maronite minority and grant them access to their ancestral home.

About the Author
Eli Balshan is a New Jersey born Oleh and former IDF soldier who is currently studying medicine and population genetics at the Technion.