This article was first published in Israel Today Magazine in December, 2019.
Most people are only familiar with the Assyrians as an ancient people who conquered the northern Kingdom of Israel before laying siege (ultimately unsuccessfully, thanks to Divine intervention) to Jerusalem.
Earlier this week, Assyrians were again gathering in Israel, but not as part of an invasion. They were here to participate in a conference hosted by the Committee for the Resurrection of the Aramaic Language.
Aramaic, and its various dialects, was for centuries the dominant language of the region, including in the Neo-Assyrian Empire that came into conflict with the other kingdoms of the biblical era.
There are today only about three million Assyrians in the world, and only about half of them still live in the Middle East, where their ancient language is hanging on by a thread. Except in Israel.
The Jewish state has in recent years facilitated something of a revival of the Aramaic language, which was likewise used as a lingua franca by the Jews. Most of the Talmud is written in a dialect of Aramaic, as are the biblical books of Daniel and Ezra.
But it’s not the Jews of Israel who are primarily leading this resurgence. Rather, it’s local Arabic-speaking Christians who are once again asserting their Aramean heritage. As they explain it, local Christians were here before the Arab Muslim invasion, and are therefore originally not Arabs, but instead descendants of the ancient Aramaic-speaking peoples of the region.
The State of Israel has officially recognized this movement, and several years ago passed legislation allowing those who so choose to be identified as Arameans on their national ID cards. The government estimates that there are well over 100,000 local Arabic-speakers who are eligible to be recognized as Arameans.
Some of those who have already reclaimed their Aramean identity joined with the visiting Assyrians and read from the Bible in their shared ancient tongue. One of them was Amir Khalloul, whose brother Shadi Khalloul has been a sometimes contributor to Israel Today, and who wrote of the Israeli government’s 2014 decision regarding his people:
“Finally, after 1,400 years of being occupied and controlled by different forces, the Jews come along and recognize us, the Aramean people. Here, at the hands of the Jews, we receive justice.”
In a subsequent interview on Israeli television, Khalloul, a retired Captain in the Israeli army, chatted enthusiastically with his Jewish interviewer of the rich, millennia-old ties between the two peoples.
As for the Assyrians, one of the participants in Sunday’s discussion, Juliana Taimoorazy, was cited by the Tazpit News Agency as saying to the Israeli participants: “It’s a blessing that you have this land, and I hope that soon we will make Aliya to Nineveh.”