By Stephen Schulman
The pretty village of Jish is situated on a picturesque hillside in the Upper Galilee. However, unlike most others in the Arab sector, its skyline is not dominated by the ubiquitous minaret of the village mosque; instead, the cross stands proud, for Jish is home to 10,000 Maronite Christians who constitute 65% of the village’s population.
In the afternoon of the 24th December, I was one of a group that was graciously hosted at the family home of Shadi Khaloul, a leading member of the Maronite community. In his 40’s, affable, articulate and outspoken, Shadi filled us in on its history, its contemporary status and regaled us with his own story.
The Maronite Catholic Church, although having formal communion with Rome, maintains its own rites and canon law is unique in having its own liturgical language: Aramaic, spoken in Israel in the time of Jesus and shared with Judaism. The church was founded by Saint Maron, whose followers moved from Syria to Lebanon where many of them live today while the rest are dispersed around the globe.
Whilst being Arabic speaking, they see themselves as Aramean Maronite Christians with their own distinct identity and in 2014 they officially gained the status of a national minority. They are not required to do military service but most of them prefer to serve. Shadi is no exception, having done his stint as an officer in the paratroopers.
After completing his army service, Shadi, like so many other post-service young people decided to see the world and seek his fortune. He worked for some years in Las Vegas and with the passing of time found his true ‘pot of gold’. “I was studying at a comparative religion course where I discovered that the lecturer and students were completely ignorant of my religion and its vernacular, so I was asked to prepare a presentation. I then felt that more important to me than material wealth was to return home and devote myself to the cultivation and learning of Aramaic in my community.”
He has been true to his word and his tireless efforts have borne fruit. Aramaic studies in the Jish schools have been given an official status and the Ministry of Education approves and funds their study. While it is not compulsory, the great majority of students opt to learn it. Children who never understood the prayers now not only take delight in understanding the words but in also speaking the language!
Concerning the present situation, Shadi sees the Maronite community as an integral, contributing part of Israeli society where they have security, equality and freedom to freely worship and perpetuate their culture. “The Maronites have always felt an affinity with the Jews. After all, we have a common language. In 1948 in the War of Independence, we did not side with the Arabs.”
He does not mince his words.
“In 1860 in Lebanon under Turkish rule, we sought a measure of autonomy where we could live peacefully side by side with our neighbors. The result was a massacre of our community where approximately 20,000 were killed. Learn from our bitter experience. Here in the Middle East, the reality is that you must be the majority to ensure your safety!”
Leaving Shadi’s home, our group strolled through the village to savor the festive atmosphere. Many of the homes were gaily decorated and festooned with lights. Before leaving, we congregated next to the beautiful new church with a tall Christmas tree in its courtyard.
Our final stop was Mi’ilya, a small village north of Nahayaria whose approximately 4,000 residents are Melkhite Greek Catholics. A distinguishing feature is the King’s Castle: the ruins of a Crusader fortress upon which a church has been built. Walking up to the ruins to visit the church, we were met by the local inhabitants, many of whom were dressed in their red Santa Claus costumes. The atmosphere was festive and as Chanukkah and Christmas coincided, our greetings of Chag Sameach (Happy Holiday), as in Jish, were happily returned.
Leaving the fortress, our group visited the village community centre that was humming with activity. The village has a special pre-Christmas custom when families bring their Christmas presents to the centre for safe keeping. The Scouts then store them in separate rooms according to the neighborhoods before being fetched on Christmas Eve. We arrived as the presents, with the aid of many happy young volunteers, were being loaded on light vehicles on their way to their happy recipients!
On the way home towards Tel Aviv, there was much time for reflection. Here we were, on Christmas Eve, returning from a visit to two Christian villages whose residents, living within the Jewish state, enjoyed complete freedom of worship. I remembered the words of Shadi Khalloul and of a fellow Maronite Brigitte Gabriel of the sad plight of Christian communities in the Middle East. How distressing those basic rights that we take for granted in our country and about which much of the world remains silent, are not accorded in many of our neighboring states.
About the writer:
Stephen Schulman, is a graduate of the South African Jewish socialist Youth Movement Habonim, who immigrated to Israel in 1969 and retired in 2012 after over 40 years of English teaching. Stephen, who has a master’s degree in Education, was for many years a senior examiner for the English matriculation and co-authored two English textbooks for the upper grades in high school. Now happily retired, he spends his time between his family, his hobbies and reading to try to catch up on his ignorance.