Storefronts and billboards in Jish (“Gush Halav” in Hebrew) this week were decked with snowmen, holly wreaths and inflatable Santa Clauses, bringing a dose of Christmas cheer to this Upper Galilee village a few kilometers from the Lebanon border.

The pine trees that dot the town and the whiff of smoldering fireplaces completed the yuletide ambiance when The Jerusalem Post visited the village on Mount Merom, 13 km. north of Safed, last week.

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The town of around 3,000 is predominantly Maronite, with around 65 percent of the population adhering to the branch of Eastern Catholicism and living in harmony, residents say, with Muslim and Greek Catholic (Melkite) minorities.

Jish has the largest Maronite population of in Israel, where around 7,000 live mostly in Jish and the neighboring village of Ikrit, as well as in Nahariya, where former members of the South Lebanese Army and their families (estimated to number 2,000 to 2,500 people today) were relocated after the IDF withdrew from Lebanon in 2000.

Like Israel’s other small, non-Jewish communities, the Maronites of the Galilee are a population in flux, cut off from their brethren in neighboring countries. They continue their assimilation into Israeli society while trying to ensure that their customs carry on into the next generation. Those in Jish are also waging an ongoing battle with authorities to regain land near Kibbutz Bar’am, the one-time location of the Maronite village of Kafr Bir’am. Today, around half of the Maronite residents of Jish trace their heritage to Kafr Bir’am, residents say.

Father Bshara Suleiman sat in a reception hall room at the St. Maroun Church on Wednesday, the center of the Parish of St. Maroun, named after the 5th-century Syriac monk whose followers founded the Maronite Church after his death in 410 CE. Today the Maronite Church is subject to the authority of the Roman Catholic Church and its adherents number a little over 3 million, including more than 1 million in Lebanon, where they make up nearly a quarter of the population, and were a majority late into the second half of the 20th century.

“We began construction on this church in 1981 and finished in 1996. Before then we had just a small church of 100 [square] meters and now we have 1,000 meters here for the young people and all of the activities of the parish,” Suleiman said.

Suleiman said the project cost around $5 million, raised from members of the parish both in Israel and abroad. The community has its own bishop in Haifa, but up until 15 years ago it was under the bishop of Tyre in Lebanon.

When asked about the connections Israel’s Maronite community has with those in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East, he said, “With those in Syria we have no relations, in Jordan we can go there just like you, and in Lebanon we could go until 10 years ago, when they closed the ‘Good Fence’ on the border. We still have families there on the other side.”

It’s clear that the Maronites of Jish view themselves as a distinct ethno-religious group, apparently seeing themselves as neither Arab nor Palestinian, rather as Aramaic or Maronite citizens of Israel.

According to Jish native Dr. Elias A. Suleiman, a lecturer from Bar-Ilan University’s Department of Middle Eastern Studies and supervisor of Jish’s schools, the majority of Maronites “reject Arab identity in favor of a distinct Maronite one... They live as citizens and will continue to live here, and if the Palestinians establish their state, no Maronite from Israel will move to live there.”

Suleiman said the Maronites are loyal, law-abiding citizens of Israel who “did not deny the existence of the state and the fact that Israel exists. They also do not forget that they are a minority with problems that need solutions.”

He said Jish is regarded as “an old village,” and that many of the young people make their way to Haifa and other cities for university after high school. Keeping them in the village is in many ways a losing battle, he said. The village is largely middle class, thick with doctors and other professionals, an assertion that is easy to believe judging by the expansive houses and late model cars cruising the streets.

Suleiman spoke outside the parish’s former church, a small stone building that was rebuilt from the ground up after it and the rest of the town was leveled in the 1837 Safed earthquake. The building is still used for some weekly services, but the anchor of the community has long been the St. Maroun Church.

Inside the old church, an elderly resident, Maron Alam, chanted prayers in Aramaic, while standing next to a small Christmas tree. Words that sounded like Hebrew or Arabic echoed off the low arched ceiling.

“It always gets to me every time when I hear this. Because there are very few people today who can say it. A people without their heritage cannot exist,” local activist Shadi Khalloul of the Aramean Center said. For a moment his eyes appeared to water in the cold stone church.

Khalloul is a linguistic and cultural champion of sorts, heading up the teaching of Aramaic to the town’s youth and acting as as an advocate on behalf of Maronite land claims in the Upper Galilee before the Israeli authorities.

Khalloul, whose family hails from Kafr Bir’am, and generations before that from Bcharre in Lebanon’s Kadisha Valley, said teaching Aramaic is meant to strengthen the children’s connection to their heritage and their identity as Maronites. He has been teaching Aramaic to the children of Jish for three years, often using textbooks made in Lebanon and sent to Israel through a third country such as Sweden, where a large population of Maronites lives.

For Khalloul, this identity is critically linked not only to Aramaic, but to the land on which Kafr Bir’am once stood. He says about 40% of the Maronite population of Jish are descendants of people relocated there after War of Independence, when Israeli forces called on the villagers to evacuate in order to clear a buffer zone on the border with Lebanon.

They were never allowed to return, and they now seek the return of some of the 1,200 hectares (2,965 acres) in Kibbutz Ba’ram/Moshav Dovev to build a small historical village for tourism, as well as a small village to house Maronites.

Khalloul spoke while walking through the ruins of Kafr Bir’am in Bar’am National Park, which there is a 4th-century synagogue that served the Jewish village of Kfar Bar’am as well as the 17th-century Maronite church that was the center of village life before the war. While the church appears well preserved, all that remains of the village are low stone walls and a few archways grown over with vegetation. The park lies next to a Maronite cemetery, where Aramaic inscriptions are carved on the headstones and family vaults.

He described a community that smuggled Jews to the pre-1948 yishuv, and has seen its contribution forgotten, with the people left unable to recover lands they lost in the war.

“We helped Jews escape to Israel through Lebanon when the British wouldn’t let them in. Some of these Jews would sleep in our village at night until the bus would come the next day and take them to Haifa. So in 1948 we didn’t run; most of those who ran were Muslims. We didn’t run because we knew the people we were facing, so we stayed,” Khalloul said.

“Instead of treating your allies well, you treated us like enemies. We were not enemies, we were allies. We helped the Jews and we expected the same treatment, and now we ask them to help us, allow us to go back and build the village again,” Khalloul said, with the Lebanese border just a short walk past his shoulder.

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