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.