The Rise and Fall of Aramaic

Sept. 16 2015

Aramaic—the language of parts of the Bible, most of the Talmud, and much other Jewish religious literature—is still spoken today, although it is now in danger of extinction. But it was once the language that united the Middle East, as John McWhorter writes:

The Aramaeans—according to biblical lore named for Noah’s grandson Aram—started as a little-known nomadic group. But . . . by the 11th century BCE they ruled large swaths of territory in Mesopotamia, encompassing parts of modern-day Iraq, Syria, and Turkey—including, for a spell, the city of Babylon itself. . . . In 911 BCE, the Assyrians, who spoke a language called Akkadian, ousted them. But the Assyrians unwittingly helped the Aramaeans’ language extinguish their own.

Namely, the Assyrians deported Aramaic-speakers far and wide, to Egypt and elsewhere. The Assyrians may have thought they were clearing their new territory, but this was like blowing on a fluffy milkweed and thinking of it as destruction rather than dissemination: the little seeds take root elsewhere. Aramaic had established itself as the language of authority and cross-cultural discourse in Babylon and beyond, and with language as with much else, old habits die hard. People were soon learning Aramaic from the cradle, no longer just in one ruling city but throughout the Fertile Crescent stretching from the Persian Gulf through northern Arabia to the Nile. Even the Assyrians found it easier to adjust to Aramaic than to impose Akkadian. . . .

Here is also why Jesus and other Jews lived in Aramaic, and why portions of the Hebrew Bible are actually in Aramaic. The two languages are part of the same Semitic family, but still, when the book of Daniel switches into Aramaic for five chapters because Chaldeans are being addressed, it’s rather as if Cervantes had switched into Italian in Don Quixote for the tale of the Florentine nobleman. So dominant was Aramaic that the authors of the Bible could assume it was known to any audience they were aware of.

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More about: Ancient Near East, Aramaic, Book of Joshua, Hebrew Bible, History & Ideas, Language

Hamas’s Deadly Escalation at the Gaza Border

Oct. 16 2018

Hamas’s weekly demonstration at the fence separating Gaza from Israel turned bloody last Friday, as operatives used explosives to blow a hole in the barrier and attempted to pass through. The IDF opened fire, killing three and scaring away the rest. Yoni Ben Menachem notes that the demonstrators’ tactics have been growing more aggressive and violent in recent weeks, and the violence is no longer limited to Fridays but is occurring around the clock:

The number of participants in the demonstrations has risen to 20,000. Extensive use has been made of lethal tactics such as throwing explosive charges and grenades at IDF soldiers, and there has been an increase in the launching of incendiary balloons and kites into Israel. At the same time, Hamas supplemented its burning tires with smoke generators at the border to create heavy smoke screens to shield Gazan rioters and allow them to get closer to the border fence and infiltrate into Israel. . . .

[S]ix months of ineffective demonstrations have not achieved anything connected with easing [Israel’s blockade of the Strip]. Therefore, Hamas has decided to increase military pressure on Israel. [Its] ultimate goal has not changed: the complete removal of the embargo; until this is achieved, the violent demonstrations at the border fence will continue.

Hamas’s overall objective is to take the IDF by surprise by blowing up the fence at several points and infiltrating into Israeli territory to harm IDF soldiers or abduct them and take them into the Gaza Strip. . . . The precedent of the 2011 deal in which one Israeli soldier was traded for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners has strengthened the feeling within Hamas that Israel is prepared to pay a heavy price for bringing back captured soldiers alive. . . . Hamas also believes that the campaign is strengthening its position in Palestinian society and is getting the international community to understand that the Palestinian problem is still alive. . . .

The Hamas leadership is not interested in an all-out military confrontation with Israel. The Gaza street is strongly opposed to this, and the Hamas leadership understands that a new war with Israel will result in substantial damage to the organization. Therefore, the idea is to continue with the “Return March” campaign, which will not cost the organization too much and will maintain its rule without paying too high a price for terror.

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More about: Gaza Strip, Hamas, Israel & Zionism, Israeli Security