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

No, Israelis and Palestinians Can’t Simply Sit Down and Solve the “Israel-Palestinian Conflict”

Jan. 17 2019

By “zooming out” from the blinkered perspective with which most Westerners see the affairs of the Jewish state, argues Matti Friedman, one can begin to see things the way Israelis do:

Many [in Israel] believe that an agreement signed by a Western-backed Palestinian leader in the West Bank won’t end the conflict, because it will wind up creating not a state but a power vacuum destined to be filled by intra-Muslim chaos, or Iranian proxies, or some combination of both. That’s exactly what has happened . . . in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. One of Israel’s nightmares is that the fragile monarchy in Jordan could follow its neighbors . . . into dissolution and into Iran’s orbit, which would mean that if Israel doesn’t hold the West Bank, an Iranian tank will be able to drive directly from Tehran to the outskirts of Tel Aviv. . . .

In the “Israeli-Palestinian” framing, with all other regional components obscured, an Israeli withdrawal in the West Bank seems like a good idea—“like a real-estate deal,” in President Trump’s formulation—if not a moral imperative. And if the regional context were peace, as it was in Northern Ireland, for example, a power vacuum could indeed be filled by calm.

But anyone using a wider lens sees that the actual context here is a complex, multifaceted war, or a set of linked wars, devastating this part of the world. The scope of this conflict is hard to grasp in fragmented news reports but easy to see if you pull out a map and look at Israel’s surroundings, from Libya through Syria and Iraq to Yemen.

The fault lines have little to do with Israel. They run between dictators and the people they’ve been oppressing for generations; between progressives and medievalists; between Sunnis and Shiites; between majority populations and minorities. If [Israel’s] small sub-war were somehow resolved, or even if Israel vanished tonight, the Middle East would remain the same volatile place it is now.

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More about: Hizballah, Iran, Israel & Zionism, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East