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The Druze in Israel; Identity and Challenges by Mr. Said Naffaa

Article published in collaboration with the Center for Arab Culture and Dialogue, .

The Druze in Israel

The Druze sect, as it is known, is a Middle Eastern religious minority group. Ethnically and culturally they are Arab; their ethnic origin goes back to the original Arab clans living in the region, and their religious origin as an Islamic reform movement goes back to the 11th Century. The sect developed in Egypt as an offshoot of Shi’a Isma’ilism under the rule of the sixth caliph of the Fatimid dynasty of Egypt, Alhakim Biamrillah (AD 966-1020).

Worldwide, there are approximately 1.3 million Druze, who live mainly in Syria (approx. 50%), Lebanon (approx. 40%), Jordan (approx. 1%), and Israel (approx. 5%).

The Druze community living in Israel resides in eighteen mountainous villages in the north of the country. In 2007, the Druze community in Israel numbered approximately 96,000 souls (approx. 1.4% of Israel’s population; approx. 7% of the Arab minority).

In 1948, they numbered approximately 13,200 souls, which is about 9% of the remaining 156,000 Palestinians after the Naqba and establishment of Israel.

The majority of the Palestinians, including the Druze, who remained in the area being controlled by the new state were residents of the part of Palestine that was supposed to be part of the Palestinian state, in accordance with U.N. resolution of November 2, 1947, or were people who had been removed forcefully from the Jewish section, or who have been received by Israel from Jordan according to the Rhudos Agreements of 1949.

Israel considered this a dangerous demographic problem, and their main issue was: How to deal with this minority?

Israel was aware of the consequences of recognizing these people as a national minority because such recognition meant that Israel would have to give them national rights according to international law.

Furthermore, it could not transfer them as it had previously done with the rest of the Palestinian population, because under the aforementioned 1949 Rhudos Agreement, Israel had received additional land held by Jordan in the area of the Mouthalath. In exchange for receiving the land, Israel had agreed to receive the populations who resided, and are still, on that land.

Therefore, it has dealt and still deals with them, not as a national and unified minority, but as groups of minorities according to their religious and sectarian groups. This gives them religious rights, but not equal citizenship or human rights as an indigenous population.

The more dangerous treatment was the old doctrine of "divide-and-rule." Israel implemented a policy that aimed at dealing with the sects separately. It took the small sects and imposed special policies on each in order to separate them from the other sects of the population. At times, Israel even created contradictory interests between them when it suited its aims.

The Druze were, of course, part of this environment, and they were the first sacrifice of this policy, followed by other small sects like the Circassians.

Israeli policy has aimed at recasting the Druze religious identity as a national identity, thus separating and alienating them from other Arab citizens of Israel.

In the words of Ya’acov Shimoni, an early Foreign Ministry official, Israel would use the Druze as “the sharp blade of a knife to stab in the back of Arab unity.”

In 1951, the Israeli Parliament (The Knesset) legislated the Compulsory Military Service Law, which stated that every Israeli citizen must be mobilized in the "IDF," whatever his national identity. This law also authorized the Israeli government to exempt certain individuals or groups for individual, religious, or national reasons, and so it exempted all the non-Jewish sects and the rigorous religious Jews.

This exemption lasted until 1956 when the Israeli authorities decided, according to its aforementioned policy of divide-and-rule, to repeal the exemption of the Druze and the Circassians.

Since 1956, military service has been compulsory for the Druze and Circassians, unlike the other indigenous populations living in Israel, in complete disregard for their nationalist and religious feelings. It is absurd that the religious feelings of the Jews have been taken into account, but the religious feelings of the Druze have been ignored!

While the decision for compulsory service is routinely described as a request by the Druze leaders to serve, documents related to the decision remain classified and shrouded in a cloud of secrecy. The documents that have been released demonstrate that this story is not true, although there is no denial that some of the leaders did cooperate with the state's institutions in order to enhance their own personal interests.

The majority of the Druze rejected this policy understanding that the mobilization of the Druze youth was the last step in the Israeli authorities plan to separate the Druze from their people and nation as part of a political agenda, not because of a military need. The position of the majority of Druze is supported by official classified documents recently released by Israeli Authorities showing that of the 470 young Druze men of military age at the time of the decision only 27% actually joined the Israeli military.

Days has shown that the abovementioned agenda was actually only the first important step. In order to deepen the wound of the "sharp knife's blade" the next step came a short time later in the attempt to transform the Druze from being a part of the Arab nation, into a separate national group by cutting their cultural roots and effacing their national and cultural remembrance.

This policy was implemented by the authorities in coordination with a few of the community's leaders and educators who were serving their own personal interests. No one asked the average Druze whether he accepted this policy or not; he was forced to comply.

Opponents of the policy objected then, and have continued to object ever since. The state has responded with imprisonment of resisters and harassment and disruption of those who campaign against the policy. The opponents have done their best to stop this policy, especially the compulsory service requirements, but they have not yet succeeded despite enormous efforts. However, they have succeeded in keeping the issue on the agenda of the Druze community and of the State as a major human rights issue. They have faced different kinds of repression executed by the authorities and those in league with them. They have paid a high price; over the years thousands of youngsters have gone to jail, some of them for many years because they refused their mobilization orders and resisted this inhuman policy. I, myself, and my four sons are an example!

In 1962, “Druze” became a distinct identity on national identity cards, as opposed to “Arab.” Between 1948 and 1962, two-thirds of Druze agricultural land was confiscated by Israel despite the above-described policy.

Israel’s educational policies have always consisted of separate Jewish and non-Jewish curricula. They are separate and unequal in terms of funding and resource allocation. In 1976, the government created a new “Druze” curriculum in order to foster an “Israeli-Druze consciousness” focusing on cooperation between Jews and Druze and the value of compulsory military service. In the process, this education is separating the Druze from their Arab cultural and national roots and their Islamic religious identity.

This is being done against the wishes of the majority of the Druze population. The separate curriculum stands at the expense of the program level and quality, which leads to a regression in achievement and accomplishment. It is clear that the Israeli educational policies imposed on the Druze community do not aim to graduate teenagers with the qualifications to pursue a dignified life with enough knowledge and competence to cope with a challenging future.

Al-Juthoor’s role

The Druze opponents to the described Israeli policy, especially the compulsory military service, have dedicated a lot of effort and time to organize against this policy. In 1972, they established "The Druze Initiative Committee." For historical and ideological reasons, most of them later established 'The Free Druze Covenant" in 2000. This group established the Al-Juthoor Association.

Although these organizations deal with issues that seem to be particular or special to the Druze; in fact they are not. Theses issues are not and can not be only a Druze issue, but are, rather, an Arab Palestinian issue.

Al-Juthoor (“Roots” in English) is a non-governmental organization formed to protect and strengthen the cultural identity of the Druze community in Israel. It seeks to preserve the Arab roots of the Druze through different cultural activities aimed at reintroducing Druze children their real indigenous culture, not those from the prescribed syllabus. The activities are also designed to preserve their basic human rights to be free from military mobilization, and to keep their national remembrance.

Al-Juthoor has 42 members, including a seven-member Board. They each volunteer to preserve the cultural roots and protect the human rights of the Druze minority by challenging negative governmental policies. Al-Juthoor intends to stimulate a more active and democratic debate within the Druze community living in Israel about their identity and their role. This debate concerns the Druze’s role vis-à-vis the state as well as communal decision-making within the Druze community. In the past, the lack of such a debate has adversely affected the ability of the Druze to reach a consensus on issues such as schooling and compulsory military service.

The overall aim of Al-Juthoor is to reclaim and elevate the Druze cultural heritage from its current position as a mere footnote in the dominant Israeli narrative to its proper place as a proud part of the history of the indigenous Palestinian Arab minority, while actively and constructively participating in the society in which it finds itself .

Mr. Said Naffaa is a member of the Israeli Knesset for the Arab National Democratic Assembly.

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