Druze and Jews in Israel–A Shared Destiny?

Druze and Jews in Israel–A Shared Destiny?

Betts, Robert Brenton

Druze and Jews in Israel – A Shared Destiny? by Zeidan Atashi, Brighton, UK: Sussex Academic Press, 1995. xvi & 207 pages, one map & 12 photographic illustrations, notes, bibliography and index.

The Druze are unique among the Arabic-speaking communities of Palestine in that they were never forced or even encouraged by the Israelis to leave after 1948 and since the early 1950s have cooperated with the government, voluntarily submitting as a community to military conscription (of men only). Many hundreds have died in military encounters in the service of the Jewish state, and a large percentage serve as border guards and in the occupied territories. As a consequence they have engendered a great deal of animosity among the other Palestinian Arabs who view them as traitors and collaborators.

In this extremely interesting study, Zeiden Atashi, himself a Druze from the village of Isfiyya on Mount Carmel near Haifa, a former member of the Israeli Foreign Service and a long-time Druze member of the Knesset, has set about explaining the reasons for this unusual cooperation between Arab and Jew. In the process he has provided detailed, if somewhat selective, history of the Druze in Palestine and the Middle East. As may be known to many readers of Middle East Policy, the Druze are a secretive religious sect that grew out of an extremist, millenialist movement in Cairo during the reign of the Fatmid Caliph al-Hakim bi amr-allah in the early part of the eleventh century. After his disappearance under mysterious circumstances in 1021, the movement was supressed in Egypt but spread throughout Syria at a time of Byzantine resurgency in the area.

After the year 1043, the Druze became a closed community, accepting no new members, sharing their religious beliefs with no one outside the community, and living in remote villages in mountainous areas with little outside contact. We know very little of their history until the brief period of Druze political power in the seventeenth century under the amir Fakhr-al-Din II and often through the writings of visiting Europeans, who were fascinated by the secrecy of the sect and often attributed to it very bizarre beliefs and practices. From the Sunni Muslim point of view, they were heretics. Though they occasionally conformed to orthodox practices to please the Ottoman authorities, they were never recognized as a separate millet or religious group until the present states that make up Greater Syria achieved independence during and after World War II.

The great majority of Druze live in Lebanon and Syria. Those of Palestine are fairly recent arrivals, having come down from Mount Lebanon and the jabal al-Duruz in Syria during the time of Fakhr al-Din roughly 300 years ago, settling in the hills of Galilee and on Mount Carmel. According to the author, however, “In both Galilee and Carmel graves and holy sites had been preserved from the beginning of the eleventh century, when the Druze religion was first propagated” (pp. 18-19). Certainly their shrine of al-Nabi Shu ayb near Tiberias dates back to a much earlier time than the relatively recent settlement. Today there are some 70,000 Druze living in nine exclusively Druze villages, five mixed Druze-Christian-Muslim villages with Druze majorities, and four others where they are a significant minority. In addition, there are four exclusively Druze villages in the northern Golan, occupied by Israel since 1967, whose 15,000 residents have refused offers of Israeli citizenship and remain, unlike their Israeli cousins, militantly pro-Syrian.

Atashi’s study begins with a preface by the Jewish Israeli scholar, Gabriel Ben-Dor, who published a study of the Druze in Israel in 1979. He is a very sympathetic observer and praises them for remaining “an island of stability in Israel, Lebanon and Syria” (p. ix), but curiously attributes to them “the lowest level of education of all ethnic or religious communities in Israel” (p. xi). This is simply not true. As long ago as 1961, the Druze of Israel, according to Israeli statistics, were 50 percent literate (as opposed to 38 percent of the Muslims and 76 percent of the Christians) and today literacy is almost universal among both male and female Druze (see Betts, The Druze, Yale University Press, 1988, p.51). The same is true in Lebanon and Syria vis-a-vis the Muslim population, and as for communities in Israel, like the recently arrived Ethopian Jewish Falashas, there is no comparison to be made.

The book is divided into nine chapters, beginning with a short history of the Druze religion and people, progressing chronologically to the present day; the last three chapters deal with the Druze in Israel since the 1960s. In his synopsis of Druze beliefs, the author is necessarily circumspect and rather brief. One serious omission from his history of the community is the serious split between the Arslani (Yazbaki) and the Junblati factions, which led to a battle in the early eighteenth century at Ayn Dara in the Shuf region of Lebanon and the subsequent expulsion of many Yazbakis to what is today southern Syria. This migration greatly weakened the Druze in Mount Lebanon and allowed the Maronites to move southward around Suwayda. Prior to that time the only Druze in what is today Syria were a tiny pocket in a handful of villages in the north between Aleppo and Antioch (the Jabal al-Ala).

This split is still of considerable importance in the Lebanese Druze political picture. A current fight between the two factions over who is to be recognized as the shaykh al-Aql, or religious leader, is dividing the community in Lebanon as nothing was able to do during the civil war. So it may be true on the surface, as the author states on p. 4, “that there are (among the Druze) no religious controversies, no splinter-groups, as there are in Islam, Christianity and Judaism,” but there are many internal rivalries based on family, clan, and even political ideology that weaken them.

The “shared destiny” between Druze and Jews in Israel that Atashi speaks of is based on their similar existence over centuries as a minority wherever they lived. Like the Druze, he says, the Jews “participated in all spheres of life… in their adopted countries,”… at the same time preserving and maintaining “their religion, heritage, language, culture and family ties.” In that the Druze in Palestine were recognized neither by the Sunni majority nor the British mandate authorities as a separate community, and being so few in number (some 10,000 in the 1930s vs. 145,000 Christians and 1.14 million Muslims, p. 26), it was not surprising that they responded favorably to Zionist overtures of friendship and cooperation. Atashi’s account of the Mandate period is particularly interesting and rich in detail, both in describing the build-up of Druze-Jewish cordiality, and the hostility the Druze encountered from Palestinian Muslim nationalists. In the two chapters dealing with this period (3 and 4), the author adopts a rather irritating style which imitates Zionist propaganda when speaking of the nationalists. Those resisting Zionist occupation are never “resistance fighters,” but simply “gangs.” In another instance, the author refers to the Druze investing three years in national service, while “the Arab” (p. 122) (presumably Christian and Muslim Palestinians) were attending university or trade school. Had I not met Mr. Atashi personally at his home in September 1985, when I was researching my own book on the Druze and known his English to be of the highest standard, I might have suspected that an Israeli amanuensis had thrown in his own prejudices when translating from Arabic.

A worm in this apple of “shared destiny” has only recently come to light, discussed at length by the author in Chapter 5. Secret files recently (late 1980s) made available have shown that in 1937 the Zionist movement seriously considered transfering the Druze population of Palestine to Syria, a plan which Atashi himself refers to as “most surprising.” The motive behind this projected transfer was twofold: to open up Druze settlements in Galilee to Jews and to create an independent Druze state on Israel’s northeastern border that would presumably be friendly or at least neutral. As impractical as this idea was shown to be, Henry Kissinger is reported to have considered the idea in the late 1970s, and in 1970 Ezer Weizmann, then a Likud government minister, was quoted in the daily Haaretz as saying at a meeting in Tel Aviv: “The solution is to get rid of the Israeli Arab minorities by sending (i.e. transfering) the Muslims to Jordan, the Christians to Lebanon, and the Druze to Syria” (p. 125).

Such proposals clearly upset the author and other Druze researchers and scholars who ask “Why the Druze? Why the Jews’ first and only ally in those darkest days of their history?” (p. 85). Why indeed, and why, the reader might ask, did the Druze end up very much on the side of the Israelis during the 1948-49 war and afterwards in an independent Jewish state? The answer, according to Atashi, was their deep attachment to the land. “The Druze, for their part, had always ascribed to the land a supreme value in ensuring their continued physical and spiritual existence” (p. 175). Moreover, since they had no aspirations towards independent statehood, they were content to live as a minority regardless of who was in charge. They had obviously convinced the Zionists of this, to the extent of fighting with the Haganah in Galilee (though there were Druze who fought and died on the other side). The Druze were allowed to remain in their villages while many Christians and the majority of Muslims were forced to abandon their homes. The same held true in 1967, when the Israelis occupied the Golan. The Druze (and curiously one village of Alawites) were allowed to remain, while the Muslims – Arab and Circassian – and Christians had to flee.

Once a part of Israel, the Palestinian Druze community cooperated, as has been pointed out, to the extent of voluntarily conscripting their young men to the IDF. The Israelis in return gave the Druze what they had always wanted – official recognition in 1957 of their community as separate from the Sunni Muslims. There have been instances where individual Druze have refused to comply, especially in the 1970s, but the advantages of serving are tangible. One’s advancement, professionally as well as financially, in Israeli society very often hinges on having served in the military. Druze villages have benefited from government largess much more than Muslim or Christian ones, though not as much as Jewish settlements, as the author testily points out. The position of the Druze in Israeli society has also allowed them to influence the government policy in the region, particularly in Lebanon during the 1980s when Atashi himself and others strongly argued against Israeli cooperation with the Maronite Phalangists, who were openly killing and otherwise working against the best interests of the Lebanese Druze (pp. 144159).

Atashi’s view is that for all their cooperation the Druze have not been rewarded enough. “Israeli government policy has turned the Druze into a negative example for the Israeli Arabs. Why serve in the IDF, they ask, if the Druze serve the state but do not enjoy equal rights?” (p. 189). While admitting that there has been a shared destiny, he concludes with the question mark in his title. “It is up to the Israeli government whether they wish to promote or destroy this Jewish-Druze shared destiny.” But Atashi’s work is more of a political polemic than a strictly academic effort. Overall he raises more questions about his “shared destiny” than he answers.

Robec ate professor The American University of Betts

Associate professor, The American University of Beirut

Copyright Middle East Policy Council Oct 1998

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