The Druze, Israel’s “Model Minority,” Betrayed by Jewish Nation-State Law

The passage of Israel’s “Jewish nation-state” law on July 19 has drawn immense condemnation from across the globe.

Israel's ‘Jewish State’ law irks country's Druze

The passage of Israel’s “Jewish nation-state” law on July 19 has drawn immense condemnation from across the globe.

‘The new law is seen as undermining democracy and feeding not only racism but institutionalizing hostility towards Muslims and Arabs. Palestinians in particular are the clear targets of this law, which essentially gives broad justification for discriminatory policies and strips non-Jewish minorities of protections in the eyes of the state. One Arab member of the Israeli parliament called it “the beginning of fascism.” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a startling characterization of the law, called it crafted with “Hitler’s spirit.”

While Palestinians and Arab Israelis (who make up about 21 percent of Israel’s population) are the obvious targets of the new law, other non-Jewish minorities are affected too, and have challenged the law in court. The first court case to be filed is by a group of organizations and lawmakers from the Druze community, a small, distinct ethno-religious group that makes up about two percent of Israeli citizens. The petition, filed July 22, states that the law “completely ignores the Druze minority in particular and the Arab minority in general.”

Although the dissenting Druze members of the Israeli parliament (the Knesset) who are petitioners to the case are part of the ruling Zionist coalition, they have objected to what Akram Hasoon has called a “racist law” brought on by “unfortunately cheap political conditions.” Hasoon, who is one of the petitioning Druze Knesset members, said the law would damage “not only my community, but . . . the image of Israel and the people of Israel as well. . . . [It] first and foremost hurts my brothers the Jews.”

Jewish Israeli leaders – even some who advocated for the law – have also expressed concern. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, an ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said, “[T]he last thing that we want is to harm the Druze community.”

Although Israel’s antipathy toward Palestinians and Arab Israelis has been apparent, it has nevertheless accorded the Druze a privileged, yet clearly subordinate, status in Israeli society. So, who exactly are the Druze?

The Druze, like the Kurds, are an ethno-religious group divided by national borders. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire and creation of Israel, they became minorities in Israel, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. They have small diaspora communities in the U.S., Europe, Canada, and Latin America. All told, there are upwards of a million Druze living in the Levant of which around 140,000 reside in Israel’s mountainous north.

While the Druze speak Arabic and identify as an Arab people, they are unique in their religious identity and particular history. The Druze follow a monotheistic, Abrahamic religion that emerged out of Ismaili Islam around 1000 years ago. They do not consider themselves Muslim. Their faith is secretive. Only a small percentage of devoted, pious religious scholars – both men and women – are “initiated” into the specifics of Druze doctrine and teachings. Most Druze are not initiated, but follow spiritual and moral precepts particular to the Druze faith. The initiated provide religious leadership, while the uninitiated provide political leadership.

The Druze faith follows the Abrahamic prophets, such as Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad, but ascribes to them different statuses. For instance, Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, is held as the Druze’s ancestor and chief prophet and is said to be the “true” prophet, where Moses was the “recognized” prophet.  The Druze believe that the holy Abrahamic scriptures have literal interpretations, but the real truth lies in the esoteric, deeply internal meanings beneath the literal understandings.

Israelis hold the Druze to be a “model minority,” seen to have integrated into the dominant Israeli culture.

While the Druze faith originated in Ismaili Islam (a sect of Shia Islam), it also incorporates elements of Gnosticism, Hinduism, and the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle. The Druze are distinctly monotheistic, considering themselves “muwahhidin” (translated as “unitarian”), meaning that they give primacy to the Islamic concept of tawhid, or, God’s unity. Central to their belief system is the reincarnation and transmigration of souls.

The Druze faith and identity originated as a small, secretive, and esoteric movement in Egypt at the turn of the first millennium under the leadership of Persian religious figure Hamza ibn Ali. He developed a community centered on a religious and philosophical ideology that opposed and diverged from the dominant culture.

The Druze name likely derives from the name of another one of the founding leaders, Muhammad ad-Darazi, who fell out of favor with bin Ali for trying to preach an “exaggerated,” heretical doctrine. The name became attached to the community centuries later.

Caliph al-Hakim of the Fatimid Caliphate is an important and revered figure in Druze history for his promotion of religious freedom in Egypt. However, when his son, az-Zahir, became caliph, he brutally tried to kill the movement, in part because they refused to recognize him as their imam.

Similar to Jews and Muslims in Inquisition-era Spain, the Druze suffered a long period of persecution and a forced choice of conversion, expulsion, or death. Consequently, their communities became more clandestine and closed. Since that time, the Druze have prohibited proselytization and barred outsiders from joining the faith. No one has converted to the Druze faith in nearly 1,000 years. The belief is that all living Druze are reincarnated from the original generation.

The Druze community eventually faded in Egypt, but made its way into the isolated mountain regions of Levant as early as the 12th century.

Besides their faith, the Druze are also defined by a distinct ethnic identity. The roots of that identity are not entirely clear, however. Independent genomic researchers have claimed that the Druze originated in northeastern Turkey, near to their theorized ancestral homeland of Ashkenazi Jews. Their narrative is that the Ashkenazim and the Druze emerged from a similar homeland and, after a thousand years of divergent paths, became neighbors once more in the Levant. According to this research, the Druze ethnicity is closer, genetically speaking, to the Ashkenazim than to their Arab neighbors. Of course, ethnic identity is vastly more complicated than mere genomic markers.

Today, the Druze mostly live in the area of Mount Lebanon and in southern Syria. For their small numbers, they have made an outsized impact on the history of the Levant. During the Crusades, the Muslim rulers of Damascus favored the Druze after they protected Syria from Christian invaders.

Historically, they have, however, come into conflict with the local dominant powers. In the 1300s, the Mamluk Sultanate, seeing the Druze as incompatible with Sunni Islam, killed many Druze. The Druze rebelled several times against the Ottoman Empire during its 400-year rule in the region. At various times, the Ottomans responded by affording the Druze some political autonomy. At others, such as during the 1909 Druze uprising, they killed many.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Druze leader Fakhr-al-Din vastly expanded the power and territory of the Druze community to include Beirut. He formed alliances with Italian dukes and sought to unify Lebanon as an independent state. Eventually, the Ottomans executed him for his rebellion.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, conflicts between the Druze and their Ottoman rulers drew support from British and French forces, who sought to destabilize the Empire.

Though they have maintained a proud culture distinct from their Muslim, Christian and Jewish neighbors, the Druze have generally integrated politically into the nations that now govern them. This has given them some protection from persecution as well as relative autonomy, including separate religious court systems.

The relatively small Syrian Druze community played a powerful role in the 1920s Syrian revolution and the struggle for independence from the French. Yet, in the 1950s, Syrian ruler Adib Shishakli, fearing their military power, brutalized the Druze. A Druze later assassinated him. Recently, Islamic State fighters have targeted and killed Druze communities in and around Syria.

The status of the Druze in Israel is complicated, particularly in the wake of the Jewish nation-state law. Previous to the establishment of modern Israel, their distinct identity was not officially acknowledged. Early in its statehood, Israel changed that by recognizing the Druze as a unique ethno-religious group, separate from Arabs, at the request of Druze leaders. This has afforded them a much more privileged status in Israel than Palestinians or other Arabs. Israelis hold them to be a “model minority,” seen to have integrated into the dominant Israeli culture.

According to the Pew Research Center, 90 percent of Israeli Druze say they “have a strong sense of belonging to the Druze community,” and 93 percent say they “are proud to be Druze.” While 99 percent said they believe in God, only 72 percent said their religious identity is “very important to them.” Marriage outside of the Druze community is technically forbidden; less than 1 percent of married Israeli Druze have a non-Druze partner. This statistic, however, is more or less equal to those for Israeli Jews, Muslims, and Christians in the region/study.

During the mid-century wars that led to the creation of the State of Israel, Druze living in then-Mandatory Palestine faced intense pressure from both Jews and Arabs to join their sides. Who their neighbors were often determined which way Druze communities leaned, but their leaders generally advocated for neutrality. A Syrian Druze military leader assembled Druze volunteers from Syria and Lebanon to fight for Palestine against Israel in 1948.

Many of the Syrian Druze who lived in the Golan Heights fled to other parts of Syria when Israel claimed possession of that area. Some still live there and refuse to take Israeli citizenship, although more have done so since the Syrian Civil War began.

The Jewish Agency for Israel, which was instrumental in the creation of the country, made concerted efforts early on to ensure that the Druze stayed away from the Palestinian cause. At that time, some Druze leaders sided with the Zionist forces and later became members of the Knesset.

Although they are categorized as Arabs and non-Jews, thousands of Israeli Druze identify as Zionist. Amal Nasser el-Din founded an unconditionally pro-Israel Zionist Druze organization in the ‘70s, which currently has around 7,000 members.

Druze politicians have long held a disproportionately large presence in the Knesset and other Israeli institutions. Druze diplomat Reda Mansour said, “We are considered a very nationalistic, patriotic community.” According to Pew, Druze Israelis are more hopeful than Jewish and Muslim Israelis about the possibility of a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine.

The Zionist Druze rejected a 2007 proposal by the Israeli-Arab organization Adalah, which would have eliminated the official Jewish character from the state institutions, essentially the opposite of the recent Jewish nation-state law. Later, Druze leader Nabiah Nasser A-Din said of the Druze-Israeli relationship, “[T]his is a blood pact . . . . We are unwilling to support a substantial alteration to the nature of this state, to which we tied our destinies prior to its establishment.”

In 2004, the Druze-Israeli spiritual leader Sheikh Muwaffak Tarif reaffirmed his community’s approval of an essentially Jewish Israel by imploring all non-Jewish Israelis to adhere to the “Noahide Laws.” These are seven basic imperatives given by Moses, which, if followed by a non-Jew, makes him or her “righteous” in the eyes of Judaism.

The Druze have not only politically aligned themselves with a Jewish conception of Israel but they have fought for it as well. Druze have achieved top positions in the Israeli military as well as in its government. About 60 percent of Druze men (women are not drafted) either have served or currently serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the military body responsible for Israeli security.

That Druze serve in the IDF is a major distinction between them and non-Druze Israeli Arabs. The Druze are the only non-Jewish minority drafted into the IDF, and many are impassioned supporters of the IDF’s mission. In fact, the separate Druze IDF battalion Herev was discontinued because a large influx of Druze IDF fighters wanted to integrate into the general IDF. Israel is very proud about the “covenant of blood” between Jewish and Druze IDF soldiers.

While the Druze are largely committed to a Zionist agenda, they do not see this agenda as excluding them. The recent Jewish nation-state law, however, indicates that Israelis may feel differently. Much of the backlash against the law has focused on the Druze’s special military status. After the law’s passage, right-wing Zionist Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who fought strongly for the law, regretted its harm to the Druze, saying they are “our brothers who stand shoulder to shoulder with us on the battlefield.”

A Druze commander in the Israel Defense Force recently resigned in protest, echoing a resounding objection from Druze soldiers, who feel betrayed and degraded. The large contingent of them felt disillusioned to see that, even though many have sacrificed their lives to Israel, the state still considers them second-class citizens. Captain Amir Jmall said that Israel’s government “takes and does not give back.”

Arab Israeli lawmakers will likely join the Druze in petitioning the Israeli High Court to strike down the law. According to Haaretz, it is very unlikely that the Court would do such a thing, as the law is essentially a constitutional amendment.

Nonetheless, Minister Naftali Bennett, who championed the law, spoke about the harm it caused the Druze: “We, the government of Israel, have a responsibility to find a way to heal the rift.”