BEIT JANN – In most of Israel, the election billboards in recent months featured the faces of the two main rivals for Israeli leadership: Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz. On the winding streets of the Druze town of Beit Jann in the north of the country, roadside posters instead featured the smiling face of Ali Salalha, a former Druze high school principal who was running as a candidate for the left-wing Meretz party.

In one of the closest elections in recent Israeli history, Netanyahu defeated Gantz by a razor-thin margin and is expected to form a new government in the coming weeks. In a twist of irony, Salalha failed to win a seat despite winning almost two-thirds of the vote in his hometown, propelling his Meretz party to a haul of four seats in parliament.

Only two Druze lawmakers won election to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament — the lowest tally since 1999, and down from five in the previous election. Despite the setback, this year marked the election of the first Druze woman to parliament: Gadeer Mreeh from Gantz’s Blue and White party, which swept the vote in her hometown of Daliyat al-Karmel and in seven of the 12 Druze-majority towns in Israel.

“We’ve lived together for more than 70 years with no problems,” said Salalha, outlining the history of the Druze in Israel. “Druze don’t just live in villages, we go to universities, we speak very good Hebrew. If this is not a democratic country anymore, then tell us.”

Aside from the loss of Druze representatives, the election marked a defeat for the Druze if only because of Netanyahu’s victory. As the leader of the right-wing Likud party, Netanyahu has been at the forefront of an effort that many Druze view as an attack on their Israeli citizenship: the “Jewish nation-state” law.

For the roughly 130,000 Israeli Druze, most of whom live in mountaintop communities in the country’s north, the law opened a deep wound that calls into question their loyalty to Israel. Of the more than 1.5 million Arab citizens of Israel, less than 10 percent are Druze. Unlike their Muslim and Christian counterparts, the Druze have been conscripted into the Israeli Defense Forces since 1956. Druze Israelis have fought as soldiers in Israel’s wars and served as ministers in several governments.

As Salalha made clear in an interview shortly before the Israeli elections were held, this was not just another political campaign for the Druze. Leaning back on a sofa beside a small fireplace in his living room in Beit Jann, Salalha cut a calm figure in his white shirt and black trousers.

“The nation-state law means that we are not citizens of the country,” Salalha said, his voice rising. “It’s not suitable for a democratic country, it’s not democratic.”

Adopted by the Israeli government last July, the measure amended the country’s Basic Law — Israel’s equivalent of a constitution — to specifically define Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Its passage drew condemnation from a wide swathe of Israeli society, from secular Jews to minorities who felt it demoted them to second-class citizens.

Now, the Druze feel betrayed. Tens of thousands of people, Jewish and Druze alike, marched in the streets of Tel Aviv last August to demonstrate the breadth of opposition to the nation-state law. Young Druze are growing disillusioned with the state of Israel, and some are even refusing to serve in the army. Across Israeli Druze society, from the generals to the objectors, there is a sense that their status as equal citizens of Israel is in jeopardy.

On a Friday night in the Druze town of Isfiya, about an hour’s drive from Beit Jann on the slopes of Mount Carmel, Amal Asad plotted the next steps in his campaign to overturn the law. Dressed in a blue North Face jacket, a grey shirt, and blue jeans, the former general and leader of the Task Force to Amend the Nation-State Law calmly described his path forward.

“I believe that this state is ours, not only for the Jews,” he said. “We fought for it. I lost my brother and a lot of friends, commanders, and soldiers in the army, and then suddenly they signed this law.”

Asad mentioned that he had received assurances from Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, the leaders of Blue and White party, that they would amend the law if they succeeded in unseating Netanyahu at the polls. With Netanyahu’s victory, Asad and his allies are preparing to challenge the law in the courts.

“The state belongs to all its citizens, no matter your religion,” he said. “We will not accept this law, we will not give up after the elections. We will continue.”

Asad is not alone in the fight — Druze servicemen from across the political spectrum have joined the movement. Fadel Salalha, a former IDF commander who supports Meretz, and Asaad Asaad, a former IDF colonel who served in parliament for Likud from 1992 to 1996, discussed their mutual objection to the law over dinner on a Tuesday evening in the northern city of Karmiel.

“After this law, the majority of the Druze will not vote for Likud,” said Asad, who abandoned the party after being expelled for supporting the Oslo accords in 1996. Nodding in agreement, Salalha warned darkly of the consequences of yet another Netanyahu victory. “It will be like apartheid,” he said.

While they make up less than two percent of Israel’s population, the Druze have not banded together to form community-based political parties, like Arab Israelis have with Balad or the United Arab List. Since the 1990s, many Druze communities supported parties on the right, but this month’s elections signaled a shift towards the center. The three parties that openly supported amending or repealing the nation-state law — Blue and White, Labor, and Meretz — won a combined 52 percent of the vote in the twelve majority-Druze towns in northern Israel.

Not everyone is convinced that Druze voters are organizing against the law. Druze tend to vote for parties that put forth candidates from their own hometowns, according to Salim Brake, a political scientist at the Open University of Israel in Tel Aviv who studies Druze representation in Israel.

“There is some change, but the majority still vote for people from their villages,” said Brake. “Most Druze are against the law, but how do you explain that many still voted for right-wing parties?”

The dispute over the nation-state law is not just political: it strikes at the heart of how the Druze relate to the state they live in. While most Druze live in Lebanon, Syria, and Israel, there is a global diaspora with communities stretching from Venezuela to Germany. Regardless of where they live, Druze communities are loyal to the state they reside in. This concept is rooted in their faith, which emerged as an offshoot of Islam in 11th-century Egypt.

Clad in the traditional black shirt and white shirwal turban worn by Druze sheikhs, Fadel Mansour offered strong Arabic coffee and biscuits from his home in Isfiya. Renowned throughout Israel as a leading scholar of his faith, he elaborated upon centuries of Druze history in the Middle East.

“There are three values we will never give up: religion, the land, and national honor,” he said. “The Druze are loyal to the country where they don’t attack these values.”

Tracing back to the persecution the Druze faced from 1021 to 1028 CE, forcing them to scatter to the mountains of the Levant and keep their faith secret, Mansour emphasized how generations of Druze fought against foreign powers that refused to respect these values. “The Druze fought against the Ayyubids, the Seljuks, the Ottomans, the French, the Maronites,” he said. “The Druze fought against them to protect these values.”

For Mansour and other members of the community, the nation-state law represents a modern-day attack against their faith. “We want to live free from ostracism,” he said. ”This law made the Druze united.”

Druze who train to become sheikhs are exempt from conscription in the army — as are women — but the process to prove a religious exemption is long and difficult. Instead, there is a movement of young Druze who are refusing to serve on ideological grounds.

Founded in 2014, Urfod is an organization that helps Druze men that object to serving in the IDF. Meaning “Refuse” in Arabic, the group runs a hotline and works with objectors by providing legal assistance and psychological support.

“The law changed the whole relationship between the Druze and the state,” said Hala Marshood, an Urfod member who is not Druze and identifies as Arab Palestinian. “A lot of people felt betrayed by the state, and a lot of people refused to serve.”

Many draft resistors are jailed, with sentences ranging from as little as three months to as long as two years. Urfod helps objectors navigate the legal ways to avoid service, which often involves claiming an exception by proving they are mentally unfit to serve.

Despite their common aversion to the nation-state law, sheikhs like Mansour and activists from Urfod do not see eye to eye when it comes to their relationship with Israel. “Part of our struggle is against religious leaders,” said Marshood. “They support the status quo.”

Beyond its mission to aid draft resistors, Urfod campaigns for Israeli Druze to abandon their loyalty to Israel and identify as Palestinians instead. The movement was co-founded by Hadiya Kayoof and Khaled Farrag, two Druze activists who reject what they view as Israel’s systemic oppression of all Arab minorities in Israel and the Palestinian territories — Druze, Muslim, and Christian alike.

“This movement is revolutionary, it wants to create something new,” said Marshood. “The Druze have been excluded from the Palestinian struggle, and the issue of conscription hasn’t really been dealt with.”

For most Israeli Druze, giving up their Israeli identity is out of the question. “It’s not something you can choose, Palestinian identity is not a substitute for Israeli identity,” said Sawsan Kheir, a PhD candidate in psychology and theology at the University of Haifa and at Åbo Akademi University in Finland. “We will keep on being Israelis, it’s just that we don’t have equal rights.”

Born and raised in the Druze town of Peki’in in northern Israel, Kheir has dedicated years of research to studying religious minorities in Israel — particularly the Druze and Muslims. In one of her studies, she found that Druze Israelis experienced less discrimination in Jewish towns and universities than do Muslims. That could change with the passage of the nation-state law.

“Now, the Druze might feel more rejected,” said Kheir. “We serve in the army, we do what we should do, but still we are betrayed.”

From sheikhs in Isfiya to army commanders in Beit Jann, from youths in Rameh to academics in Haifa, there is one word that is constantly repeated: betrayal.

Ali Salalha at his home in Beit Jann. Photo: Giacomo Tognini

“Many young adults feel betrayed and say that they don’t want to serve in the army anymore,” said Kheir. “We have the same obligations, but we do not get the same rights.”Ali Salalha at his home in Beit Jann. Photo: Giacomo Tognini

As widespread as it may be, that feeling of betrayal has not translated into a political movement powerful enough to defeat the nation-state law. Druze voters turned out in large numbers for Blue and White and Meretz this year, but Netanyahu still emerged victorious. Protest leaders like Asad will challenge the law in the courts, but he is unlikely to succeed because the changes were enshrined in Israel’s Basic Law — making it more difficult for the Supreme Court to defy the wishes of parliament and overturn it.

Back in Beit Jann, Salalha was still confident that change will come. Sipping from a cup of coffee, he described another important value shared by Druze all over the world: brotherhood.

“All Druze are brothers, no matter where they live,” he said. “We will make an effort to make changes for our sons and daughters. We will continue like this all the time.”

Salalha seems to be an exception to the rule, and there is a pervading sense of hopelessness throughout Druze communities in Israel. With the re-election of Netanyahu and Salalha’s failure to make it into the Knesset, it’s clear that many Druze have lost faith in Israeli democracy.

“Israel is now like Poland between the two World Wars, where the constitution was liberal but there was discrimination against the Jews,” said Brake. “Now, unfortunately, the Jews are like the Polish and we are like the Jews.”

In the eyes of the Druze community, Israel is well on its way to becoming an illiberal democracy — or worse.

“There’s no reason to be optimistic,” said Brake. “We thought that we were equal citizens, but we’re not. It’s irreversible.”

Top image: Beit Jann, a Druze town in northern Israel. Photo: Eleonore Voisard