With Netanyahu’s re-election, Israeli Druze wonder if their loyalty to the state is reciprocated

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


Day # 3, Part I: Nazareth

TABGHA — From the Church of the Multiplication in Tabgha to the White Mosque in Nazareth, the morning began and ended with song.

As we walked past groups of pilgrims from China and Spain, circling the stone cloisters arranged around an olive tree, a hymn began to ring out from the church. Standing before the altar and the underlying mosaic depicting the miracle of the loaves and fishes, Maria Safir chanted alone.

She sang “Aquí estoy señor,” a Spanish hymn, her voice echoing off of the simple wooden ceiling and the polished stone walls, as her fellow worshipers stood in silent meditation beside her. Outside the church two of our group’s members, Professor Greg Khalil and Radha Dhar, were approached by Chinese pilgrims from Shenzhen, who were eager to meet travelers from different countries. In just a few minutes, we had come face to face with pilgrims — both Christian and not — who had come to Tabgha, known in ancient Greek as Heptapegon, to commemorate this holy Christian site on the Sea of Galilee.

“You may find the pilgrims here as interesting as the church,” said Ophir Yarden, our resident expert, as we discussed the recent influx of Chinese tourists to Israel.

Framed by olive groves and rolling hills beyond Lake Tiberias, Tabgha is a place so quiet that we could barely hear our own voices over the sound of birdsong. In the property beside the church, Paul Nordhausen helps the Benedictine monks run an extensive recreation park for children with special needs.

Standing beside a newly built playground with a carousel equipped for wheelchairs, Paul pointed out that kids of many faiths and backgrounds come to play here together every summer. “From that gate on, it’s only humans coming in here, not Israeli, Palestinian, Christian, Muslim, or Jewish,” he said. “Only human.”

A few years ago, this tranquil peace was shattered by an arson attack on the church by a group of far-right Jewish extremists. While the church has since recovered and been rebuilt with the help of donations from devotees and assistance from the Israeli government, it was a scarring experience.

“I was here in the middle of the night and the church was burning,” said Paul. “It was very difficult, but luckily we had a lot of support.”

As we ended our visit, walking past one of the seven springs that gave Heptapegon its name, we stopped to contemplate what we had learned at the Dalmanutha, a place for prayer and meditation composed of several wooden logs arranged around a rock altar.

Our bus then wound its way above the Sea of Galilee and into the mountains surrounding Nazareth, passing by historic sites like the Megiddo Plain and the Horns of Hattin. As we entered Nazareth, the roadside signs quickly went from Hebrew to Arabic, and traffic choked the road ahead.

After a brief walk through the old city, we reached the Catholic Church of the Annunciation, its wide dome soaring above the narrow streets of central Nazareth. As we entered, I realized that I had forgotten that it was an important day in Christianity: the feast of St. Joseph.

In the cavernous upper basilica, I took a moment to kneel in prayer. In the course of our whirlwind tour of the Holy Land, I had neglected to consider my own connection to the sites we were visiting. Feeling the pull of the dozens of icons of the Virgin Mary, I said a few more Hail Mary prayers for good measure.

As I made the sign of the cross, a Portuguese song rose upwards from the lower basilica, where a group of Brazilian pilgrims was chanting hymns in a small chapel. Soon enough, however, my serenity was interrupted by an oncoming tour group behind me.

After leaving the church we walked to the iconic White Mosque, passing through the meandering lanes of old Nazareth and the city’s central market, where we would attend the midday duhur prayer.

Sheikh Sami Abu Anas welcomed us into the mosque’s courtyard, where we sat down to listen to his discussion of faith in the city of Nazareth. As the largest Arab-majority city in Israel, Nazareth is an important symbol of how several identities which we often consider to be mutually exclusive — Muslim, Palestinian, Israeli, Jewish, Christian — can coexist within a single person.

Worshipper performing his ablutions before prayer at the White Mosque (Photo courtesy of Eleonore Voisard)

Reciting a passage from the Quran, Sheikh Abu Anas stressed that there should be no compulsion in religion. “The solution is dialogue,” he said, recalling the surrender of Nazareth to Israeli forces in 1948. When the mayor of Nazareth, then also the imam of the White Mosque, decided to peacefully surrender, it marked what Abu Anas termed the “first Palestinian recognition of the two-state solution.”

“I don’t have two faces,” he said, looking toward his congregation, which was slowly gathering inside the mosque. “I say the same to my community in the mosque.”

As the call to prayer, or adhan, began to emanate from the speakers, the faithful shuffled into a room inside the mosque. After a brief sermon from Sheikh Abu Anas, all the men in attendance stood to hear the prayer. On each successive chant of allahu akbar, the worshipers bowed their heads, and then knelt on the floor to pray. Then they paused in prayer, their heads close to the ground, before rising to stand again. At the prayer’s conclusion, the rows of congregants slowly retrieved their shoes, exiting the mosque to resume their day.

Even in the relative noise of a city like Nazareth, we were struck by the beauty of the adhan. For the students Jonathan Harounoff, Natacha Larnaud, and Leah Feiger, this was a more personal moment. They all remembered being woken up by the song of the call to prayer in their childhoods in Morocco, Dubai, and Zanzibar. “I felt warmth,” said Leah.


For Druze in the United States, Religion is a Way of Life

At Samad’s Gourmet Deli in Manhattan, Wassim Malaeb was talking about the Druze faith when a teenager paid him double the price for the candy bar she selected from the store’s shelves. As she was about to leave, he called out and stopped her. “It’s two dollars, not four,” he said as he returned the extra money. Turning back, he continued the conversation about his faith. “It’s just you and God,” he said. “No rituals.”

 

The exchange, on a recent winter day, spoke volumes about Druze belief and behavior. While the Druze see “ritual” as an obligation for a special caste of believers, religious practices filter down into everyday life. Malaeb does not consider himself religious, but he lives his Druze faith through doing good deeds in the world and passing on his values to his children.

 

“Believing in God and raising a good family,” said Malaeb. “That’s 70 percent of the religion.”

 

Malaeb spoke as he tended to customers while the sun dipped below the horizon outside the deli at 112th and Broadway. Behind him, rows of aromatic spices and freshly baked baklava gave witness to his Lebanese origins — as did a large Cedar tree printed on bags containing loaves of pita.

 

According to Sahar Muakasa of the American Druze Society’s New York chapter, there are only a few dozen Druze living in New York City. That represents a small fraction of the estimated 30,000 in the United States, one of the largest communities outside the Middle East. Of the approximately 1 million Druze around the world, most live in Syria, Lebanon, and Israel.

 

Outside of a small number of initiated Druze, known as the uqqal, most members of the faith observe no formal religious ritual. In Malaeb’s hometown of Baissour in the mountains of central Lebanon, the Druze dominate. Here in New York City, where he is part of a much smaller community, there are no houses of worship and hardly anyone formally initiated in the faith.

 

Despite the absence of these outward expressions of the Druze religion, the core tenets live on. “Almost no one here is religious, but we have to keep the community together,” said Malaeb. “This faith is all about the mind, because if you can control your mind, then you can do good things in life.”

 

Many Druze live their faith as a way of life. They attend yearly retreats and gatherings, abstain from eating pork, and refrain from drinking alcohol. But Malaeb sees it more as religious conditioning than ritual. “When you drink, your mind can’t do good things,” he said. “If you can’t control your mind, you lose control over your soul.”

 

To the Druze, the mind is represented by the color green. It is the first of the five colors that symbolize the faith, proceeding in a cosmic order: green for the mind, red for the soul, yellow for the truth, blue for willpower, and white for the realization of that willpower in the material world. These colors are often arranged in a five-pointed star, or in a flag that’s commonly flown in Druze communities.

 

Even those colors, important as they are, are not essential to living the faith. What matters, said Malaeb, is to live according to values such as honesty and altruism so that you are rewarded in the next life. Reincarnation is an important part of the Druze religion, granting believers a new life after this one.

 

Leaning back on his chair during a pause in business, as silence briefly filled the store devoid of customers, Malaeb told a parable that his father had taught him as a young child.

 

“One day there was a wealthy man, who had acres of land and a large, beautiful home,” said Malaeb. “He owned everything except for a tiny plot of land, where there lived a woman who was poor and pregnant. The rich man wanted to kick her out and have all of the land, so he did.”

Malaeb grinned and paused. “Nine months later, the woman gave birth, right after the man died,” he said. “The man was reborn as the woman’s child, but now he returned as a child with no land. He took his own inheritance away from himself.”

 

In the larger Druze community of New Jersey, the same tenets hold true. Wael Fayad emigrated to the United States three decades ago from the small hamlet of Bchetfine in the Chouf mountains of Lebanon, a half-hour drive south from Malaeb’s hometown. While there are few Druze religious leaders, or shaykhs, in the United States, he said he still found ways to live his faith.

 

“Our doctrine is a direct connection to God, 24/7,” said Fayad. “God is within us, and we are reminded of that connection by our values on a daily basis by the way we live our lives.”

 

For Fayad, the most important value is truthfulness. “Truthfulness of the tongue and preservation of the brethren are the key tenets,” he said. Ghassan Saab, a member of the American Druze Foundation’s Board of Trustees who lives in Michigan, echoed his sentiments. “Truthfulness and honorable dealing,” said Saab. “That, to me, is the main tenet of the Druze faith.”

 

Represented by the color yellow, truthfulness occupies a central position in the order of Druze colors and precepts. Fayad’s son, who was born in the United States, wears a necklace bearing the five-pointed star as a reminder of his identity.

 

Even among those who don’t consider themselves religious, these values are an essential part of daily life. “


In New York, a Druze Leader Keeps Her Faith Alive

Sahar Muakasa’s eyes grew wide with wonder as she flipped through the carefully scanned pages of one of the six Hikma, or Druze holy books, on her computer. Each page was meticulously handwritten in Arabic calligraphy, the beginning of each new chapter marked by larger, more ornate characters vividly painted in the five colors of the Druze faith.

“In Lebanon, every family will have at least one of the six books in their home,” she said, sitting in a worn office chair in her office on the second floor of a nondescript glass-and-steel building on 38th Street and Eighth Avenue. “These books cannot be printed, they must be handwritten. Opening the book is a ritual in itself.”

 

At least one Saturday evening a month, Muakasa holds religious meetings for the handful of Druze who live in the five boroughs and upstate New York. When the group can’t find a hall to rent elsewhere, they meet in Muakasa’s small office, which also serves as the New York chapter of the American Druze Society. Inside a narrow room with a low ceiling and harsh lighting, a beige sofa and wicker chairs sit arranged around a small coffee table.

 

Dressed in a gray sweater and blue jeans, Muakasa, 66, comes across as an unassuming figure.  When she is not juggling her roles at the head of three Druze charitable and religious organizations, she is on a quest to find a permanent house of worship to replace the drab halls and tiny rooms that currently act as a makeshift spaces for the community.

 

Usually, a shaykh, or Druze religious leader, is present at these meetings to read and interpret the Hikma. Most American Druze are unable to read Arabic, and it is forbidden to translate the six epistles of wisdom into other languages. Muakasa sees it as her duty to answer the questions of the congregation, many of whom come from as far away as Syracuse to learn more about their culture and religion.

 

“I see what they need, I follow and participate,” she said. “If a woman wants to ask a private question, then I answer them.”

Chuckling, she recalled the questions of younger Druze Americans who sometimes challenge the precepts of the faith. “The younger generation asks why they can’t marry a non-Druze,” she said. “We organize retreats for them every year, and so many people meet their future spouses there.”

 

On a recent Wednesday evening in February, Muakasa told me that meetings had been suspended until next month due to the absence of the only shaykh in New York. He was in Syria, and the sessions could not be held without him.

 

“Religious” is a fluid term for the Druze. While only a small minority of believers chooses to formally read the holy books and wear the clothing required to join the ranks of the initiated, many more practice their faith to varying degrees of intensity. Muakasa began studying the six epistles when she was young, and her fascination for her faith continued to grow into adulthood.

 

Despite the lack of a formal meeting, Muakasa fielded questions about the Druze. As I perused my notes and mentioned the seven commandments I had read about, she abruptly stopped me. “They’re not commandments, that’s wrong,” she said, shaking her head. “They’re traits. There are no commandments in the Druze religion.”

 

Over the course of three hours Muakasa expounded on her faith, covering everything from the mundane — no consumption of pork — to the complex, like the inner workings of reincarnation. “A lot of people talk and haven’t read the books,” she said. “I read the books, I study them, and then I teach.”

 

Swiveling her chair back towards her computer, she paused to admire the pages displayed on the screen. “Many Hikma are written by women, and they scribble notes in the margins to explain the teachings,” she said. What she described as scribbling was in truth elegant penmanship, small annotations slanting upwards from the main text.

 

Next, she opened YouTube and searched for a Druze religious song. “We sing them only on Thursday nights here,” she said, referring to the evenings that mark the beginning of the Druze day of rest on Friday. “We praise people from the Hikma, all the prophets and good souls who came before us.”

 

After a brief moment of silence, a melodic chant echoed through the room. Only the shaykh sang at first, soon joined by a chorus of believers chanting in unison. Muakasa smiled and sang along under her breath, adding her voice to the ethereal choir.

 

When the music ended, she returned to teaching. Comparing the chants to Christian hymns, she harked back to her youth as a student in a Catholic school in Beirut. Those were fond memories for her, even as a Druze. “Every day, we had to attend mass in church,” said Muakasa.

 

For someone who belongs to a religion as codified and dogmatic as Catholicism, it can be difficult to comprehend the practices of the Druze. Almost scoffing, Muakasa brushed this concern aside.

 

“In every religion you have your own identity, and if you’re born Christian, then you’re Christian, that’s just a fact of life,” she said. “But there’s more to religion than that.”

 

Pointing to the large stack of books about the Druze she had prepared for me to read on my journey home, she cut a contrast between her faith and mine. “Some religions are about beliefs, like the Ten Commandments or the Five Pillars of Islam,” she said. “For us, religion is a way of life.”