Day #3 Part II

BEIT JANN -- After lunch in Nazareth, our bus started driving further into the hills of Galilee. Our first stop was in Cana, where Jesus is said to have performed his first miracle, turning water into wine at a wedding celebration.

Sister Karen received us in Kafr Kana, at a Christian school teaching English, Hebrew, and Arabic to children from three to 13 years-old. Originally, Sister Karen comes from New Jersey. It’s her eighth year in Israel. Prior to teaching English, she spent a year on the Mount of the Beatitudes. Here, she enjoyed discovering a new culture. “Here, wedding receptions last for almost a week,” laughed Sister Karen. “That’s maybe why they ran out of wine!”

Back on the road, our bus wove into the heart of the Galilean hills strewed with olive and pomegranate trees, to the Druze village of Beit Jann. As we enjoyed the spectacular views, Ophir recalled the early history of Jewish inhabitants in the Holy Land. Back at the time of the Roman Empire, the Jewish Zenati family settled in a few villages of Upper Galilee. The Jewish community was numerically insignificant, but it has a symbolic representation of the continuity of Jewish demography in Israel.

Today, Beit Jann is home to another religious community that faced persecution in the Middle East: the Druze and their estimated 140,000 adherents in Israel. There, Sheikh Jamil Khatib, a prominent faith leader from the Druze community, welcomed us in his wood-paneled living room overlooking a Galilean valley bathed in a picturesque sunset.

“The encounter between people make them closer together,” said Sheikh Khatib. “And for us to develop honor, respect, warmth, and love.”

The leader of the Druze community and Beit Jann native explained to our group how the Druze faith developed in a strong commitment to monotheism while respecting all the prophets and other religions. The community is divided into two segments of worshippers: the religious, who are the only worshippers who have exclusive to the holy texts, unlike the secular, or the uninitiated, freer in their daily practices.

Sheikh Khatib explained that Druze ceremonies and traditions are unique. One does not convert to the Druze faith, but can only be born in a Druze family. It takes three months for a believer to become a religious leader, who represent role models for the whole community. The role of these leaders is crucial to pass on the traditions and keep the religion alive. Sheikh Khatib’s grey mustache revealed a proud smile as he mentioned that unlike other religions, no Druze leader had ever been accused nor convicted of crimes of some sort. “He who is heroic can control his impulses and let his values guide him,” said the sheikh, quoting a rabbinic saying.

We were presented with the diverse symbols of the faith, such as the colors of the flag and the faith’s main leader, Sheikh Amin Tarif, whose portraits were hanged in almost every corner of the living room. The flag of the state of Israel hangs proudly near the Druze symbols. Outside of honor and religion, the attachment to the land is the third fundamental value of the Druze faith, and tradition requires them to remain loyal to the state of the land they inhabit.

Our discussion was interrupted by Sheikh Khatib’s wife Ibtisam - meaning “smile,” in Arabic- and the rest of the family who brought food platters for us to enjoy Druze food. Stuffed grape leaves and zucchinis, rice and lentils dishes, home-made bread and hand-picked vegetables salad: obviously reputedly the best food in the region.

After we unabashedly helped ourselves to more food, dinner was followed by a discussion with Sawsan Kheir, a double Ph.D. candidate at Haifa University and Abo Akademi University in Finland, working on the evolution of Druze and Muslim communities in Israel.

Kheir walked us through her research on how the Druze youth has been slowly turning away from religion as they progressively open up to a more Westernized environment, with access to social media and other cultures influencing their identity.

But deep inside, Kheir explained, the Druze maintain a profound sense of spirituality and remain proud of their identity. Even if Israeli Druzes are prevented from connecting closely with their Lebanese and Syrian neighbors, they support each other and believe that they form one community. “Keeping this brotherhood is fundamental to us,” said Kheir. “There is this spiritual connection, this mutual help that unites us.”


Druze Women In Academia Are Breaking Barriers

BEIT JANN, Israel — When
Sawsan Kheir, a PhD student at the University of Haifa, was presented with the
opportunity to conduct research with Åbo Akademi in Finland, she was elated.
Until she found out that it would involve 10 days of travelling abroad by
herself. 

“They were trying to entice me with
this travel, but I was immediately put off,” Kheir said. “I was imagining my
father’s face and him telling me no.”

As a Druze woman, Kheir is not
supposed to travel alone. Religious Druze women are not supposed to travel
without a male guardian, or a mahram. Traditionally, a woman’s direct
male relative assumes this role, whether it be her brother, father, uncle or
grandfather.

The Druze are a religious and ethnic
group spread across the Middle East and make up almost 2 percent of the Israeli
population. One of the basic tenets of the Druze faith is state loyalty — the
people are loyal to the country they reside. This pushes Druze people to become
heavily involved in Israeli civic life, including enlisting in the military and
running for office.

Today, three years after she took that
initial trip and then accepted an offer to work with a research project on
young adults and religion in Finland.
Now, Kheir works and lives in Vaasa, Finland, thousands of miles away from her
family home in Israel.

Kheir is one of many Druze women who
are redefining the traditional role of the woman in Druze society. In the 1990s
in Israel, Druze women started enrolling in universities and higher education
programs. Since then, academic pursuits and opportunities in higher education
have enabled women to bypass some of the restrictions placed on Druze women,
including travelling, driving cars, and moving away from home.

While Kheir grew up in a religious
household in Beit Jann, a Druze village in the north of Israel, she chose to
follow a secular path. She does not wear a headscarf or dress in traditional
religious garb, but does not wear earrings -- something that Israeli Druze
women do not do.

As a secular Druze woman, Kheir does
not have access to Druze religious texts and is not bound by the traditional
gender roles set by the Druze faith.

“When you become religious, you have
to abstain from certain things in life,” Kheir said. “You’re supposed to focus
on religion and prayer.”

Although she grew up with a
non-religious father and a religious mother, Kheir has become even less
religious over the course of her life. She still considers herself a Druze
woman, despite not following their religious traditions.

However, even Druze women that identify
as religious are using academia to push against their traditions.

Eman Khateeb Slalha, a student at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, is the daughter of a Druze sheikh, the Arabic word for leader. In the Druze tradition, a sheikh is a religious leader in the community. She considers herself a religious Druze woman, one that has chosen a path of faith.

Unlike Kheir, Khateeb chose to follow
a more religious life path, in line with her family’s background. However, this
has not stopped her from going after what she wants.

“My dreams are big,” Khateeb said. Eventually, Khateeb wants to
get a doctorate degree and go into politics.

Earlier this year, Khateeb
participated in a 24-hour hackathon at her university. With a team, she was instructed
to come up with an issue and a solution.

“If you want to see change in the
world, you have to start from your own environment,” Khateeb said, speaking to
the reason why she decided to participate in the Hackathon.

Khateeb’s
group came up with its own issue: media bias. Together, her team came up with
the idea for an application that connects people around the world based on
their own interests. Regardless of their geographical location or language
capabilities, people on the app can speak to each other about the things they
love.

“Studies have shown that children find
ways to find things in common even without sharing the same language,” Khateeb
said. “Why can’t we do the same?”

Khateeb’s
team ultimately won first prize.

Outside of giving her the opportunity
to develop an app, academia has allowed Khateeb to pursue her goals and
continue to follow her religious faith.

In March, Khateeb was presented with
an opportunity to travel to the University of Girona in Barcelona, Spain, with
a delegation from her university.

Although Druze women are not supposed
to travel alone, Khateeb decided to go.

“I do uncommon things,” Khateeb said. “It’s
a different personality.”

Khateeb’s
trip to Barcelona  was the first time she had ever left Israel.
However, she clarified that she was surrounded by other students from the
university. In June, she will be traveling to Germany and in September, to the
United States.

“It was so weird at first, but then I
got used to it,” Khateeb said.

For both Khatib and Kheir, their
decisions to go abroad relied on the opinions of their male family
members. 

Both of them credit the men in their
lives for providing them with the tools to be able pursue their careers and travel
abroad.

“My father was so supportive,” Kheir
said. “I was travelling for education, not with a friend for pleasure.” Education,
being so important in the Druze tradition, was a good enough reason for Kheir’s
father to allow her to travel by herself.

“He and my husband put the wings on my
back and said go and fly,” Kheir said. “Without their support, I would never
have been able to do it.” However, it was Kheir herself that agreed to take the
research job at Åbo Akademi.

Khateeb also credited her male family
members for supporting her career choices and ambitions.

“She’s very smart,” said her father,
Sheikh Jameel Khatib, after he introduced her to a group of students from
Columbia Journalism School. He did not mention her trips abroad.

Ten years ago, Khateeb married Hamoud
Slalha, who identifies as Druze but is not a religious man.

“He is my support,” Khateeb said. “It’s
not a matter of whether he allows me to, but he supports me.”

Despite having the support of her
immediate family, Khateeb still faced criticisms from her community in Beit
Jann.

“My husband told me to direct all criticisms to him,” Khateeb said. “They’ll have to go through him.”

Top photo: Eman Khateeb Slalha in her home in Beit Jann. Photo by Eleonore Voisard.


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 II: Beit Jann

BEIT JANN -- After lunch in Nazareth, our bus started driving further into the hills of Galilee. Our first stop was in Cana, where Jesus is said to have performed his first miracle, turning water into wine at a wedding celebration.

 

Sister Karen received us in Kafr Kana, at a Christian school teaching English, Hebrew, and Arabic to children from three to 13 years-old. Originally, Sister Karen comes from New Jersey. It’s her eighth year in Israel. Prior to teaching English, she spent a year on the Mount of the Beatitudes. Here, she enjoyed discovering a new culture. “Here, wedding receptions last for almost a week,” laughed Sister Karen. “That’s maybe why they ran out of wine!”

 

Back on the road, our bus wove into the heart of the Galilean hills strewed with olive and pomegranate trees, to the Druze village of Beit Jann. As we enjoyed the spectacular views, Ophir recalled the early history of Jewish inhabitants in the Holy Land. Back at the time of the Roman Empire, the Jewish Zenati family settled in a few villages of Upper Galilee. The Jewish community was numerically insignificant, but it has a symbolic representation of the continuity of Jewish demography in Israel.

 

Today, Beit Jann is home to another religious community that faced persecution in the Middle East: the Druze and their estimated 140,000 adherents in Israel. There, Sheikh Jamil Khatib, a prominent faith leader from the Druze community, welcomed us in his wood-paneled living room overlooking a Galilean valley bathed in a picturesque sunset.

 

“The encounter between people make them closer together,” said Sheikh Khatib. “And for us to develop honor, respect, warmth, and love.”

 

The leader of the Druze community and Beit Jann native explained to our group how the Druze faith developed in a strong commitment to monotheism while respecting all the prophets and other religions. The community is divided into two segments of worshippers: the religious, who are the only worshippers who have exclusive to the holy texts, unlike the secular, or the uninitiated, freer in their daily practices.

 

Sheikh Khatib explained that Druze ceremonies and traditions are unique. One does not convert to the Druze faith, but can only be born in a Druze family. It takes three months for a believer to become a religious leader, who represent role models for the whole community. The role of these leaders is crucial to pass on the traditions and keep the religion alive. Sheikh Khatib’s grey mustache revealed a proud smile as he mentioned that unlike other religions, no Druze leader had ever been accused nor convicted of crimes of some sort. “He who is heroic can control his impulses and let his values guide him,” said the sheikh, quoting a rabbinic saying.

 

( Photo Courtesy of Natacha Larnaud)

We were presented with the diverse symbols of the faith, such as the colors of the flag and the faith’s main leader, Sheikh Amin Tarif, whose portraits were hanged in almost every corner of the living room. The flag of the state of Israel hangs proudly near the Druze symbols. Outside of honor and religion, the attachment to the land is the third fundamental value of the Druze faith, and tradition requires them to remain loyal to the state of the land they inhabit.

 

Our discussion was interrupted by Sheikh Khatib’s wife Ibtisam - meaning “smile,” in Arabic- and the rest of the family who brought food platters for us to enjoy Druze food. Stuffed grape leaves and zucchinis, rice and lentils dishes, home-made bread and hand-picked vegetables salad: obviously reputedly the best food in the region.

 

After we unabashedly helped ourselves to more food, dinner was followed by a discussion with Sawsan Kheir, a double Ph.D. candidate at Haifa University and Abo Akademi University in Finland, working on the evolution of Druze and Muslim communities in Israel.

 

Kheir walked us through her research on how the Druze youth has been slowly turning away from religion as they progressively open up to a more Westernized environment, with access to social media and other cultures influencing their identity.

 

But deep inside, Kheir explained, the Druze maintain a profound sense of spirituality and remain proud of their identity. Even if Israeli Druzes are prevented from connecting closely with their Lebanese and Syrian neighbors, they support each other and believe that they form one community. “Keeping this brotherhood is fundamental to us,” said Kheir. “There is this spiritual connection, this mutual help that unites us.”

 


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. “