Seventh-day Adventists fit into the rhythms — and faiths — of Israeli life

First published in Religion News Service (RNS)

JERUSALEM — Like many religiously observant Israelis, Julio Mendez and his wife, Milagros, were frantically preparing for the Sabbath as sundown approached on a Friday in late March. As leaders of their religious community for the past 15 years, Milagros was in charge of Friday night dinner, coordinating a 20-person potluck featuring an assortment of salads, vegetarian lasagna, zucchini soup and home-baked desserts.

Speeding down Ma’ale HaShalom street at 4 p.m. in his white 2012 Toyota Corolla, Julio, 62, was paying a final visit to an ill friend before sundown.

The Mendezes are Sabbath observers, but they are not Jewish. They belong to a small Christian minority in Israel of Seventh-day Adventists, who number just 900 in the entire country — a tiny fraction even of Israel’s Christian population. Julio Mendez is the senior pastor of Jerusalem’s only Adventist church, on Abraham Lincoln Street in Jerusalem’s Old City center.

While in other countries the world’s 21 million Adventists stand out beyond their numbers for their Saturday services and their public evangelism, here in Israel the group can be easy to miss. Being an Adventist, for one thing, doesn’t preclude a believer from belonging to another faith.

In Haifa, Sergey Gregoriev is the Adventists’ senior pastor of northern Israel. Gregoriev also considers himself Jewish. “For me, being a Seventh-day Adventist is in harmony with my Jewish roots,” said Gregoriev, who arrived in Israel as part of the million-strong wave of Russian-speaking immigrants in the late 1980s and 1990s.

The Seventh-day Adventist Life and Hope Center on Ben Gurion Street in Haifa, Israel. Photo credit: Natacha Larnaud

Given the fluidity with other faiths, Adventist churches often reflect their converts’ native religions. The Jerusalem congregation, for instance, seems particularly Jewish.

“We do not encourage our community members to drive on the Sabbath, or engage in business matters,” said Mendez as he pulled up outside the church on Abraham Lincoln Street. On a wall was a gold plaque that read in Hebrew: “The international congregation of Sabbath-keeping Seventh-day Adventists in Jerusalem. Everyone is welcome.”

Inside, a Torah ark, covered by a blue velvet curtain emblazoned with two gilded menorahs, stood in the center of the room. The room looked like a standard synagogue, but in a telling sign that it wasn’t, a Hebrew copy of the New Testament rested on a rosewood stand in front of the Torah ark, left open to a passage from the Gospel of Mark about Jesus entering Jerusalem.

Julio Mendez has been the senior pastor of Jerusalem’s only Adventist church for the past 15 years. Photo credit: Jonathan Harounoff

The Torah ark, Mendez said, was brought to the church by Morocco-born Richard Elofer, himself a Jew, who became the president of the Adventist community after marrying an Adventist woman.

“If the Kotel is full and someone wants to celebrate their bar mitzvah with a Sefer Torah, they can come here free of charge,” Mendez said.

Two hours’ drive away in Nazareth, Wisam Ali, the chief Adventist pastor for the country’s Arabic-speaking community, was born into an influential Muslim family where his father was the head of his local tribe and his uncle the imam.

“My decision was the ultimate shame to my family. They even called a council to discuss the matter,” said Ali.

He is now working on building the country’s first Arabic-speaking Adventist church in Israel.

The Seventh-day Adventists originated in 19th-century upstate New York as an offshoot of the Millerites, who believed Christ’s second coming would occur in 1844. When it failed to materialize, a fact known as the Great Disappointment, the Adventist movement’s leaders claimed that Jesus had instead entered a heavenly sanctuary on the expected date and that his return to earth would be nonetheless imminent. Since then, the Adventist movement has continued to grow, with some 86,000 churches worldwide.

They believe the Bible to be infallible — their Saturday Sabbath reflects the Book of Genesis’ account that God rested on the seventh day.

“We have 28 fundamental beliefs in the Adventist Church, all found in the Old and New Testament,” said Mendez.

Core to the faith is tending to the body as God’s divine creation, which is why many Adventists follow healthy, plant-based diets, abstaining from alcohol, caffeine and smoking. Studies such as the Blue Zones projects have shown that Adventists live on average a decade longer than non-Adventists.

Engaging in same-sex relations is heavily discouraged. “We do not condemn homosexuals, but we always encourage them not to engage in homosexual acts,” Mendez said. “It is not the original plan, and we help our young members who have those tendencies through rehabilitation programs and counseling sessions.”

But the Adventist community in Israel remains relatively unknown to the public and has attracted little media attention, something the Mendezes are hoping to change. They have recently struck up strategic partnerships with local tour guides in Jerusalem in a bid to raise awareness of the city’s Adventist community.

The entrance to the Seventh-day Adventist Church on Abraham Lincoln Street in Jerusalem. Photo by Jonathan Harounoff

One guide, a regular visitor to the church, attracts large groups of Jewish travelers who have never heard of the Adventist community.

“Most people are shocked when they see us,” Julio Mendez said, “but I also say that if you believe in Jesus, you would also keep the Sabbath because Jesus and his disciples were all Sabbath keepers.”

“Many Israelis seem confused that we keep Shabbat,” said Milagros Mendez, as her husband nodded. “They assume that all Christians are Sunday keepers, but, for me, this is a chance to teach people that there are Christian Shabbat keepers, too.”

But sharing a Sabbath is a long way from sharing a faith, according to Joel Collick, a British-born Jewish Jerusalem resident. “Even though Adventists incorporate the Sabbath into their faith, I don’t know how well received they would be among Jewish communities in Israel because the fundamental theological differences are what would stand out more.”


Overnight in Bethlehem

Snapshots from our dinner and home-stay experiences with Palestinian families in Bethlehem, Beit Sahour and Beit Jala

By Tatyana Turner, Giacomo Tognini, Eleonore Voisard, Natacha Larnaud, Haleluya Hadero, Jonathan Harounoff, Bella Farr

Part 1: Tatyana Turner,

(Photo: Tatyana Turner)

It was the start of an unforgettable night in Bethlehem. Though Michelle and I were very excited about the venture with our host family, the unknown made us feel apprehensive. But after a few short minutes of conversing on the comfortable black leather chairs in the lobby of the Jacir Palace Hotel, our minds were put at ease.  

Reema Azar, a woman wearing a neat updo and a kind smile, escorted us to her car. Our host is a third grade teacher and lifelong Bethlehem resident. She explained that she only lived five minutes away from the hotel, but because of rush hour we were caught in traffic. Nevertheless, our 20-minute car ride was enriching because we were able to drive through the urban parts of Bethlehem as we passed through the town’s main center, including Manger Square with its stately church and brightly lit boutiques.

During our ride, Reema gave us some background on her family. She has three daughters ages 24, 20 and 16, and an 11-year-old son. Reema’s husband, whom she met in her youth at Sunday School, built the home for their family. In 2000, he expanded the size of the home to accommodate guests as another source of income. Our arrival was greeted with music: Joseph, the 11-year-old, played mellow tunes on his lute, accompanied by his father on the drums.

Part 2: Giacomo Tognini and Zachary Folk

When we arrived at our host Jeries Qumsieh’s home, on the border of Bethlehem and Beit Sahour, we quickly discovered we knew one of his cousins. Our professor Greg Khalil is a member of Jeries’ mother’s family, the Abu Farhas.
Through our conversations with Jeries and his family, we heard an alternative to the brain drain that is plaguing Palestinian Christians throughout the West Bank. Jeries’ wife, Rudaina Sahoury, is an English teacher in a local school in Bethlehem. While Jeries is acutely aware of the difficulties of living under occupation — he was imprisoned in an Israeli jail from age 15 to 17 for throwing stones during the first intifada — he said he is deeply loyal to his hometown.

“I will never leave here,” he said, as we got into his car, outside the tall, concrete apartment block where he lives. “I have family in America, in Flint, but for me, this is home.”

We took the car for a quick drive to a nearby shop with two of his three young daughters — Nutra, Cedra, and Christa — to buy a gift for Mother’s Day, which was the following day. Nutra and Cedra were excited, speaking in excellent English about their plans for the Mother’s Day party at their primary school.

As he began to prepare a meal of pasta with spiced meat and mushrooms, Jeries mused about the local education system. “The schools here teach Arabic, English, French, and German,” he said. “But I wish that my children could learn Hebrew, because they will need it.”

He speaks from experience: Jeries works as a plumber in Jerusalem. Over our meal he showed us two large blue papers, which were his Jerusalem ID cards: one for his work, allowing him to enter Jerusalem every day from 5 am to 10 pm, and the other card allowing him religious pilgrimage for a few weeks over Easter.

The end of the evening took a much more somber tone, as Jeries and his wife began getting news alerts about a shooting that took place at the Bethlehem checkpoint. The parents turned the TV channel to the news, away from the movie that the children had been enjoying. As we watched the coverage, Jeries browsed Facebook for more updates. There were a lot of unknown facts about the shooting, but he was able to check in with family members quickly to assure their safety.

Part 3: Eleonore Voisard

In Beit Sahour, Nadine recently graduated high school. Her father makes Christian art out of olive wood. In these photos he carves crosses that he will turn into fridge magnets.

(Photos: Eleonore Voisard)

Part 4: Natacha Larnaud and Radha Dhar

When we first arrived at Marcelle and Elias Bandak’s home, Radha, Thea and I were greeted like old family friends. As we settled onto their living room couches, the Bandaks noted with laughter that we said “thank you” every time we were offered drinks, food, or blankets.

“There are two things Americans tend to say a lot,” said Thea. “Thank you, and sorry.” This was all it took to break the ice.

Marcelle and Elias, both 34 years old, are an energetic and good-looking couple from Bethlehem. Marcelle is a stay-at-home mom and Elias a basketball coach and referee. The family is observant Christians: both adults wore crosses, and religious candles and icons filled the living room space.

The couple’s young daughters-- Alleen, 3 and Ormella, 6--spent all night talking about the costume party that was supposed to take place at their school the next day. They both chose to dress as characters from the movie Frozen.

We continued our conversation over dinner in the kitchen. Marcelle had prepared savoury lentils with caramelized onions, diced cucumber and tomatoes. We were served green tea with fruit and local sweets for dessert.

As we sat back on the couches after dinner, the couple shared an apple and mint shisha, a regular evening ritual for them. Elias enjoys debate and discussion about many topics, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Marcelle was more peaceful, and wanted to show us a dramatic Lebanese soap opera she enjoys (which I must say was pretty captivating to the rest of us). Her philosophy was to let go of what is out of her control. “You’re going to talk about this again, Elias?” she said when her husband started speculating about the future of their country. “Khalas habibi (enough, dear),  life is today, not tomorrow.”

In the middle of our conversation, the news broke that a Palestinian man had been shot at the checkpoint on his way home. The mood shifted. Elias’ rebellious attitude turned into a deep silence which lasted until the end of the night and Marcelle’s positivity turned into exhaustion. As she was sitting on the couch, phone in hand, exchanging texts with family and friends about what had happened to find out more, she sighed. “It’s all the time. And it’s closer and closer. I’m just tired.”

She later found out that schools would be closed the following day due to the incident. When I expressed my concern about the girls being disappointed that the costume party was cancelled, she said, “While we’re here worrying about a costume party, two mothers are mourning their son.”

We stayed up talking about the power of intercultural experiences as a solution to break stereotypes and hopefully one day achieve peace. Hosting foreigners as the Bandaks do gives people the opportunity to live their life through their lense for a short period of time, and breaks any stereotypes one may have about Palestinians, which to be completely honest, I myself had before staying overnight with them.

Our farewell followed a delicious breakfast which included pita bread, olive oil, zaatar and labneh, in the company of Alleen, their younger daughter. Elias drove us back to the hotel, and as we hugged goodbye and thanked them for a lovely stay, we promised that one day, we’d be back for longer.

(Photos: Natacha Larnaud)

Part 5: Haleluya Hadero

A quick glance inside the Maria house in Bethlehem signals this is a Christian home. Wooden crosses are spread across the white walls, small paintings of Christ and the Virgin Mary are tucked inside the brown living room doors, and bright red stitched art with the phrase, “God bless our home” is framed on top of tables.

George and Natalie Maria’s family is Catholic, and worships weekly at the Church of the Nativity. It’s not lost on them they worship in places most Christians only dream about. “I count it as a gift,” George said about his birthplace.

Under the bright fluorescent lighting in the white-tiled dining area, we enjoyed an “upside down” meal -- a yellow rice dish mixed with zucchini, yellow corn, spiced potatoes, and sliced carrots, coupled with stuffed green olive leaves, and a mixed bowl of bright red tomatoes and chopped cucumbers.

For Natalie, stuffed olive leaves are a cumbersome dish to prepare. It requires patience to continuously wrap the leaves, one after another, around tiny scoops of rice. But in the end, it pays off – in addition to looking beautiful laid out atop the green tablecloth, they’re George’s favorite dish.

Michline, one of the couple’s four children, took a break from her dentistry studies to welcome us. She attends a private college, something, according to George, is common in Bethlehem. “All the Christians send their children to private schools,” he said. They worry about safety in public schools, and ultimately, problems with mixing students of different backgrounds together in the school system. But for the most part, the couple hopes to tune out the problems on their doorsteps.  

Before we ended our night, we took a slow stroll in the old city, up to the Church of the Nativity, a mere ten-minute walk from the house. Looking up at the bright red cross on top of the church, I told George that as a fellow Christian, I wanted proof that Christ was indeed born in this spot.

He turned around and looked at me. “Do you believe?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“That’s the only proof you need,” he said.

Part 6: Jonathan Harounoff

When Paul, David and I stayed with the Khair family in Beit Sahour, we experienced much more than a delicious dinner. Our host Therese, an East Orthodox nurse and mother of two, encouraged discussion about family and community over the course of our stay in the two-story home.

Mais, Therese’s 16-year-old daughter, told us about an important religion test she would take the next day at her private Christian school. Beit Sahour, just east of Bethlehem, is overwhelmingly Christian, with a minority Muslim population. Around 80 percent of the town’s inhabitants belong to some type of Christian denomination, Therese told me.

Therese poured each one of us a glass of freshly squeezed lemonade made from lemons she had been growing on her property. Religion, politics and nursing all came up over dinner, but Mais’s studies dominated conversation. She was torn between wanting to leave her home town for better academic opportunities and staying with her family and settling for a below-par education.

The next day, as Paul and I entered the family’s living room, Mais was in a celebratory mood. Her exam was cancelled because of a town-wide strike. The reason for the strike was less cause for celebration. Though the full details were yet to emerge, a Palestinian had been shot at a checkpoint, causing many shop owners and professionals to shut down their businesses as a form of protest. One of the shops I walked past bore the following sign:

                  إضراب إحتراماً لدم الشهيد

                 Striking in honor (and support) of the martyr

Part 7: Bella Farr

After a long day traveling through the West Bank, we were thankful to spend a night with our host family in Beit Sahour, a Palestinian town just east of Bethlehem. We were greeted by Kawkab, a nurse who often hosts people from all over the world in her home.

The family was warm, welcoming, and, thankfully, liked to eat. Her four children, who ranged from 13 to 26 in age, popped in and out of the kitchen in their pajamas, sneaking bites of pita. Scooping large helpings of maqluba and mujaddara onto our plates, the family plied us with questions: “what are you studying, why are you here, and what do you think of Palestine?”

We spoke about our backgrounds, and learned more about theirs. The family’s only daughter, Luciana, was in the process of getting a master’s degree in environmental studies in Ramallah, and Elias, the family’s middle son, was working at a gift shop in Bethlehem and had just finished his bachelor’s degree in media studies. He had completed his thesis on the impacts of media on the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States.

After sharing a pot of hot tea and watching an episode of an Egyptian soap opera, we went to bed in a newly renovated portion of the house. The family plans to move into the space this summer in order to start renting out the rest of the house to Airbnb guests. We fell asleep under Donald Duck blankets, using their high speed internet connection to watch a made-for-TV movie on Netflix.

The following morning, everyone was running late. After getting downstairs, Kawkab told us to hurry while serving up large portions of eggs cooked in olive oil and seasoned with zaatar. We missed the Covering Religion group, but it was nice to feel at home for a little while.


Empowering Palestinian Women, one stitch at a time

BEIT SAHOUR — There are a few words that can be used to describe Najla Azar : petite, open and inviting, just like her home in Beit Sahour, the largely Christian town outside of the West Bank.

 Almost
all things sacred to her are displayed on her living room walls. A black and
white photo of she and her husband, who is also her first cousin, on their
wedding day are proudly displayed by the entrance. Framed pictures of her four
children and their spouses, all of whom are Orthodox Christians, are also
showcased. On her couch sits two needles with black thread wrapped around it.
When the project is completed, it  be an
intricately embroidered shawl that will join a vibrant collection of Azar’s
other work including dresses, wallets, scarfs and bookmarks. These items, once
pinned to the wall, are ready to be sold to customers around the world, a
continuation of a lengthy journey.

Azar has been using her home as a workspace
for nearly 50 years. As a seasoned craftswoman, she founded a business called “
Cross Stitch 4 Palestine,” a website that sells embroidered products both
locally and overseas. Her mission, however, is not just to sell handmade
crafts, it’s to encourage women empowerment between the Muslim and Christian
communities. Azar expanded her business by allowing women from Bethlehem, Gaza
and Hebron to help her stitch products. The opportunity allows for the ladies
to support themselves and their families whom many are responsible for.

“I wanted to help support these women,” said Azar, a 71-year old Christian woman whose income supports herself and her husband who is unemployed.

According to the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs,  the Gaza unemployment rate is 44 percent with the leading cause due to disability.” The unemployment rate is somewhat higher in the West Bank cities like Bethlehem and Hebron, but making a living is still a considerable challenge.

Although Azar had
never lived in a refugee camp, she had visited two times before which sparked
her interest in helping.

 “ A lot of these women are either enrolled in
school and are responsible for the costs or they have to take care of their
husbands who may be sickly,” Azar said. “ That’s why it’s important for us to
make sales.”

The craftswoman
learned the art of embroidery at the age of 13. While she was still in school,
learning how to stitch was a mandatory for young women.

In 1977, at the age
of 25, Azar traveled to Jerusalem for the first time. She had been hired to
work in the dining room at the Church of St. Andrew’s, a Scottish Church.
There, she befriended Yael, a Jewish Orthodox woman who would later become her
business partner for Cross Stitch 4 Palestine.

During the Second
Intifada, Azar was no longer able to work at the Scottish Church and had to
figure out a way to help support her young family. Since mobility was limited,
Azar decided to return to embroidery and create her own business. During the
day, she would invite women from Bethlehem and Hebron to come to her house so
she could teach them how to stitch.

“These ladies were clever,” said Azar. “ They learned very quickly,”

She taught them how
to do the cross stitch.

Each town has its own
distinct knitting style. In Beit Sahour, the signature pattern is the
cross-stitch which is a series of “ X” or cross shaped patterns. Despite the
appearance, the cross-stitch does not have a religious tie to it. However,
items that have a cross-stitch pattern are popular among the Eastern Orthodox
and Catholic communities, particularly during Christmas and Easter.

The cross-stitch is sold to local churches, including her own, First Baptist Church in Jerusalem.

“Life is much easier now,” said Azar. She now has access to go to and from Jerusalem with a church permit. This also allows her to pick up the material necessary to create the embroidered goods and transports it to the women who work for her.

“My hope is that people will continue to support us so that I can continue to support the ladies,” said Azar. “My hope it that they will be able to lead a life of peace.”


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 #8 : Jerusalem

JERUSALEM -- It was a brisk Sunday morning — our final full day of our Israel/Palestine journey — and the skies were gray and wet.

We walked to the back of a long line that extended down the hill adjacent  to the Western Wall, waiting to enter the Haram al-Sharif, otherwise known as the Temple Mount: a site sacred to several religions, but governed according to Muslim authority.

The rain started to pick up in pace. Our classmates whipped their umbrellas out; the women unleashed headscarves to cover themselves before entering the site. We had been instructed that morning to dress carefully: No tight fitting clothes. No shorts. Dresses preferred. And no non-Muslim religious articles. Ophir Yarden, our guide, would soon explain why.

“When things are sensitive, everything is sensitive,” he said, adding that  political tensions tended to make the Temple Mount’s Islamic authorities,  known as the Waqf, even more vigilant than usual.

We approached the entrance. There were metal detectors and an x-ray machine. Nearby is a leather-clad bible and other religious objects, both Jewish and Christian, sitting on a shelf before the entrance. Visitors, many of them tourists, had presumably tried to bring them in, wittingly or unwittingly in spite of the rules.

While we were waiting to pass through security, Ophir filled us in on some of the context. The Temple Mount, where Jews believe Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Isaac, is holy among Jews who believe this to be the site of the First and Second Jewish Temples. For Christians, Jesus Christ was believed to have been found at the Temple Mount after his parents, Mary and Joseph, went searching for a child they thought they’d lost.

But the site is exceptionally sacred among Muslims. For the initial 16 to 18 months of Muhammad’s ministry, his followers  prayed towards Jerusalem. Muhammad’s “night journey” in Islam is also a large contributor to the Temple Mount’s status, during which, Muslims believe,  he traveled from Arabia to Jerusalem at a transcendent pace.

And there are two crucially important mosques in the compound: a black-domed building that faces Mecca, and the gold-plated Dome of the Rock, on the opposite site. Only Muslims are allowed inside.

We made our way across the wooden bridge  to the Al Aqsa compound, which  encompasses the entire space and not just its famous mosque. Before we enter,  Ophir points to riot gear near the stone entryway.

“Hopefully they stay there for the next hour, and the next year,” he said, before ushering us forward.

Ophir  gave us some insight into the tensions over the Temple Mount.  There are many Jews who believe that not only were the first and second temples build here, but that a  third temple will also arise  here one day.

Because of this, security within the compound is especially tight.  Ophir explained  that a religious Jew was arrested last week for praying on the Temple Mount, and that a young girl was prevented from entering the Old City on Purim, because she was dressed as a high priest with a sacrificial lamb. Security forces in the area feared that her costume would start a riot.

Non-Islamic rituals practiced at the Temple Mount are viewed through the lens of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Ophir said, and through the perspective of cultural encroachment, making seemingly small things tense.

“If Jews were to pray here, there would be resistance,” he said. “It’s a national tension, but religion adds oil to the fire.”

We strolled through the rain, some of us ill-prepared for the droplets that soaked our socks through our sneakers. This was it. The last remaining hours of our trip. Our professor, Ari Goldman, suggested that we pose for a class picture in front of the Dome of the Rock.

We were wet. We were cold. We were layered. We've looked better in other pictures.

We clustered together on the steps facing the mosque’s bright, reflective dome. The awe many of us shared, standing in one of the world's holiest places at the end of our journey, might have escaped the photograph.