NEW YORK – Defending Israel has always been part of life for Faten Naseralden, Einav Halabi and Marwan Kheir. Growing up, they were taught to love the country they were born in and stand up for its right to exist.
Naseralden, Halabi and Kheir are Israeli Druse.
They arrived in the United States two weeks ago as part of a group of seven young Druse invited by Jewish organizations to get a message across: that you can be non-Jewish and happy in Israel.
After speaking at university campuses, high schools and synagogues in California, they arrived in New York on Monday, for another week of appearances.
“I wanted to see people’s faces when we spoke to them,” Naseralden, who serves as an inspector in the Israel Police, told The Jerusalem Post, as she sat around an outdoor table at 65th Street and Columbus Avenue, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “I knew it would be powerful but when I arrived, after the second or third time, I really saw that expression on people’s faces, like they are thinking ‘Wow, this is the beautiful side of Israel.’” Halabi, who works as a journalist for international media in Israel, added, “I think if Jews had come here and done advocacy, it would be too obvious to people, but when it is the Druse, it’s different.”
Even though their delegation is apolitical and they stress that they do not speak for the entire Druse community in terms of political opinion, the discussion often ends up revolving around politics.
“We see ourselves as Israeli Druse and we pass on the message that Israel is a peaceful country. When there will be a partner on the other side who will also want peace, Israel will be happy,” Kheir, who is the first Druse engineer at Israeli Aerospace Industries, said. “Israel is not interested in war, and we explain that.”
While they were in Los Angeles last week, Lebanese students at UCLA confronted the group.
“One of them told us we can’t call the IDF a moral army, because we’ve destroyed Beirut,” Halabi told the Post. “But when she heard us speak, and we spoke to her in Arabic, it changed something. It’s more powerful and significant.”
The goal of the advocacy tour is to present a new perspective on Israel as well as to educate Americans about the Druse minority and its place in Israeli society.
“We are a community that promotes peace,” Halabi said. “We define ourselves as Israelis, we speak Arabic, we can understand the other side, but we see ourselves as Israelis.
“We can be missionaries of peace, but the Druse community is known to also be loyal to the country in which it lives, so we are loyal to Israel,” she continued.
The Druse live mostly in Syria, Lebanon and Israel; about 130,000 of them live in the latter country. It is a distinct and indigenous ethnic group in Middle East.
“The Druse have never had aspirations for a state of their own, and therefore they are loyal to the country in which they live and were born,” Kheir explained. “This is why there is a strong bond between the Druse community and the country in which they are.”
But as Naseralden put it, “not everything is rosy.”
The Druse in Israel feel that they are not always considered equal citizens.
“There is still discrimination,” Halabi said. “We love the country, and even though it still discriminates against us, we can’t just see ourselves as Palestinian all of a sudden. We were educated on Israeli values, and we are Israeli.”
“We are loyal, that’s obvious,” Kheir added. “But we expect the state to do a bit more for us, for the maintenance of our villages, our communities, our infrastructures.”
Naseralden, Kheir, Halabi and their peers from the delegation see themselves as Israeli patriots. Some even use the word Zionist.
“If Zionism means to love Israel, to love the Jewish people and to protect the country, then I am the most Zionist of all,” Naseralden told the Post.
Naseralden’s family is known in the Druse community for being “hardcore Zionists.” Many of her family members have served in the army and many died in the service of the country. For her, being in the United States advocating for Israel is a continuation of the values she grew up on.
“I told myself that even if I managed to influence only 1 percent of people, I have completed my mission,” she said.
“I think the State of Israel could really use us,” she said. “We are not Jewish, we speak Arabic, we are a minority living in Israel. The state needs to think about this and show us as an example. They do it, but not enough.”
The Israeli Druse delegation is scheduled to speak at university campuses, Jewish community centers and synagogues in New York before returning to Israel next week.