Most Israelis have heard about the spectacular escape from Atlit in October 1945, when the pre-state Palmah militia under the command of Yitzhak Rabin broke into the illegal immigrant detention camp at 1 a.m., setting free over 200 Jewish prisoners. Bedraggled and exhausted, the escapees, mostly Holocaust survivors, dodged the British mandate forces as they made their way on foot over the Carmel to Kibbutz Yagur on the northern side of the mountain range.
The story made international front-page news. What did not make news was that at the top of the mountain range, some of the fleeing Jews briefly connected with a people equally rooted to this land and who helped them elude the pursuing British forces.
Kamal Mansour of Usfiya was a young man in 1945 living in the Druse village of Daliat al-Carmel, when some exhausted and hungry Jews crept cautiously into his village. "It was pitch dark. My parents took them in and offered them tea and cake and a place to rest, and then guided them in the right direction. Not only my family, but others as well," he recalls.
"We acknowledged in deed the Jewish state before there was a Jewish state," says Mansour, today in his mid-70s and adviser to the President on minority affairs. Failing to feature as even a footnote in contemporary Israeli history, this little incident depicts the characteristically low profile of a unique people who have played a part in the Zionist enterprise.
Driving into the large grounds of the Hasson family in Daliat al-Carmel, the most striking feature is a huge Israeli flag, spread-eagled in the winter wind from a flagpole centered in the garden. The bold blue-and-white patriotic display of the Star of David is a permanent fixture, not a once-a-year Independence Day feature. The bookcase in the living room is replete with mainly Hebrew books.
This writer was welcomed by the daughter of Kamal Mansour, Anam Hasson, and her husband Hasson Hasson, a Lieutenant-Colonel in the IDF. The couple have four children, all with common Israeli names: Daniel, Eyal, Dana and Raz. Mr. Hasson requested not to be interviewed or photographed, "because of the nature of my work."
Kamal Mansour and his daughter had no such restrictions.
The largest and southernmost Druse town in Israel, Daliat al-Carmel, located on Mount Carmel in the heart of the Carmel National Park, was established some 400 years ago. Some 15,000 residents trace their ancestry to the hill country near Aleppo (Halab) in northern Syria, attested to by their strong Aleppo accent and the name of the largest family in the village - Halabi. Drive or walk around the town and one's eyes cannot avoid the name Halabi on one window after another, advertising restaurants, law offices or doctors' clinics.
Hasson, too, is clearly a popular surname as the writer discovered when asking for directions. Rolling down the car window and asking for the home of Hasson Hasson turned into an amusing and predictable routine - a smile followed by "Which Hasson Hasson?"
Mansour, who also sits on the boards of governors of the Israel Electric Corporation (IEC), the University of Haifa and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, explained that the Druse community is officially recognized as a separate religious entity with its own courts with jurisdiction in matters of personal status such as marriage, divorce, child maintenance and adoption, and spiritual leadership. While Druse culture is in the main Arab and their language largely Arabic, they opted against mainstream Arab nationalism in 1948 and have since served - first as volunteers and thereafter within the draft system - in the IDF and Border Police.
"[Moshe] Katsav is the sixth President that I have served as adviser to, representing all the minority groups in Israel," reveals Mansour, who has held the position for 37 years. How did it all come about? "[The third] President [Zalman] Shazar invited representatives from all the minorities in Israel to his home. After he had spoken - he was a gifted orator - he looked at me and asked if I would like to say a few words. I had the fortune - or misfortune - to be standing closest to him, so what could I do, refuse the President of Israel?"
So impressed was Shazar that "he offered me the job." Mansour chuckles as he recalls serving in the mid-sixties on the committee investigating the proposal to introduce television to Israel. "It's hard today to envisage the debate at that time. Both Golda [Meir] and Ben Gurion were dead against it. Ben Gurion thought people would stay away from work to watch TV."
Mansour had no such misgivings. Looking to the future and embracing its challenges has "always been my approach in life. I have been approached on a few occasions to stand for the Knesset, but I declined. Although I was for many years a member of the Labor Party, party politics is not for me. Maybe Anam," he smiles at his daughter. "She is more suited, I think."
More than one million people - 18.8 percent of the population - comprise Israel's minorities, including Muslim Arabs, Beduin Arabs, Christian Arabs, Circassians (some 3,000 people concentrated in two northern villages) and Druse. Representing the minorities is not an easy job. How does he still manage it? "I am a good listener," explains Mansour. "You need to listen to the people to understand their needs. This is sometimes a problem of the Israeli leadership and of Israelis generally, who are more likely to know Russian, French or English as a second language than Arabic. This does not make sense for a people living in the Middle East, where the lingua franca is Arabic. To be truly part of a region, you have to speak the language of the people you want to connect with. Otherwise, the relationship will always be problematic. You will find universities in Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt offering Hebrew as a subject today, clearly indicating the acceptance - if not the approval - of Israel as a reality in the region."
Mansour says he makes a point of constantly touring the country, visiting people from the different minorities. "I also arrange for them to meet the President at his residence in Jerusalem, and for the President to visit them in their villages. It's true that our President's position is largely ceremonial and does not enjoy the power of an executive leader, nevertheless he can and does influence matters in his own way. Connecting personally with the people is so important."
Mansour is currently working on his memoirs. He was the first non-Jew to represent Israel abroad, and recounts a visit in 1957 to a city in the US where he was invited by the Jewish community to debate on-stage a speaker from Egypt, Shahran Anastasi, who was well known as an Israel-basher. "My Jewish hosts met me at the airport and warned me about him. I knew him to be a very effective public speaker. The debate had not even begun, and we were already arguing. Neither of us wanted to go first. Finally, I persuaded the organizers that as Egypt was the larger country its representative should be 'honored' by speaking first. Shahran was not happy, but nevertheless he proceeded and spoke of [former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel] Nasser being a lover of peace, and that Israel should respond to the peaceful overtures of the 'great' Egyptian leader. I followed and at the end of my address, I challenged Shahran, as a gesture towards peace, to shake my hand in public before the cameras. I knew he couldn't and wouldn't. He didn't - he stood there like the emperor without his clothes. He was furious and approached me afterwards and rebuked me for pulling a stunt like that, knowing full well that as an Egyptian he dared not shake the hand of an Israeli in public."
Mansour smiled at him. He didn't have to do or say more. It would be many more years before Israelis and Egyptians shook hands, and many lives would be lost.
Included in the tragic body count on the Israeli side were many Druse. In Daliat al-Carmel there is a memorial center for fallen Druse IDF soldiers, testifying to the supreme sacrifice paid by the community in the defense of the state. Druse soldiers have earned a reputation of being fearless fighters. In the recent Second Lebanon War, the community lost two soldiers in the fighting. "The real tragedy here," says Mansour's daughter Anam, "is that the Druse are loyal citizens of Israel, but we do not share equally in the fruits of this great nation. We are not Jews, but we are Israelis and should not be ignored. The more successful we are, the more we could and would contribute to the State of Israel."
Anam is a graduate in French literature and philosophy from the University of Haifa, and works today for the IEC. She laments that she is "battling to raise money for an air-conditioning system for a very poor school in Daliat al-Carmel. The parents can't afford to contribute and the municipality is bankrupt."
She recalls that at the end of her first year at the university, the Jewish community of Strasbourg invited five of the top students to visit their city. "I had excellent grades and qualified, but when they heard I was not Jewish, I was turned down. I wrote to the community explaining that I could address them on the Druse community in Israel and sometime later they did invite me, but by that time I had married and was with a child. This experience made me think of introducing a similar concept to [the Jewish Agency's] Partnership 2000 program where Jewish communities around the world would partner with Druse communities in Israel. My father has already bounced the idea with [Ze'ev] Bielski, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, who approves of the idea. Think of the advantages to all the parties."
Together with Prof Ilan Juran of New York's Polytechnic University, Anam has managed to secure and distribute 10 annual scholarships to outstanding Druse students, many of them girls. Juran is arriving next week to present these scholarships with Anam to the students. But this is a drop in the ocean.
"Higher education is one of the primary concerns affecting our community. Because our numbers are insignificant in relation to the Arab Muslim community, we are often in a worse situation in terms of receiving financial support. We are not a factor when it comes to votes," she laments. "At the moment there are so few Druse students attending university. If scholarships were available, I know we could have as many as 500 applicants accepted to universities. I believe that if Jewish communities could learn about the Druse, they may want to initiate and nurture educational programs for our community. Jews understand the value of education. They treasure it more than most other assets. The spin-off would be happier citizens and excellent ambassadors for Israel, something this country could well do with - particularly if they are not Jewish but favorably disposed towards their country."
Mansour's quip about his daughter going into politics does not appear to be so far-fetched. In the meantime, "I am off to Wimbledon this year," says Anam, showing the writer her collection of tennis racquets dating back to the 1940s. Anam and her children all play tennis.
Prior to moving to Daliat al-Carmel, the Hasson family lived for seven years in Kibbutz Bachan. "Our kids went to the kibbutz school and even today they attend chugim (activities) with Jewish children at Yokneam, mainly tennis," she smiles. "There is no reason why there should not be more interaction between our communities. In many respects we are very similar. Both our religions respect women. Regarding personal status, women's rights are almost identical to those of men - they can institute divorce proceedings as easily as a man and are on an equal footing regarding inheritance laws."
Anam points out that "both our religions are inclusive rather than exclusive, the Druse even more so than the Jewish religion. While the Jewish religion makes it very difficult to convert, in our religion it is impossible. If you are not born a Druse, you can never become nor marry one. There are no exceptions."
As much as 60 percent of Druse are secular, which means they cannot attend the holy places of worship. "That is not the same as Jews who, irrespective of their level of observance, can always enter a synagogue," says Anam. "However, because we are secular and are barred from entering our holy places, that does not make us any less Druse."
Apart from being closed to converts, the Druse religion is also very secretive. From the theological perspective, the secrecy derives from the belief that the gates of the religion were open to new believers for the space of one generation when it was first revealed and everyone was welcome to join. Since they believe that everyone alive today is the reincarnation of someone who lived at that time, there is no reason to allow them to join today. This explains why Druse refrain from engaging in missionary work - and why no member of another religion can become a Druse.
Druse religious books are accessible only to the initiates, the uqqal - 'the knowers.' The juhal, or 'ignorant ones,' accept the faith on the basis of the tradition handed down from generation to generation. "We who are not religious are not permitted to read the holy books," explains Mansour.
While Druse consider their faith to be an interpretation of the three monotheistic religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - don't expect to extract from a Druse what influence each of the three religions has had on their religion. Metro put the question to Mansour and was met with a guffaw: "What! Do you think a Druse would ever reveal that? If one religion thought that they were any less or more influential than the other, what do you think would happen? Religion is a volatile business, and we are relieved that Druse have no religious connection whatsoever to Jerusalem. That city is more a curse than a blessing as Jews, Christians and Muslims contest this piece and that piece of religious real estate. Thankfully, we are out of that picture."