Israel’s Druse celebrate at Prophet Jethro’s grave

The shrine marking the burial place of Moses’s Midianite father-in-law is the Druse’s holiest site.

By JONAH MANDEL
April 25, 2010 04:48
Jethros Tomb

Jethros Tomb311. (photo credit: GPO)

 
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The Druse community is marking the four-day religious holiday of the grave of Nabbi Shua’yb, Prophet Jethro, which begins on Sunday.

The shrine marking the burial place of Moses’s Midianite father-in-law is the Druse’s holiest site, and thousands of clergy and laymen will make the pilgrimage to the location near Kfar Hittim, just north of Tiberias.

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In honor of the occasion, which is celebrated annually on April 25, the Israel Broadcasting Authority’s Arabic Channel 33 will broadcast a new documentary film about the holiday and the Druse community at 8 p.m. on Sunday. Filmmaker Saleem Shehadeh, who is manager of the religions department at the IBA’s Arabic television and radio stations, directed and produced the 30-minute piece, which was shot at the Nabbi Shua’yb site and provides a fascinating view into the close-knit community of Israeli Druse through interviews with spiritual leader Sheikh Muafak Tarif and other prominent Druse thinkers and leaders.

One such person is Sheikh Dr. Fayez Azzam of Usfiya, who heads the Druse Research and Archive Section within the University of Haifa’s Jewish-Arab Center, which he established in 1974, and was until his retirement two years ago the supervisor over the Druse heritage studies in the Education Ministry, a position he held for 35 years.

“The Druse religion first appeared in history approximately 1,000 years ago, in the time of Caliph al-Hakim in Egypt,” Azzam told The Jerusalem Post over the weekend. “The religion accepts the prophets of Christianity, Islam and Judaism, but adds new interpretations and other prophets as well. Much of the religion derives from exegesis of Islamic teachings, but reinterprets issues such as marriage – polygamy is prohibited among Druse, for example, as is the option of a couple that divorced remarrying.”

Druse religious rites are covert. Only a man or woman who has accepted the secret codes of the creed can visit Druse houses of prayer, called hilwe (a secluded place), where they may pray and study. They are called Uqal (the knowledgeable), and such men stand out with their mandatory moustaches and shaved heads covered in white headdresses. Religious Druse women cover their heads with white scarves.

While the majority of Druse are uninitiated in the secret religion and defined as Juhal (the ignorant), the Druse layman still has an acquaintance with the broader religious principles, and is committed to the community’s moral and ethical codes of behavior, which are said to derive from the creed.



“All Druse believe in monotheism and reincarnation – a person’s body may expire, but the soul is eternal. That is part of the reason Druse are less fearful of death,” Azzam said.

The overt reason for the secretive nature of the religion is the persecutions Druse were subject to in the Muslim surroundings in which their faith came to being. It was best to hide the religious markings and live like everyone else around, Azzam explained.

In 1957, Druse became a state-recognized religious community in Israel, and signed the so-called “blood pact” with the state, which mandated Druse men’s enlistment to the IDF and the close ties between the parties, also reflected in the celebrations at the grave of Nabbi Shua’yb.

“In the earlier days of the country’s statehood, a senior political leader would also visit the site, and the general atmosphere was not only of a religious festival, but also a popular event. But the celebration is increasingly narrowing into a religious event,” Azzam told the Post.

“The site is open all year round. Druse flock there and on weekends it’s difficult to find a parking space,” Azzam continued. It is also customary among Druse who have a specific need or problem – be it illness, a crisis, a wish for a baby boy – to vow that they will visit Nabbi Shua’yb’s tomb, if their need is answered, Azzam said.

There are approximately 125,000 Druse in Israel, according to data released by the Central Bureau of Statistics last week, most of them in the Carmel region and the Galilee, and about 20,000 of them in the Golan. Most of the Golan Druse did not accept Israeli citizenship after the Six Day War and do not serve in the IDF.

Druse in Israel are loyal to their state, as are Syrian Druse to theirs and Lebanese to theirs.

“Historically, Druse never had a state of their own, and the religious scriptures do not dote on aspirations for secular statehood,” Azzam said. “So long as a state provides Druse with the freedom to live their religious lifestyle in this world, there is no reason to resist the temporal regime.”

Druse only constitute 1.7 percent of Israel’s general population but are represented in the Knesset by no less than four members of their community, holding seats in Israel Beiteinu, Likud, Kadima and Balad. Druse men have also achieved prominence in the security services, with many of them in combat positions in the IDF and the police, and having great motivation to reach high ranks as officers and noncommissioned officers. Another central field in which Druse are to be found beyond their relative numbers is the media, with many of the community’s men holding roles in the various Hebrew and Arabic-speaking news bodies.

But despite these achievements, Azzam pointed out that Druse lag in the economy, industry and trade. There are also very few Druse in senior governmental positions. “There have also not been enough efforts to promote industry in Druse areas,” he said.

One of the highlights of Shehadeh’s film is an old man recalling the days before 1948, when busloads of Druse from Syria and Lebanon would arrive at Nabbi Shua’yb’s tomb a week ahead of the holiday for communal and religious festivities. “We all hope to see the day when Druse from the entire region will be able to arrive here for the holiday,” Azzam said.

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