The displays lining the walls inside the activities hall of the youth center
give the impression that this is just a typical branch of one of Israel’s many
Zionist youth group movements.
A framed replica of the 1948 signed
Declaration of Independence hangs prominently, next to an encased copy of the
“Hatikva.” Portraits of local IDF soldiers whose lives were cut short hang
nearby – killed defending the country in its many wars and military operations,
or in terror attacks.
But something about this youth center seems a
little different, perhaps unique in the eyes of an outsider. A perfect example
is that alongside a painted blue-and-white Israeli flag on one of the walls, is
another flag – painted in the five colors of red, yellow, green, blue, and
That multicolored flag is a religious symbol of the Druse, a
somewhat secretive monotheistic religion numbering over 120,000 Arabic-speaking
members in Israel, whose villages in the Upper Galilee are raising the next
generation of their children to be both upstanding members of the Druse faith
and proud contributing citizens of the State of Israel.
This center is
located in Peki’in – a predominantly Druse village of over 5,200 loyal Israeli
citizens in the Upper Galilee, which along with the other 15 Druse villages in
the area, is busy shaping the lives of its youth by providing them with
meaningful after-school programming.
Known as the Druse Youth Movement in
Israel, over 12,000 school-aged children in 19 branches meet nearly every day
with their high school-aged counselors and adult supervisors, and become
instilled with knowledge and appreciation of their Druse heritage, while at the
same time developing a sense of national Israeli pride.
responsible for founding the movement in 2001 is Yisrael Beytenu MK – currently
the sole Druse MK – Hamed Amer. Twelve years ago, Amer saw a need in his
community of Shfaram for an after-school program to keep Druse children busy and
out of trouble, and enable them to connect to their roots and develop important social values and leadership skills.
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While the 47-year-old Amer is
currently in his second Knesset term and his fifth year as an MK, during an
exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post over cups of strong black Turkish
coffee and chocolate in an office at the Peki’in Youth Center, Amer says the
children are aware that he is the head of the youth movement first, and an MK
“I know almost all 12,000 kids throughout the 19 branches by
name,” Amer says. “And most know who I am.”
The respect that the youth
have for Amer is evident as each group of children, busy at work on art
projects, all stop what they are doing when he walks by and stand up to shake
Amer, who is married and has three children of his own, says
that “when I want to clear my head [from work], this is where I come. Since I
don’t have set hours and can be somewhat flexible, I try to be with these kids
for activities and on trips whenever I can.”
According to Salman Fadul,
an 18-yearold high school student and counselor at the center, a group of 100
Peki’in youth are busy there, preparing for an upcoming educational and fun
outing to the Golan the following week.
Fadul – who spends a great deal
of his time mentoring the 13 to 17-year-old junior counselors – says that he
feels fulfilled volunteering at the center three times a week, because it gives
him the opportunity “to help pass on the Druse traditions, since if they [the
younger kids] don’t learn about the traditions or the culture, they will be
lost.” Fadul plans on continuing his studies before serving in the IDF and then
pursuing a career in medicine, and says he wants to instill in the youth a sense
of “how to live as a contributing member of a community, with meaningful
priorities.” His own father is a career soldier who has been serving in various
roles in the IDF for over 26 years.
According to Amer, nearly 100 percent
of the kids and counselors who are a part of his movement go on to serve as
soldiers in the IDF. “Not only do they serve, but our graduates are represented
in the elite IDF units more than any population in this country,” he says with
great pride. Amer adds that overall, 84% of the Druse community in Israel is
drafted into the IDF, making them the largest group, percentagewise, to be
Amer serves on the Knesset Finance Committee, and says
he is very active in encouraging the implementation of environmentally friendly
He adds that he is extremely committed to improving road
safety throughout the country.
More than anything, though, Amer says that
as the only Druse MK, he feels he must do what he can to improve the lives of
his fellow Druse countrymen.
“Over 90% of the Druse people live under the
poverty line,” he says with disappointment.
Despite those numbers, Amer
isn’t looking for handouts. “I believe, as does my party, that when you
contribute to society and the society benefits, then you will reap the benefits
The Yisrael Beytenu MK maintains that “it is an honor to give
back to this country, which also leads to a sense of personal security. I also
believe that the party can be a warm home for many other minority groups in
Israel as well .”
Amer explains that more than any other, it is the
philosophy of “one who knows how to give, will get” which he hopes to instill in
the children at his youth centers. “While our own kids might be in need
themselves, we teach them to help others who might be even worse off,” he says,
adding that the youth centers distribute 3,000 sealed food packages a month to
Moreover, Amer says, “Our branches always keep
food in their refrigerators and provide hot meals. Some kids who can’t afford
food arrive hungry after school. I want them to feel that this is their house
and feel the warmth, like we are their parents.”
Another example of
reaching out to help those in need is cited by Ameer Ali, a parliamentary
assistant in the Knesset and vice chairman of the Druse Youth Movement. He says
that during the Second Lebanon War, while the Druse villages in the North were
themselves under missile fire, “the children would gather at the various
branches for activities, to stay busy during that difficult time. But they would
also put together 200 care packages a day for the IDF soldiers on the border,
which included food, warm socks and other items, to do their part in assisting
in the war effort.”
Amer adds that during Israel’s most recent operation
in Gaza – Pillar of Defense – the Druse Youth Movement reached out to other
Jewish groups in the South and invited them for “fun days” in the North, to give
them a breather from the rocket bombardments.
In addition, Amer expresses
great pride that the movement has special programs which cater towards disabled
children within the community, as well as orphans who lost a parent defending
the country. He points out that the Peki’in center has a special room where
activities are held for the hearing and visually impaired.
Munira Ali is
a 19-year-old Druse woman who is carrying out her posthigh school national
service at the center, serving as a counselor for children with vision
impairments. Ali is legally blind herself, which aids in her work with the
children, allowing her to and share from her own experiences.
with around 20 kids with eyesight problems, twice a week,” she
says. “This center – where I myself started as a youth, before becoming a
counselor and giving back by carrying out my national service – is an extremely
warm place that always gave me a sense of connection to my
Amer, who started his career as a practicing lawyer and is
also chairman of the Israeli Martial Arts Association, himself a fifth-degree
black belt and clearly in top physical shape, says that he would like to
dedicate more of his time as an MK toward spreading the truth about the
realities in Israel to people abroad.
He is currently being tutored in
English, and hopes to get to a point where he can travel as a representative of
the state and speak in various communities on Israel’s behalf. “I want to be
involved with Israel’s hasbara [public diplomacy] efforts, so people can learn
the truth about this country,” he says.
Amer feels that speaking as a
Druse and spreading a positive message about Israel could go a long way in
helping to change perceptions about life here.
When asked how he
developed such a strong passion for the State of Israel despite not being
Jewish, Amer says: “Our [the Druse] love for this land came from the home. This
is something that started even before the establishment of the state.”
addition to the Druse heritage, it’s his passion for Israel that Amer hopes to
pass on through the youth movement.
“When we go out on trips, the Israeli
flag goes out with us – everywhere,” he says. “That flag is a part of
them, and we are all part of the same family.”
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