is a former Jerusalem Post editorial page editor, and is now contributing editor
to Jewish Ideas Daily (www.jewishideasdaily.com), where this article was first
A Druse physician from the Golan Heights who works at an Israeli hospital was one
of 24 members of his community arrested for pummeling IDF troops with rocks
during so-called Naksa Day protests.
Just a few miles south in Daliyat
El-Carmel, the Israeli Druse community is planning a memorial museum that will
tell the stories of the 400 Druse soldiers who fell in defense of the Jewish
state. In Lebanon, meanwhile, the Druse leadership has become an essential
constituent in the Hezbollah-dominated government. Just where do Druse loyalties
AN UNDERSTANDING of their history can help answer that question. The Druse
are a breakaway stream of the Ismaili strain of Shi’ite Islam – followers of an
ascetic Egyptian ruler named Al-Hakim (996-1021), himself a descendant of
Muhammad’s son-in-law Ali. Influenced in part by Greek ideas, Al-Hakim’s
persecuted followers broke away from orthodox Islam, eventually coalescing into
tight-knit communities in the mountainous regions of Lebanon, Syria and Israel,
awaiting the messianic return and salvation of their leader.
their esoteric religious practices mostly to themselves. Unlike Muslims, Druse
Arabs do not observe Ramadan. They don’t make pilgrimages to Mecca, and they
They venerate Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, as a main
prophet. Marrying out is considered an unforgivable breach of communal
solidarity – a solidarity that is in turn based on strong ethnic identity,
martial skills, and mutual aid. Today, there are perhaps 2.5 million Druse
living mostly in Syria, Lebanon and northern Israel, with smaller communities
dispersed as far away as North America and Australia.
Sunni Syria, the Druse comprise perhaps 4% of the population. With the arrival
of the French after the First World War, the Druse were encouraged to maintain
their own autonomous region. But Druse attitudes toward the French were
conflicted, and the community ultimately embraced emergent Arab nationalism as
the century progressed.
Syrian independence in 1946 was accompanied by
long decades of political convulsions. Adib ibn Hasan Shishakli, the military
dictator during the early 1950s, pursued a Syrian nationalist line, yet
violently persecuted the Druse, whom he perceived as a threat. After Shishakli’s
overthrow, conditions for the Druse did not improve, as a long succession of
military coups saw insular and paranoid factions within the Ba’ath Party compete
By the time Hafez al-Assad (president Bashar’s father) took
power in 1970, the Druse had been purged from positions of influence in the
party, army and security services.
However, the Assad dynasty (itself
rooted in the Alawite minority) relied on the Druse, and the Druse, true to
form, displayed remarkable loyalty to the regime for decades.
though, matters have become more complicated.
ACCORDING TO Mordechai
Kedar of Bar-Ilan University, Bashar has distanced himself from the Druse. This
may be because, in this period of unrest, he wants to draw closer to the Sunni
majority. Druse fidelity has begun to crack only as anti- Assad demonstrations
have gained inexorable momentum and security forces have targeted the Druse.
Kedar speculates that if Syria should disintegrate, the Druse could push for the
autonomy outlined for them by the French.
On the Golan Heights, a small
number of Druse accepted Israeli citizenship when the Knesset applied Israeli
law to the territory in 1981, while most remained loyal to the Assad regime.
Some Druse have been arrested for spying for Syria, but on the whole, most
simply seek not to fall afoul of either Jerusalem or Damascus, knowing that
control of the Heights could flip in any peace deal. Israel has been generally
sensitive to the Druse predicament. In mid-February, for instance, 12,000 tons
of apples grown by Druse farmers near Majdal Shams were exported to Syria
despite the de facto state of war between the two countries. At the start of the
anti-government protests in Syria, some Golan residents demonstrated in support
But as the demonstrations gained traction, more Golan Druse –
like their Syrian brethren – have turned against Assad and expressed solidarity
with the opposition. In both Syria and Israel, the Druse are apt augurs of the
shifting winds of political change, and determine their fealties
The Druse penchant for coldly calibrating alliances is
nowhere more pronounced than in the failed state of Lebanon. There’s been no
verifiable census there in decades, but there are believed to be hundreds of
thousands of Druse in Lebanon with a stronghold in the Chouf Mountains. After
the previous Druse leader was assassinated (in all likelihood by the Assads),
his son and successor Walid Jumblatt actually drew closer to Syria. Over the
years he has switched sides intermittently between Lebanon’s numerous violent
factions. Nowadays he backs the Shi’ite Islamist movement Hezbollah – themselves
clients of the Assad dynasty, but ultimately beholden to Iran.
Jumblatt’s anti-Israel rhetoric has been unwavering. Lebanese Druse have been
sympathetic to the Palestinian Arabs – permanent “refugees” in Lebanon – though
their advocacy has not guaranteed the Druse immunity from attack by
uncompromising Palestinian Islamists. Earlier this month, Jumblatt lauded the
Golan Druse who collaborated in Syrian-inspired Palestinian efforts to storm
across the Golan boundary with Israel, and has long urged his co-religionists in
Israel not to serve in the IDF. Yet as the Assad regime wobbles, possibly
weakening Hezbollah, the Lebanese Druse are becoming more assertive. A Druse
member of the Hezbollah-dominated new cabinet recently resigned to protest the
dearth of patronage posts allocated to his community.
Which brings us
back to the 127,000-strong, overwhelmingly loyal Druse citizens of Israel. Their
young men have long been conscripted into the army, where many have served with
distinction. A Druse journalist, Rafik Halabi, was news director for Israel’s
Channel 1 during the 1990s. By 2001, a Druse had been named to Israel’s cabinet
(by Ariel Sharon). Patronage delivered by the Likud to the Druse town of Daliyat
el-Carmel has encouraged many locals to join the party.
acculturation process has not been effortless.
Many Druse schools teach
the sciences in Arabic, and Israel’s education ministry has been trying to
encourage a shift to Hebrew so that graduates can better integrate into Israeli
higher education. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has (belatedly) budgeted
substantial sums for the socio-economic development of the
Efforts are also underway to prepare Druse youth for jobs in
Israel’s hi-tech sector. This is not to suggest that Israel could not do still
more to reward Druse loyalty, or demonstrate greater cultural
The seemingly Machiavellian character of Druse loyalties
reflects their status as a minority people in a mostly intolerant Muslim Middle
East. Just as the Druse have found it strategically prudent to concentrate
mostly on high ground away from urban areas, their political strategy toward
outside powers has been one of “adaptability and fluidity,” in the words of the
University of Haifa’s Gabriel Ben-Dor. Osama bin Laden famously said that when a
strong horse is pitted against a weak horse, people will naturally follow the
The Druse have bet their survival on it.