Our brothers, our protectors

While isolated in its traditions and history, the Druse community prides itself on its contributions to Israeli society – but says as a minority group it faces many challenges.

Aamer Tafish and his wife Botaina in their home. (photo credit: TAMARA ZIEVE)
Aamer Tafish and his wife Botaina in their home.
(photo credit: TAMARA ZIEVE)
Beit Jann resident Aamer Tafish was shot by Palestinian terrorists at age 19, while on patrol in Gaza in 2000. The incident paralyzed his lower body, putting him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life and shattering his hopes of becoming an IDF officer, along with his dream of working as a nature photographer.
He had served in the IDF’s Herev Battalion, composed entirely of Druse soldiers, and his friend was killed next to him in the same incident.
While it is not customary for Druse women to serve in the army, combat service is dominant among the men. “We [the Druse] have served in the IDF since the founding of the state,” says Tafish, now 33.
The monument for fallen IDF soldiers found along the winding road leading up through Beit Jann is testament to that. The village, which is the largest Druse village in Israel after Daliat al-Carmel, has lost 56 of its inhabitants to Israel’s wars – the highest number of men per capita of any locality in the country. The village’s most recent loss was Border Police officer Jedan Assad, 38, who was slain in a vehicular terror attack near the light rail in east Jerusalem in early November.
The death of Assad came just a couple of weeks before Druse police officer Zidan Saif of Yanuh died after being wounded in an exchange of gunfire at the scene of the terror attack in a Jerusalem synagogue that left four others dead.
“Many of us go to combat. This is our state, we raise the Israeli flag, we have 100 percent faith in the state and we have no other country,” Tafish asserts.
However, he raises a complaint frequently heard in the Druse community. “Druse feel they are deprived. We don’t feel that we get the same treatment from the state as Jewish Israelis after we are discharged from the army.”
“Do you see the roads?” he asks, motioning toward the window, from which his hilltop house has a bird’s-eye view of the village and a spectacular panorama of the region. The roads he is referring to are inferior to the usual Israeli standard.
Another Beit Jann resident notes that visits and pledges for improvements are often made by ministers just prior to elections, but evaporate afterwards.
“The state always promises it will develop our infrastructure,” he says, adding that these vows are never brought to fruition.
But as a wounded and disabled soldier, Tafish clarifies, he receives full rights and compensation from the state, clearly reflected in the beautiful house he lives in with his wife and baby.
This conversation is taking place on a Friday afternoon, and as time passes – and more and more coffee and food are offered in true Druse-style hospitality – additional members of the family who live in the village begin to drop in. Tafish’s father and uncle, Salman and Kassam, both sheikhs who live in the village, join the conversation and back the young Tafish’s opinions.
They express general satisfaction with life in Israel and solidarity with the Jewish population. “I say Druse and Jews – it’s the same blood,” says Kassam.
But they also point to areas where they believe the government must invest more in their community; land shortage and irrigation are two issues the pair raise in this context.
“Even this week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke of it [investment],” Tafish notes, referring to a meeting between the prime minister and the leaders of the Druse community, in which the latter expressed his condolences for the loss of the two aforementioned Druse men in the Jerusalem terror attacks.
In the meeting, Netanyahu told the leaders that the Druse are “our own flesh and blood, an organic part of Israeli society,” and promised to protect their rights and security.
Moreover, the Prime Minister’s Office reportedly announced on Saturday night that Netanyahu would present to the government a plan which would include significant investment in the Druse and Circassian communities, including education, infrastructure and employment, in order to reduce the existing gaps between the minority and majority populations and aid development in these communities. These remarks came the same week as the issue of the controversial Jewish Nation- State bill divided Netanyahu’s shaky coalition and caused fiery debate around Israel. “I think the bill is a bit problematic,” says Tafish, expressing concern that it could harm the Druse community.
“We are a small ethnic group with our own tradition, and I think the law could hurt us.” He says a large number of Druse work in agriculture and he worries the law could hurt their future development Last week, the cabinet authorized three versions of the Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People, with 15 votes in favor and six opposed, and a preliminary vote in the Knesset postponed to this week. One version was proposed by Netanyahu; one by coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin (Likud); and another by MKs Yariv Levin (Likud), Ayelet Shaked (Bayit Yehudi) and Robert Ilatov (Yisrael Beytenu). All versions focus on Israel as the site of self-determination for the Jewish people, and opponents of the bill argue the law is discriminatory and undemocratic.
Druse politician Ayoub Kara, a former Likud MK, opines that the bill should be altered to clarify its inclusion of minorities who support the Jewish state. “It’s as though we don’t exist,” he says, noting that while he personally doesn’t have a problem with the bill, minority rights must be laid out in black and white so as not to raise antagonism against the law.
“It needs to specify that there are minorities who accept the state’s responsibilities, totally and equally. A majority of Israeli Arabs want to live in Israel as a Jewish state, and the government must prevent sparking incitement against the Jews with this bill.”
Kara, too, expresses the sentiment that the state treats the Druse as full equals when they wear the IDF uniform, but they lack rights when they take it off. “If a Druse finishes the army, and their Arab neighbor from the same village [who does not serve in the army] finishes university in that time, the latter is favored, and the Druse who serves is not. It’s a paradox.
“There needs to be corrective preference [positive discrimination],” he asserts, saying this is needed particularly in the areas of education and employment.
“Druse have no problem defending the state.”
Indeed, Kara’s uncle was killed in 1939 in the Arab revolt, two of his brothers were killed in 1982’s First Lebanon War and he himself was wounded in Lebanon.
“I don’t want to live under any other government – there won’t be democracy here if it’s not a Jewish state,” he says.
The prevalent position among the Druse community seems to be this: They are happy to live in the Jewish state and enjoy good relations with other communities in Israeli society, but in terms of their rights as a minority, they believe there is room for improvement.
“We should be like the Sikhs in India,” Kara illustrates, pointing at a minority in the vast country that enjoys significant representation.
The Druse are proud of their contributions to the state – in medicine, engineering and the army, among other things – but Tafish mentions that the latter is a contentious point among other Arab communities. He recalls a particular incident in the summer in which Druse Golani Brigade commander Col. Ghassan Alian, who was wounded in combat during Operation Protective Edge, insisted on returning to his troops in Gaza after being discharged from the hospital. According to Tafish, dozens of Arabs demonstrated outside Alian’s home in Shfaram, outraged by his actions as touted in the media.
But Dr. Mustafa Abbasi, an expert on the history of Israel and the Middle East, cautions that such incidents must not be blown out of proportion. A resident of Jish – an Arab village that neighbors Beit Jann – he lectures on Arab society in Israel at the Tel Hai Academic College in the Upper Galilee. According to Abbasi, most Druse identify as Arabs, and most Arabs see Druse as one of them. “Our history is shared, as are our villages, customs, culture and clothing.”
He notes the Druse are required by law to do IDF service, whereas other Arabs are not, and he denies this has disturbed relations between Druse and other Arabs. “It’s just one element and one cannot base the entire relationship on it – our history together is long, and it wouldn’t be right to highlight one element like this.
“We are a mixed country and always have been; the waves of violence do not reflect our history, not as an Arab society nor as a Jewish society.”
Abbasi acknowledges that existing violence must be dealt with, but emphasizes the need to put it into perspective and to focus on compromise, mutual respect and good relations between all communities.
“The idea of a nation-state is a new one, and people managed very well without it throughout history,” he adds. He stresses that every community should look at the aspects they share with other communities, and strive for peace and coexistence.
The Druse religion may be secretive and closed, but its culture is a warm and welcoming one that certainly lends itself to Abbasi’s Utopian vision.
“I just hope that we will live in peace – everyone in the Middle East,” says Tafish, echoing Abbasi’s positive outlook that this is possible. “The violence we are experiencing now is not easy for either side; it’s redundant. There is no other solution.”