Entrepreneurial spirit in the Upper Galilee

Supporting the small businesses of religious Druse.

The challenges of maintaining tradition: Sheikh Qasam Bader, religious leader of Hurfeish, the country’s second-largest Druse village (photo credit: JACK BROOK)
The challenges of maintaining tradition: Sheikh Qasam Bader, religious leader of Hurfeish, the country’s second-largest Druse village
(photo credit: JACK BROOK)
It took Ibtisam Fares three years to master the art of Druse cuisine. After Fares married at 18, her mother told her it was time that she learned how to cook. Every Saturday, Fares’s mother taught her how to prepare a new dish, and she slowly built up a culinary repertoire containing all the essentials of Druse tradition.
In her mother’s kitchen, she learned how to make dolma and tabouli, along with kefta, sweet cakes, pastries and the best way to make bread, pita and every kind of hummus imaginable.
But 30 years later, and in full command of her kitchen, Fares has capitalized on the Druse epicurean palate by building her own business – every weekend, she hosts as many as 30 or 40 paying tourists for breakfast and lunch outdoors in the garden of her home in Hurfeish.
“When I see people enjoying their food, I forget about the rest of the world,” says Fares, 48, who has been hosting meals for three years.
Nestled away in the hills of the Upper Galilee, Hurfeish is the second-largest Druse village in Israel, with a population of 5,000. Hurfeish serves as a focal point for Druse tourism, one of the recent but rapidly growing new industries receiving substantial support from the government. Since 2012, the Tourism Ministry has pumped NIS 40 million into developing tourism in Druse and Circassian villages in the Upper Galilee. Another NIS 56m. is earmarked for the next three years, with NIS 2.5m. going to Hurfeish alone.
The Druse are a religious community recognized by the government since 1957 as a distinct ethnic group, although they are spread out across the Middle East, with over one million in Syria, 500,000 in Lebanon and 140,000 in Israel, primarily in the Upper Galilee and the Golan Heights. Although most Druse, particularly the younger generations, have integrated themselves well into Israeli society, often by attending universities and serving in the IDF, the older, more traditional Druse have had a harder time finding a way to fit into the modern Israeli economy.
The ministry works with the Druse by connecting entrepreneurs like Fares with incubators that provide low-cost financial and business consulting to help them monetize the skills that many already have, such as cooking, knitting and herbal remedies, all deeply rooted in Druse culture.
“The focus is very much on working with the Druse communities, respecting their religion and customs,” says Anat Shihor-Aronsohn, a spokesperson for the Tourism Ministry. “We want to find ways within those parameters to find them work and bring them into the work force and bring tourism into those villages. It’s about tourists coming into the villages and spending money. This helps the community to preserve its traditional ways and unique culture .”
For many traditional Druse women who don’t want to drive or leave their village, the initiative can help them develop projects that would allow them to work within religious constraints, while harnessing the thriving domestic tourism boom in Israel, a NIS 20 billion industry. If other Israelis are coming into these villages every weekend, then the women won’t need to leave but will be able to work from their homes, generating income in the process.
“If she is the one who makes the money she gains more status in the house,” Shihor- Aronsohn says. “Religious women have very low access to employment and this helps her to be more independent.”
Although the Tourism Ministry’s campaign has been an economic boon to villages like Hurfeish, it also provides some much needed support for the Druse religion. To this day, the religion remains notoriously secret – even secular Druse are not allowed to access the intricacies of the religion, a monotheistic offshoot of Islam founded at the close of the 10th century in Egypt and incorporating elements of Greek philosophy. In the mid- 11th century there was fleeting period of only 25 years for converts to join the ranks of the faithful before the religion became closed off for good.
For centuries, Druse have been required to live a life of complete solidarity within their community. To be considered Druse, one’s parents must be too, and one must marry another Druse. Failure to comply with this latter decree, set down at the inception of the religion, results in severe consequences.
“Everyone in the Druse community married outside faces social and religious excommunication,” says Sheikh Qasam Bader, who is the religious leader of Hurfeish. “This [threat of] excommunication has forced a lot of people who want to marry outside the community to stop and think: I lose my family, my community, my village if I leave.”
Bader understands as well as anyone the challenges maintaining Druse tradition and religion in the face of modernization and assimilation in Israeli culture and society. Standing in the 275-year-old prayer house in Hurfeish – built to commemorate the Druse wise man Sheikh Mustafa, of whom Bader is a ninth-generation direct descendant – he reflects on the state of the Druse community.
“It is a danger,” Bader says. “If we are not excommunicating these people, maybe our tradition and religion will be extinct. We must keep our new generation.”
According to Bader, in 1948 approximately 80 percent of the Druse population practiced the religion, with 20% identifying as secular. Today, those numbers are reversed, with younger people making up only a small minority of the religious population.
Yet the ministry’s program could actually provide a lifeline for religious Druse. One need only take a look at the center of Hurfeish, home to the Hurfeish Lacemakers, a business run by a group of middle-aged religious Druse women. Most mornings inside the Lacemakers enclave, one can find several of these women, clad in elegant white hijabs and long black dresses, bent over in their chairs knitting at a brisk pace, needles flashing in and out of the fabric, which will later be sold.
“Women who are not religious can go to the university, they can work,” says Hissan Bader, volunteer manager of the Hurfeish Lacemakers. “But women who are religious don’t have the opportunity to get out of the house and this gives them a chance to do that.”
The Lacemakers started in 2009, with only five knitters. Now, there are over 30, and they not only cater to tourists but host workshops for youth and exhibit their craft at regional festivals, achieving so much success that the group has spilled over into surrounding villages, which have started similar initiatives. As Bader points out, the Druse women already have a tradition of making clothes, blankets and other items; for instance, in Druse culture all women make sheets to celebrate the birth of babies. Through their collective, the women hope not only to increase their own income but also to revitalize their entire community.
“This project helped the whole village to wake up with visitors,” Bader says. “It has also exposed more of the village, because people started getting into the heart of the village, to see the people and how they live.”