Ouch! The Nation-State Law and the Druze

The Nation-State Law caused a kind of earthquake.

druze leaders in protest (photo credit: CORINNA KERN/REUTERS)
druze leaders in protest
(photo credit: CORINNA KERN/REUTERS)
What do you do when you love your country and feel so woven into its fabric – and then the threads begin to unravel? Sitting before Safwan Mreeh in a new coffee shop in Daliyat-el-Carmel, I began to get a deep sense of what seems to be the experience of many of the Druze around us.
The Nation-State Law caused a kind of earthquake. I heard Druze talk publicly about feeling like second-class Israeli citizens; I heard their claims that this law represents the beginning of the end of democracy in Israel; and I witnessed the heartfelt cries of Riad Alee on television as he bemoaned the death of his dream to be just an Israeli like all other Israelis.
I pooh-poohed all of that. It did not make sense to me. They responded with yet more slogans to the challenges set before them to indicate exactly what part of the law takes away any rights that they have as individuals in this country. To be honest, I felt they were making a big deal out of nothing.
Judgmental of me, for sure. And I felt righteous indignation at their protests.
Therefore, when admonished on the social media for not listening to what they have to say, I sought out members of the Druze leadership who could help me dig deeper – beneath the slogans. I had the privilege to meet two men, one on each side of the debate.
THE WINDING road from the coastal highway up past Kibbutz Oren is scary in parts. There are places where you cannot see cars coming from the opposite direction. I kept the radio off in order to keep my attention focused on the road and only when I reached the traffic circle at the very top did I turn my thoughts to my upcoming interview as I turned right toward Daliat al-Carmel.
I am very familiar with the drive through Usifiyeh and Dalia, two Druze towns atop the Carmel Mountains (“mountain” being a relative term). The main thoroughfare snakes its way over and around the rolling hills on which the towns were built. There is one steep part that feels to me like the drop of a roller coaster. As I drove past the tourist shops selling antiques and bamboo furniture, the greengrocers and other shops for locals, and the restaurants serving typical Druze meals, I suddenly realized how my familiarity with my Druze neighbors is only with their outside skin – my only contact with them, really, having been when buying bamboo furniture, olive oil or labane. I was a tourist in Dalia. A Hebrew-speaking tourist, but a tourist no less.
An impressive man of about 50, with cropped white hair, came to meet me at the entrance to the coffee shop. Safwan Mreeh (Lt.-Col., Ret.) is an easy conversationalist and we quickly established a comfortable rapport.
After retiring from the IDF five years ago, he felt passionate about devoting his energies and life experience to his own people. He took a job with Keren Yedidut, in a program providing grants to Druze university students.
With a pained look in his eyes, Safwan talked about the deep insult inherent in the passing of the Nation-State Law. “This law is the Identity Card of the nation,” he said, “and we are not there.” He went on:
“They stole part of our identity, the essence of our existence. And they did this without understanding the depth of our attachment to Israel.”
I admitted to him that I just do not get it. I heard the words, but they did not resonate anywhere within. I told Safwan that, as a Jew in Canada, I was a member of a minority in a Christian country and I hoped that that parallel might help me understand. He nodded and his expression told me that he was also hopeful that I would comprehend.
But a moment’s reflection led me to identify a major difference between my situation and his: when I grew up and could reflect on my personal and national identity, I realized that I did not feel attached to Canada. I wanted to live in a country in which I was part of the majority. I had Israel to come home to.
Safwan does not have that option. There is no “Druzia” to which he can immigrate if life in the Jewish homeland ceases to satisfy him. Daliat al-Carmel, existing for about 400 years, is the only home he has and it happens to be in Israel.
Safwan talked about his fears. It is an extreme example, he himself admitted, but he sometimes thinks about “Jihadi John,” the famous ISIS beheader who was raised in the UK and later became radicalized. Safwan believes that people can be led astray when they lack a strong sense of belonging, and he is apprehensive of the effect of the Nation-State Law on the sense of belonging among Druze young people today. He is not afraid that the Druze will ever stop being loyal and patriotic citizens of the State of Israel because their love of Israel is too deep in their souls and they will continue to fight for their rightful place in Israeli society – but disillusionment may have a price.
With the younger generations in mind, he proudly stood on the stage at the Druze rally protesting the Nation-State Law. Safwan told me:
“The rally was a celebration of the Druze community and of democracy. It was the first time we rose up to fight, not just for the security of Israel but for the well-being of Israeli society. Our anger comes from our love for this country.”
In contrast, another Dalia resident, spokesperson of the Druze Zionist Council Zoheir Gadban, is quoted in an article in Mida (in Hebrew) as saying that the real cause for celebration lies in the passing of the Nation-State Law.
“The Nation-State Law strengthens Israel and therefore strengthens me as a Druze citizen of the State of Israel. I have no other country other than Israel. All other countries in the Middle East are my enemies and they massacre of my brothers. The Druze in Syria are the best proof of that. Our enemies are trying to cut the Jews off from their connection with the Land of Israel and the Nation-State Law cements the bond in a Basic Law.”
ALONG THESE lines, in a debate broadcast on Haifa Radio, chairperson of the Druze Zionist Council, Atta Farhat, told Dr. Amir Hanfas, head of Druze Forum Against the Nation-State Law, that those coming out against the law are harming the Druze community.
Observing the discrepancies of opinion among the Druze brings home what Samer Berany, Daliat al-Carmel council member and founder of the Israel Arabic Hasbara Organization, told me when we met in a coffee shop in Haifa.
It is easy to recognize someone you have never seen when they phone you while standing nearby scanning the room for a face they have also never seen. A young man in his mid-30s then took the seat opposite me. With his warm eyes and easy laugh, the conversation with Samer quickly belied the fact that we had just met.
Samer talked about the fact that the Druze community is not monolithic. There are many voices within, Left, Center and Right; yet some of those voices – like his, for example – are being silenced by opponents of the Nation-State Law. He has been called a racist and accused of working against his own community. Communications Minister Ayoob Kara wrote on his Facebook page about threats directed toward him and his family because of his support for the law.
Samer told me that opposition to the law is actually a political ploy on the part of the Druze elite. “Remember, there are municipal elections in October,” he said. He went on:
“Look at who was there on stage at the rally with us. How can you come out against something when important Israeli leaders are standing there supporting the cause in front of thousands of rally participants?”
Samer was at the rally as well – sitting in a nearby coffee shop with Jewish friends.
This made me wonder who is using whom: in the media we read about how the Left and the Joint Arab List are inciting the Druze against the Nation-State Law in order to pull them away from their traditional right-wing voting patterns. What if there is a bit of opportunism among politically minded Druze who are using the exposure for their own campaigns? After all, I do believe almost everything is political.
I can understand why Samer draws fire for his opinions. He talks straight from the hip and does not mince words. He says that Riad Alee’s behavior on television was irresponsible. The loud protests against the law, he says, are irresponsible, the result of being pulled along in a political whirlwind. Those who claim that there is unequal distribution of resources are correct, Samer says. “We don’t have time to cry, however, there is work to be done.” In any case, he sees no connection between these injustices and the Nation-State Law. The law has nothing to do with Druze status in Israel, according to Samer.
He talks about the Druze elite and the Druze people. There needs to be more fair representation, but “we are still a mainly tribal society and we vote in our tribal groups.” Samer supports the direction taken by spiritual leader Sheikh Mowafaq Tarif and claims that there are many among the spiritual leaders coming out against Tarif for purely political reasons.
“It is important to groom the next generation for their future role as leaders of our community,” says Samer, and here he is in complete agreement with Safwan, who told me, “Our young people today are at a junction. They want to be part of society.” Samer says that while the contemporary young Druze are very integrated, “they speak Hebrew but not Israeli.”
Unintended Consequences
Amatzia Baram, professor emeritus at the Department of the History of the Middle East and director of the Center for Iraq Studies at the University of Haifa, sees the Nation-State Law as a slap in the face of a good friend. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s political virtuosity in using legislation in response to the people’s fear of losing the nation to the Arabs almost succeeded. In fact, the Left and the Arabs could not have responded better from the prime minister’s perspective. It will be hard for people to forget the PLO flag flying in central Tel Aviv and chanting for the death of Israel. Had that been the only response to the new law, Netanyahu would have been quite the victor, according to Baram.
However, he did not anticipate the shock waves sent through the country when the Druze rose up in protest. Dissent is new for them and nobody could have predicted it.
Certainly another unanticipated consequence is the increase in hate speech directed toward the Druze. Safwan told me that since the Nation-State Law was passed, it has become legitimate to speak about the Druze with contempt. “Racism has become politically correct,” says Safwan, “and this is dangerous.”
The Safed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliahu, made a particularly distasteful announcement:
“The Druze are highly respected guests here in the Jewish nation, but I want to tell every guest, ‘Do not try to take the landlord’s chair.’ When the guest tries to be the landlord, the landlord grabs him by the scruff of his neck and tells him ‘Hey chum, you are the guest.’”
Hate speech is despicable but covert hate, hiding in bubbles beneath the surface, pollute society in invisible ways. Disclosed hate can be dealt with and it certainly must be dealt with. There are no excuses for letting this pass, and we should be glad when a light is turned on in dark corners.
The Dichotomy
Is it possible that both sides are right? That the Nation-State Law strengthens Israel and the minorities by providing legal status for Jewish collective rights against attempts to whittle away at the foundations of this state AND that the Nation-State Law compels the country’s minorities to confront the painful conflict between being equal as individuals but not equal as collectives?
When I finally understood at a deeper gut level what Safwan was telling me about belonging but not belonging, about loving this country and appreciating the oasis of safety in a crazy neighborhood but being angry at the injustices and the latest wake-up slap in the face, it hurt. 
It is much more comfortable to look for excuses for the Druze outburst and think they were manipulated by the Left and the Joint List or that they are manipulating the situation for political gain. And yes, both might even be true. At the same time, that does not negate the difficult issue of identity with which the Druze must contend, as the younger generation does not necessarily accept the traditional approach to being Druze and Israeli they see in their parents and grandparents.
Accepting the fact that there is pain in being a minority in a country that must ensure that you stay a minority does not mean that you cannot consider whether or not there may be some merit to the law.
Hamzi Ghanem, a Druze man from Maghrar, responded to a post on Facebook that claims that the Nation-State Law has turned the Druze into second-class citizens:
“It is strange to me how we began talking in terms of “classes” of people, I… never felt myself less than a Jew. The law does not define classes of people. The law defines the nationality of the Jews.
Perhaps it is time we define ourselves, a collective that has a religion and sacred sites, tradition, legacy, language and land, a land we will never leave, a collective that lives within the state of the ___ People (the answer is clear). So why mix things up?”
As for us Jews – we need to work out what it really means to be a sovereign state again after 2,000 years of displacement and dhimmitude. We need to work out how to rejoice in our homeland, how to behave with self-respect and how to truly respect the minorities who share our destiny with us.
We all need to grab this moment with both hands and not lose the momentum. The shock we all received is an opportunity for true communication within our own communities and with each others’ communities.
We need to start from understanding the deep connection the Druze have with Israel. Samer says we can see that demonstrated every Independence Day.
The writer is a retired family therapist exploring mutual interactions between politics and Israeli society.