Secrets, Service and Scholarship: What the Druze and Jews Share in Common

A song of ascents. Of David. How good and how pleasant it is that brothers dwell together. Psalms 133:1 (The Israel Bible™)

In light of the recent passing of Israel’s Nation State Law, the special status and sensitivities of the Druze community in Israel has come to light – a relationship of two peoples with many similarities.

The Druze are an Arabic-speaking group originating from Western Asia, with religious roots based on the teachings of Islamic figures as well as Greek philosophers. A religious minority everywhere they live, their religious teachings have stayed secretive and the people are especially loyal to their home countries.

Much like Jews, the Druze are a persecuted group in the Middle East. With fewer than 1 million Druze around the world – Syria is home to the majority of them (approximately 600,000) – with Lebanon and Israel following with populations of 200,000 and 150,000 respectively. The Druze initially came to the land of Israel through the Carmel mountains and have been living there ever since.

Druze do not speak about their faith outside of their community because of fear of persecution. However, an anonymous Druze leader told Breaking Israel News that one of the tenets of the faith, a key condition for the Geula (Redemption), is for all Jewish people to be in Israel. Similarly, the Jewish faith holds that in the end of days, the majority of Jews will live in the land of Israel- a current reality.

Their persecution dates back to the faith’s initial years of existence in the early 11th century, which increased during the Mamluk and Ottoman rule and up until today.  They are forced to convert under Islamic rule and targeted as non-Islamic minorities by ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Shaykh Mowafaq Tari sits in front of traditional Druze delicacies. (Credit: Eliana Rudee/Breaking Israel News)

The family of Shaykh Mowafaq Tarif, the current spiritual leader of the Druze community in Israel, has led the Druze people in Julis (a Druze village and local council in northern Israel) since 1753. According to Samir Barani, a council member of Daliyat Al-Carmel (another Druze town, in the Haifa district of Israel), the Tarif family has played a major role in keeping the Druze community safe throughout the Middle East and continues to do so today, especially in Syria where more than 250 Druze were slaughtered by ISIS in the town of Suwadya, near Dar’a.

Mowafaq’s grandfather, Amin Tarif, ensured that when Israel was established, Druze became known as their own people rather than an Islamic sect. Elsewhere in the Middle East, the Druze are known as an Islamic sect although they do not self-define as Islamic.

“Because of Israeli democracy, there was a bond made between Jewish Israelis and Druze,” maintained Barani at a press meeting in Daliyat El Karmel, adding that the Druze in Syria “sit under an Islamic group and not as a separate ethnic group” and “the bond between Jews and Druze goes back to the 12th century when medieval Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela “came to a mountain to meet Druze people and he said they are Jew lovers.”

Similar to the Druze, the Jews have been persecuted throughout North Africa and the Middle East, paying non-Muslim taxes (called jizya) during Muslim rule, being expelled from Yemen and beyond and slaughtered in Syria, Lebanon, Jerusalem, Egypt, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, pre-1948 Palestine and even the Jewish state in Israel.  

“We can relate to the Jewish people because Druze also suffered in the past,” said Barani.

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In modern day Israel, Druze are making strides in all sectors of society, including academia politics and business. Like the Israeli population, Druze women are challenging traditional roles and seeking post-secondary degrees, driver’s licenses, employment and executive positions. “There are many Druze women in universities, taking the lead,” said Professor Anan Wahabi, professor of International Relations at Haifa University and a released colonel of the IDF.

Unlike elsewhere in the Middle East, where they are often persecuted, Israeli Druze enjoy full rights and occupy the uppermost tiers of society.

Since 1956, the Druze have served in the Israeli Defense Forces alongside their Jewish brothers and sisters according to law – a desire of the Druze community that was discussed even before the establishment of Israel. During the early years of Jewish settlement in the 1920s Druze volunteered for the pre-IDF military in Israel.

“From the beginning, Druze saw the Zionist movement as a movement that can bring a better life to the Middle East,” said Barani, whose grandfather served in the pre-IDF Israeli military. “Israel values life and we believe that if Israel remains good and strong, so too will the Druze,” he said.

“The young Druze admire soldiers in the IDF,” said Wahabi. “A higher percentage of Druze serve in the IDF compared to Jews, and this is also true for combat units – and this percentage is growing in elite units of the military.”

According to Wahabi, he is “not unique” in his success in accessing the high echelons of Israeli society.

His grandfather served in the war of liberation in 1948, his father was an officer in the Druze army unit (since disbanded because Druze now serve in all other units), and Wahabi started as a paratrooper before becoming a colonel in intelligence, a unit commander and chief instructor at Israel’s national defense college, teaching Israeli and international students from foreign countries who study at the college.

“We raise our children as Israelis, respect the anthem, the flag, and even though the state has a Jewish character, we feel part of it,” he said.

Many Druze leaders self-identify as Zionist, proclaiming that Israel the pact between Druze and Jews is a ‘blood covenant.’ Unfortunately, this pact makes Druze a target for Palestinian terrorism in Israel. In November 2014, two Palestinian men attacked praying Jews at a synagogue, also killing a Druze Israeli police officer Master Sergeant Zidan Saif, father of a 4-month-old daughter. In a July 2017 Temple Mount shooting, three Arab-Israeli men opened fire at Israeli border police officers – in protest at the placement of metal detectors – killing two Druze, Haiel Sitawe and Kamil Shnaan.

“Much more than two percent of Druze are guarding Temple Mount as border police,” Wahabi told Breaking Israel News.

Other challenges of Druze life in Israel are lack of housing, rising cost of living and lack of work especially among young Druze. While the younger generation of Druze are more liberal and critical of the Israeli government than the former generations, according to Barani, there is “no question” about the Druze loyalty to the land, even amidst the controversial Nation State Law.

“Although young Druze feel left out of the consensus because Druze were not full partners of the State of Israel in the law, we are Israel and we will keep being Israeli,” he said.