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What spurred Israel's Druze to demand equality now?

For most of Israel’s minority groups, the Jewish Nation-State Law was far from surprising. But for many Druze citizens, who for decades have served in the military, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Elders of the Israeli Druze community are seen at a mass protest against the 'Jewish Nation-State law' in Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, August 4, 2018. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Elders of the Israeli Druze community are seen at a mass protest against the ‘Jewish Nation-State law’ in Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, August 4, 2018. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Eman Safady, like many Druze citizens of Israel, felt personally betrayed by the Jewish Nation-State Law. A journalist from the village of Abu Snan in the Galilee and an officer at the Union of Journalists in Israel, she was one of the tens of thousands of protesters who took to Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square last weekend to oppose the law.

The Jewish Nation-State Law did not shock most of Israel’s minority groups. The law is merely a symbolic acknowledgment of a discriminatory reality they’ve long grown accustomed to, in which Israel and its institutions favor Jewish citizens over non-Jews. The law explicitly declared that Israel belongs not to its citizens but to the Jewish people, and stripped Arabic of its status as an official language.

For the Druze community, which has traditionally been categorized differently than other Arabic-speaking, non-Jewish minorities in Israel — the law elicited strong feelings of abandonment.

“They’re trying to anchor our second-class status in law,” said Safady. “Before, I would feel discriminated against, particularly as a woman. But now our inequality is being flaunted in our faces.”

Lately, Safady continued, it seems the Israeli government has been trampling on everybody’s rights, be it the LGBTQ community fighting for equality or secular and non-Orthodox Jewish Israelis advocating for stronger separation of religion and state. This sense of urgency has contributed to the outrage, she said. But there is also another shift taking place — one that began several decades ago.

Israeli President Zalman Shazar welcomes a group of Druze notables at the President's home in Jerusalem for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, April 4, 1968. (Fritz Cohen/GPO)

Israeli President Zalman Shazar welcomes a group of Druze elders at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, April 4, 1968. (Fritz Cohen/GPO)

Israel recognized the Druze community as a distinct ethnic and religious minority, separate from Arab groups, in 1957. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, as of 2017, there were approximately 141,000 Druze in Israel, or 1.6 percent of Israelis. The population grew when Israel annexed the Golan Heights in 1981. although the vast majority of Druze from the Golan never took Israeli citizenship.

In the mainstream Israeli narrative, the Druze are loyal to the state — an anomaly in Israeli perceptions of its minority populations — most visibly because they serve in the military. In the Israeli lexicon, the relationship, with an eye on military service, is commonly referred to as a “blood covenant.” This tradition began in 1956, when a few Druze leaders requested that mandatory conscription — which excludes other Palestinian citizens of Israel — apply also to the men in their community. Since then, enlistment rates have been high.

But the Druze’s unique position in Israeli society has not improved their social or economic standing. “Druze have weak and relatively poor municipalities, lower educational achievements and access gaps to higher education, high rates of unemployment and under-employment (among women especially, and due in part to their residence in small villages in Israel’s northern periphery), and a lack of land for urban development and growth,” explained a 2018 report by the Inter Agency Task Force, a coalition of North American Jewish organizations researching Israel’s Arab citizens.

Tens of thousands of Druze and Jewish Israelis fill Tel Aviv's Rabin Square to protest the 'Jewish Nation-State Law,' August 4, 2018. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Tens of thousands of Druze and Jewish Israelis fill Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square to protest the ‘Jewish Nation-State Law,’ August 4, 2018. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Over the past couple of decades, discrimination has become more personal for members of the Druze community, and not even the “blood covenant” has granted them immunity.

“The protest on Saturday was about more than the Jewish Nation-State Law,” said Amir Khnifess, head of the newly-formed Forum Against the Nation-State Law. “We were expressing our anger against [the state’s] discriminatory policies toward the Druze community in housing, labor, agriculture, and education.”

Israeli authorities are reverting to strategies they used in the 1950s, when Israel thought it could expel Arabs by chipping away at their living conditions, according to Salim Brake, an academic who focuses on the Druze community. When young people feel they have no prospects, they leave, which in turn weakens minority groups, he explained.



It was also in the 1950s when Israeli authorities secured a clan system vis-à-vis the Druze by appointing the Tarif family to decide on Druze affairs. “The state would financially support the Tarifs, who, in return, would promote the government’s policies,” explained Brake. “People started realizing that the decisions of the Tarif leadership go against the community’s interests.”

The lack of trust extends to Druze members of parliament, added Brake, who he alleged do not seek to represent or serve the community but rather “act as employees of Zionist, fascist parties,” referring to Ayoub Kara (Likud) and Hamad Ammar (Yisrael Beiteinu), two Druze MKs who promoted and voted in favor of the Jewish Nation-State Law.

Communications Minister Ayoub Kara attends a press conference in the northern Israeli city of Tzfat, July 10, 2018. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Communications Minister Ayoub Kara attends a press conference in the northern Israeli city of Safed, July 10, 2018. (David Cohen/Flash90)

The law is more dangerous than most people understand, continued Brake. “It persecutes our children, our children’s basic rights, and paves the way for other racist laws. It deprives Arab citizens of any political agency.”

The Arab Higher Monitoring Committee, an umbrella organization that represents Arab citizens of Israel, has launched a separate campaign from the Druze.

“They divided us [Arabs] from the start and we agreed to it. We didn’t mind until it started affecting us as well — until we felt the pain ourselves,” said Nadia Hamdan, head of the northern branch of Na’amat, the largest women’s movement in Israel, which is affiliated with the Histadrut, Israel’s historically Zionist labor federation.

Growing up in Israel, most Druze are taught that the military is an integral part of their lives and their position in society, Hamdan continued. “We were raised with military uniforms on our washing lines.”

The issue of military service has been brought up by some Druze, as well as Jewish Israelis who oppose the law. Unlike the rest of the Arabs in Israel, the argument goes, Druze are entitled to full equality through a political paradigm that supposes “no rights without responsibilities.”

The same idea is the basis of a deal Prime Minister Netanyahu is attempting as part of his attempts to smooth things over with the Druze community. So far, Druze leaders have rejected that approach.

Shaykh Mowafaq Tarif, the spiritual leader of the Druze community in Israel, attentds the Druze-led rally to protest against the 'Jewish Nation-State Law,' Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, August 4, 2018. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Sheikh Mowafaq Tarif, the spiritual leader of the Druze community in Israel, attends the Druze-led rally to protest the ‘Jewish Nation-State Law,’ Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, August 4, 2018. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

“Those who say that we deserve more rights because we serve in the military are wrong. The state is discriminating against all of us,” said Hamdan. “I want to exercise my right to live in dignity — just like people in the kibbutzim and places like Kfar Vradim — regardless of whether I serve in the military or not.”

That sentiment, that equality must be guaranteed irrespective of military service, was also on display at the protest Saturday night — at least from the Druze speakers and demonstrators.

And yet, even at the height of their outrage, the Druze protesters waved Israeli flags and organizers sang the national anthem, Hatikva, on stage. Both Brake and Hamdan disagree with that strategy, but Hamdan believes that at this point in time, unity is the greater imperative.

“We have to focus on making this a mass movement,” Hamdan concluded. “We woke up a minute too late, but now we have to get on the next train.”

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    1. Unimpressed realist

      Its not enough to be Israeli anymore. Its too narrow and its too one sided. Always was and people have kept this belief to themselves for a very long time.

      Everything about it, is one sided. From the national anthem,to the flag which is not inclusive whatsoever, to the very way of life and language which imposes only one lifestyle over everybody else’. Its all one sided and people have had to tolerate this for far too long.

      How many Israel supporters even knew Druze existed? Probably no one. Wait till they find out. Watch the meltdown. Do they know about the other peoples other than Palestinians who are native to the holy land? Probably not. Yet all these people are told they have no right to A B and C nor seek self determination.

      History doesn’t work like that. For as long as there have been Jewish people there have also been other people born to the land. And they don’t suddenly stop existing or having their own history, culture, language, heritage, wants, desires and aspirations just because another people decided they shouldnt.

      THAT BEING SAID….Druze didn’t just wake up too late, they have been comatose the entire time. When Palestinians would march for this very thing, how many Druze would Israel send out to suppress them? If they believed in equality, the Palestinian people would be included in that equation. So how many Druze and Jews will march to Palestinian neighborhoods, dismantle the checkpoints they helped to erect in the first place and everyone in the holy land march together?

      I hope so. It would be a historical moment that would usher in something revolutionary that the ME has never seen.

      I recognize the injustice of being ruled over and erased. I am just sorry it took them this long, and so many lives destroyed to reach this point. And I hope its not a movement that fades away the second Natanyahu capitulates or compromises.

      Fight for equality FOR ALL. That means standing with Palestinians. And if people say “Thats destroying Israel” yes, it ‘destroys’ a VERSION of Israel, the current one which is not sustainable anyway. One that is unjust, cruel, tyrannical and only democratic for one ethnicity.

      A one bi national egalitarian state is the future. If people are bold enough to seek it and end all this suffering. Israel-Palestine. It doesn’t stop being meaningful to Jews because of that,or less safe because of it, your history isn’t altered, you still belong; its just that ALL of history is included now.

      Its putting the wrongs of the past, right.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        @Unimpressed Realist:


        DESPITE RECENT SETBACKS, the movement for one democratic state in Israel and Palestine is gaining momentum, and is particularly strong on college campuses, according to Ilan Pappé…“Young people in the Middle East and abroad have been galvanized by the vision of an end to the apartheid state in Israel and the establishment of a single democratic state, based on human rights for all,” Pappé told the Washington Report..“In fact, we’re already living in one state, but it’s a racist settler-colonialist state,” Pappé asserted..

        Reply to Comment
      • Baladi Akka 1948

        Lots of Druze identify as Palestinians, and many have refused to serve in the Israeli army since 1956. The best-known of them is Samih al-Qassem, the great Palestinian poet of resistance, from the Galilee, he went to jail on various occasions, first for refusing to serve in the army and later for political related topics, he died of cancer in 2014 and said on various occasions that his cancer was nothing compared to the cancer that’s spreading in his homeland. Omar Sa’ad is a Druze too. Israeli Social Tv made a four-part doc about the Druze published here on +972mag.

        Reply to Comment
        • Jamal

          Druze are next in the list of minorities to be “eradicated.” We are being played by the Zionist monster and will not be able to secure any rights under the new law. Druze all over are now realizing that being part of a nation is irrelevant.

          Reply to Comment
          • Gamal Akabani

            Indeed, you are entirely correct. Today are the Palestinians and the Druze in the occupied territories, tomorrow will be the Druze inside Israel. It is a matter of time; they will be forced to migrate to either Syria or Lebanon or be annihilated.

            Reply to Comment
      • jw500

        “A one bi national egalitarian state is the future.” Not possible. As you can see from the comments here, if the Arabs get the upper hand they will turn Israel into another (failed) Muslim Arab states.
        Why should anyone think a bi national state with Arabs is even possible? Lebanon is unstable and violent and in the end the Christians are being squeezed out. The Arabs have many states. Those who don’t want to be loyal Israeli citizens can move to an Arab state.

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          “Lebanon is unstable and violent and in the end the Christians are being squeezed out. The Arabs have many states. Those who don’t want to be loyal Israeli citizens can move to an Arab state.”

          This is an attempt to close down the future, to pretend that Israel’s Arab citizens, in collaboration with well meaning Jewish citizens, are not capable of something not “unstable and violent.” The irony is that Israel is doing much to squeeze out Christians!


          And this is just in the occupied territories among the settlements. Discrimination against Christians inside the Green-line is another story.

          Reply to Comment