The Manipulation of a Minority

Israel’s intervention in Druze identity.

Amos Barshad
April 9, 2019
Illustration: Joe Gough

WHEN HADIYAH KAYOOF was 12 years old, her parents moved her from her local public school in the small Israeli village of Isifiya into a private Arab school in the nearby city of Haifa. Her father ran a small computer accessories shop; her mother was a kindergarten teacher. They were a patriarchal family—“My mom, I think, more patriarchal than my father,” Kayoof, now 27, laughs over the phone from Israel, where she works as a commercial lawyer. The household was traditional, quietly religious, and apolitical. Her parents weren’t trying to trigger an awakening by moving her to a new school. They just wanted their daughter to have the best education possible.

Kayoof’s family is Druze, a community and religion numbering just over a million people spread largely through Lebanon, Syria, and Israel. Kayoof’s home village is majority Druze, and as such, her early education fell under the guidelines of the Israeli government’s official Druze curriculum. “They taught us about this blood connection between the Jews and the Druze,” Kayoof recalls. “They taught us that in the ’50s the Druze [leaders] went to Israel to ask them to force military service on the community. My mother tongue is Arabic”—as it is for most Druze—“yet I was taught I’m not Arab but Israeli Druze.” As a small child, Kayoof was taken to celebrations for Israel’s Independence Day. She learned as much about Jewish holidays as she did Druze ones.

Haifa is a city renowned for its demographic swirl. Its Arab minority, roughly 11% of the city’s population of 280,000, is said to be better integrated and politically stronger than anywhere else in Israel. At school, for the first time, Kayoof met schoolmates who identified as Israeli Arabs and Palestinian Muslims and Arab Christians. She saw that there were more options for her own self-identification than she’d ever realized before. She started to ask herself: What, exactly, was she?

Kayoof started reading histories of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and of her own community. Her parents weren’t eager to push back on the national narrative, but their home library did happen to contain a wealth of historical Druze texts that didn’t adhere to the official curriculum. Some were academic works by Professor Kais Firro, a historian at the University of Haifa and, as it turned out, also a local of Isifiya.

“It was a process,” Kayoof says of her reeducation. “And after maybe six years I had this big revelation—I’m a Palestinian. I concluded that my identity had been manipulated. And I was very angry about it.”

IN JULY OF 2018, the Israeli Knesset passed a law known colloquially as “the nation-state bill.” It declared that “the realization of the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people,” effectively putting into law the practical reality of Jewish superiority over all of the country’s other demographics. (Its official name is “Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People.”) Naturally, in the contentious run-up to the passing of the bill, all eyes were on Israel’s 1.6 million Arab citizens. Somehow, the power brokers behind the bill did not consider the possibility that Israel’s 140,000 Druze—those famously loyal blood brothers—would have something to say, too.

The response was swift. Amal As’ad, a retired Brigadier General in the Israeli military whose own brother died fighting in Gaza, declared that Israel was moving toward an “apartheid state” and later confronted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a tense meeting from which Netanyahu huffed out. Two active Druze soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces vented on Facebook and threatened to quit the army. “This country that I, along with my two brothers, and my father, served with dedication, purpose and love of our homeland—in the end, what do we get,” one of the soldiers, Capt. Amir Jmall, wrote in a post addressed directly to Netanyahu. “We are second-class citizens.” This spirited, scattered outcry in response to the nation-state bill reached a crescendo on a Saturday evening in Tel Aviv, when tens of thousands—leftist Jewish politicians, religious Druze leaders, and other stubbornly hopeful people—amassed in Rabin Square for a pro-Druze protest.

A protest against the nation-state bill in Rabin Square, August 2018. Photo: Oren Ziv via ActiveStills

The right wing grumbled its confusions and backpedaled softly, repeating platitudes about “our Druze brothers.” There was talk of amending the law in some way to ensure protections for the Druze. But the basic illiberal purpose of the law was not challenged on the right, and ultimately, even those vague overtures to the Druze felt half-hearted and false. As Natan Eshel, former Prime Minister Bureau Chief, told a national news channel, “Those who don’t like it—there’s a large Druze community in Syria, they’re welcome to establish the state of ‘Druzia’ there.”

But Kayoof expresses no anguish, bitterness, or fear. Rather, she sees the bill’s passage as an inflection point. By the time she was a teenager, she’d accepted a different set of truths about the Druze. Now, thanks to the nation-state law, she’s hoping her community at large will start to see it her way, to realize they’ve been manipulated, too.

“I was happy that Israel had this law,” she says. “It stated the obvious for me. My reaction? Very happy.”

ASK AN ISRAELI JEW about the Druze and more likely than not they’ll tell you about the might of the Druze fighter. Unlike other Arab citizens of Israel and ultra-Orthodox Jews, Druze men are obligated to serve in the IDF. Over the decades, through Israel’s wars, they’ve developed a reputation as dedicated soldiers, and some 400 Druze soldiers are estimated to have died fighting for Israel. As the Druze activist Nadia Hamdan told +972 Magazine this year, “We were raised with military uniforms on our washing lines.”

But this narrative of the unity of the Druze and the Jew, forged in battle, has always had fault lines. In Ronit Lentin’s 1980 book Conversations With Palestinian Women, Lily Feidy (now a Palestinian academic) is quoted about her then-upcoming marriage to a Druze man:

Although her parents supported her choice, others in the family objected because of “the Arab perceptions of the Druze—they see them as collaborators with the Israelis.” Feidy told me her intended husband did not serve in the IDF and spent a year in jail: “Many young Druze who refuse to serve, spend time in jail. Today there are some 300 Druze in Israeli jails because they refused to serve . . . No one knows about it because all this information is censored and nothing is being published.”

Even for Druze who enlist and attempt to integrate, there are flash points. In 2015, YNet reported on an incident that occurred during a “soldier’s night” at a bar in northern Israel. A group of Jewish patrons became enraged when they heard a Druze combat soldier speaking to his cousin in Arabic. In the ensuing confrontation, they flung a rock through his car window and broke his jaw. And as recently as 2015, a segregated Druze battalion called Herev, or Sword, was active. As a senior IDF officer explained at the time, it was dismantled only after young Druze soldiers “clearly and unequivocally indicat[ed] . . . that they want to integrate into the larger IDF and not be in a battalion of their own.”

In 2014, Hadiyah Kayoof co-founded Urfod, an organization dedicated to supporting Druze men as they reject IDF service (Druze women, unlike Jewish Israeli women, are not legally obligated to serve). Urfod means “Refuse,” short for “Refuse And Your People Will Protect You.” The group is part of a small vanguard in the Druze community. Though at first theirs was a fringe point of view, things have changed quickly. “Many people are starting to question their identity,” she says. “Many are starting to question why they should go to the military while Israel deprives them of their rights.”

Kayoof and Urfod point to academics like Kais Firro and Rabah Halabi, who have discovered official Israeli government communiqués from the 1940s and 50s describing a plan to carve the Druze community away from the larger Arab population.

“The last people with a reason to complain against the State of Israel should be the Druze. Not only were they not oppressed, but they were given extraordinary rights,” wrote Yehoshua Felmann of the Office for Arab Relations in 1950. “This was not done randomly, but with a plan and intention, which was to deepen and expand the distance between them and the Arabs among whom they live.” Or, as concluded by a 1949 Inter-Ministerial Committee on Arab integration, “The best way to deal with the minorities was to divide and subdivide them.”

In 1948, during the war in which the State of Israel was founded, army recruiters created a Minorities Unit. They pulled in Druze men, granting them immediate access to harvest their crops (which the Israelis were occupying) in exchange for promises of future military service. Ya’acov Shim’oni, a Foreign Ministry official, explained at the time that the Minorities Unit had little tactical importance on the battlefield, but was helpful as “the sharp blade of a knife to stab in the back of Arab unity.” In 1956, Israel established the mandatory conscription of Druze men. It’s been the law of the land ever since.

The State has also had a hand in defining the limits of employment opportunities for the Druze, guiding them toward the military. As Firro has written, the “progressive collapse of agriculture in Druze villages” came “largely as a result of the post-1949 intensification of Israel’s policy of land confiscation. By 1962, the Druzes had lost more than two thirds of their lands, and the water allocation for agriculture in their villages was less than 0.05% of Israel’s total water supply.” Cut off from agriculture, Druze men increasingly found employment throughout the Israeli armed forces. “What is required [for this sector],” writes Firro, “is discipline, identification with official policies, loyalty . . . [and] an almost complete dependency on the Israeli authorities.”

In the early ’70s, an organization called the Druze Initiative Committee was formed by the Israeli Communist Party to combat the Israeli government’s ongoing attempts to cleave the Druze from the Arabs. Partially in response, in 1975 the Israeli Ministry of Education introduced the separate Druze school curriculum which still exists today. (This is the curriculum with which Kayoof was brought up.) A state education committee declared that the curriculum’s aim was to “educate and inculcate the Druze youth with Israeli-Druze consciousness.”

Perceptions of the Druze faith itself is another tricky subject: the religion is regarded by Jewish Israelis as vaguely mysterious. Formed around 1000 AD as an offshoot from Islam, it is unique in many ways. The Pew Center writes, “there are no set holy days, regular liturgy or obligations for pilgrimage, as Druze are meant to be connected with God at all times. […] Druze tradition also honors several ‘mentors’ and ‘prophets,’ including Jethro of Midian (Moses’ father-in-law), Moses, Jesus, John the Baptist and the Prophet Muhammad” and holds “in high regard” the likes of “Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Alexander the Great.” It is also true that the Druze faith is largely hermetic: the Druze prohibit intermarriage. But some Druze allege that Jewish academics have overemphasized the religion’s esoteric nature, implicitly creating another way to mark the Druze as separate from Israel’s Arabs, whether Christian or Muslim.

All of these manifold ways of separating the Druze from the Arabs have been plainly successful. In an interview with a Cornell University researcher in 2017, a high school history teacher in the large Druze village of Yarka recalled, “My students once asked me how do I define myself. I said I am an Arab and a Druze. They then asked, ‘why did you say Arab if you are a Druze?’”

KHALED FARRAG, 37, is another one of Urfod’s co-founders. He’s also the full-time director of Grassroots Jerusalem, a community organizing network active in East Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods. He grew up in a small, majority Arab Christian village in the Upper Galilee called Rama, where he was taught the Arab curriculum, not the Druze one. “It’s not as . . . manipulated,” he says.

From a young age, he knew that he would refuse to serve in the IDF. Then he won acceptance to the United World College high school in Western Norway and that attitude solidified. “I met Palestinians from Gaza, from Hebron, from Bethlehem,” Farrag says of his time in frigid Fleke. “I took a break from living in that [Middle East] atmosphere, inside that tension, and I was able to look at it from afar.”

After graduation, he flew back home. He was 18 years old. When he landed at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, a warrant calling him to IDF service was waiting.

Just like all those who refuse service at 18, Farrag was already officially considered an IDF soldier, and so when he declared his refusal he went through the IDF’s legal process. First, he was sentenced to two months in military prison, “to pressure me to change my mind,” he says. Then he was taken to an IDF base and for months more was put in front of committees adjudicating his general compatibility and mental health. “The hardest part was that I had to do it on my own,” he says. This was 1999, and there were no organizations like Urfod. “I had my family supporting me, but there wasn’t a framework, a movement.”

Farrag eventually gained his exemption by claiming he wasn’t mentally fit to serve. All in all, the process took nearly seven months. It’s unclear how many other Druze men have suffered through the experience. Distrustful of IDF’s internal statistics on the issue, Urfod hasn’t asked the army for numbers, though the organization is planning to submit a request for an accurate count to the Knesset in the near future. As of press time, Urfod was actively counseling eight youths refusing service, some of whom had served prison time.

“I can imagine that, as a kid, when you see your neighbor or your cousin coming home with the shiny uniform and the shiny big gun—there’s something appealing in that strength,” Farrag says. “But for me, the politics was always present in our house. The first time you hear ‘Druze are not Arabs,’ it doesn’t make sense. Your culture, your language, your history: it’s totally Arabic.”

Technically, Urfod’s mission is a practical one: they are here to help Druze object to IDF service. But within that is a push toward uncovering a buried radical history of their people. Kayoof says of her organization, “A lot of our activism is to raise awareness that there are lies and myths. But our vision is much more broad. We have in mind that we are a liberation ideology.”

Jewish academics who have written about the Druze have pushed a perception of them as a people historically inclined to bend the knee to any reigning power. Farrag offers a different narrative: “Druze don’t ally with the ruling power to protect themselves, as Israel teaches you—no! They fight colonialism. The revolt with the French colonialists in Syria [in the 1920s] started with the Druze community! Druze are Arabs, and are actually integral in the Arab struggle for liberation.”

When he speaks to young Druze now, he’s patient: “I’m not telling you to become Palestinian right now. I’m not telling you not to join the army. I’m telling you, learn your real history and then make up your mind.”

But despite Farrag’s enthusiasm, a significant question looms above theoretical Druze-Arab solidarity. Palestinian national identity has in large part been formed and solidified over the past 70 years in response to Israeli oppression. So can the Druze “become” Palestinian, without the same lived experience?

Dr. Saree Makdisi, a Palestinian-American Professor of English at UCLA and the author of Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation, believes the answer is yes. “Druze Palestinians are as Palestinian as any other Palestinians,” he says. “The confusion is a result of the deliberate Israeli obfuscation of Palestinian identity.”

Makdisi goes on: “It’s not easy to relinquish even the illusory benefits that a racial state grants you.” But with the passing of the nation-state bill he, too, sees potential change. “Will this dropping of the fig leaf of Israeli ‘liberalism’ finally make Druze Palestinians aware of the way they have been suckered into service and loyalty for a state that ultimately reviles them as Palestinians? One can only hope.”

IT IS SURELY too reductive to imagine that a clean schism now exists in the Druze community between those who still pine for the status quo and those who are hungry to continue exposing the fables behind it. But it is worthwhile to remember that there are those who feel energized by these developments and those who feel enervated by them. Young Druze like Farrag and Kayoof, representative of a more radical slice of the community, welcome the nation-state law as an awakening. Fifty-three-year-old Salim Brake—by all respects the picture of well-assimilated Druze—finds it heartbreaking.

Brake, a political scientist who teaches at the Open University of Israel, is originally from Majdal Shams in the Golan, territory captured by Israel from Syria in 1967. Traditionally, the 25,000 or so Druze in the Golan consider themselves Syrian Druze and do not serve in the army. Under “nationality,” Syrian Druze’s Israeli ID cards say “undefined,” which has become a kind of dark community in-joke. There’s even a bar in Majdal Shams called Undefined.

But Brake lives now with his family in Carmiel, a largely Jewish town an hour and a half southwest of Majdal Shams. “I’m proud to be a citizen of Israel. I want it to be part of my life,” he says.

Brake’s son is 15; the boy’s mother tongue is Hebrew and all his friends are Jewish. But Brake’s 9-year-old daughter has recently started asking if she will be regarded as different by her Jewish peers. “I never expected I would face these questions,” Brake says. “I really like the Jewish people. They [are] a very special phenomenon. And I’m very influenced [by] Freud. But the behavior of the Israeli government of the last 20 years . . .” He trails off, then continues, emotion mounting: “I don’t play Druze against the Jews. I say, ‘OK, we are in a bad period. You go to sleep in the night, you wake up in the morning, you hope there will be change.” He pauses. “I’m not sure that what I’m telling my children is really the truth.”

For years now, some of Brake’s Druze and Arab friends have accused him of lying to himself about his feeling of acceptance by the Israelis. He’d always rejected the accusation. But, “somewhere in my heart, I thought they were right.” Those voices of dissent seem louder since the passing of the nation-state bill.

Before we end our conversation, the topic of Brake’s son’s IDF service comes up. When asked if he believes that his son will still enlist when he’s called to service at 18, Brake doesn’t hesitate to answer yes.

Amos Barshad was raised in Tel Aviv and Massachusetts and has written for The Fader, The New York Times, and The New Yorker. He is the author of No One Man Should Have All That Power: How Rasputins Manipulate the World.