Political Disillusionment Is Growing in Israel’s Druze Community

As the country they call home is reimagined, members of the minority group feel increasingly alienated

Political Disillusionment Is Growing in Israel’s Druze Community
Tear gas fills the air as Druze protest a wind turbine project in the Golan Heights. (JALAA MAREY/AFP via Getty Images)

As Israelis continue to protest Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s power grab, the Druze flag — characterized by its green triangle and four stripes of red, yellow, blue and white — has been conspicuously absent. This is despite the fact that the country’s crisis is deepening, as a far-right coalition targets democratic institutions and solidifies Israel’s identity as exclusively Jewish, disenfranchising minorities like the Druze, who have traditionally enjoyed full citizenship rights.

“We do not participate, because we count on the Jews,” Sawsan Kheir, a Druze researcher at Haifa University told New Lines, explaining why, like many of her Druze intimates, she prefers to watch the protests from afar rather than participate in them.

She explained that as a second-class citizen, her voice will not be heard. “Who cares if I say no? It’s the Jew who has the power, who can contest and demonstrate. His voice will be heard, rather than mine.”

Her sentiment is in stark contrast to the Druze community’s stance just five years ago, when they were among those leading the movement against the controversial 2018 Israeli nation-state law, which defined Jewish settlements as a “national value,” and the right to national self-determination as being “unique to the Jewish people.” But since then, a sense of disenfranchisement has been festering among even the most pro-Israeli members of the Druze community, many of whom serve in the country’s armed forces.

“If you say that this state belongs only to Jews, it means that Woody Allen has more rights here in Israel than me,” Amal Asad, a retired Israel Defense Forces (IDF) brigadier general — and the first Druze soldier to be promoted to such a position — told New Lines in an online interview. His commitment to the Jewish state carried him through nearly three decades of service in the military, including the Yom Kippur and first Lebanon wars and, he explained, inspired him to engage politically and lead the 2018 movement.

But since then, he too has succumbed to a deep sense of sadness, feeling left out of Israeli politics and excluded from the very essence of Israeli national identity.

Traditionally, the Druze have occupied a unique place in Israeli society.

Scattered across villages in the north, they make up only 2% of the population and have been recognized as a religious minority ever since 1957, when the Israeli government changed the nationality markers on their identification cards from “Arab” to “Druze.”

The Druze who live in the Golan Heights, for example, used to belong to Syria and identified as Syrian. But after the 1967 war, when Syria lost the Golan to Israel, the Jewish state allowed the Druze to remain but expelled other religious communities from the Heights, before illegally annexing it. Over the years, the Druze community of the Golan has wavered between lamenting the loss of a Syrian or Arab identity and embracing a new Israeli one — a divide that often manifests as a new generation grapples with modern innovations. Recently, for instance, the Druze community there has clashed anew with the IDF, this time in protests over the construction of wind turbines that would damage private property.

Even though the Druze in Israel speak Arabic as their native language — and often identify as Druze, Israeli and Arab — several things set them apart from both their Israeli and Palestinian counterparts, creating an effect that Druze academic Salim Brake refers to as a “sandwiched” minority.

First, they follow a unique school curriculum that is separate from the curriculums of either Jewish Israelis or Palestinian citizens of Israel (also called Israeli Arabs). The Druze curriculum fosters a connection to Druze culture and values, strengthens Israeli-Druze ties and bolsters loyalty to Israel.

Second, and perhaps most significant, Druze men (though not women) are subject to mandatory conscription in the IDF, which has in previous years led to a greater sense of political respect, inclusion and integration into Israeli society.

“I can’t question my Zionism,” said Omri Zaher, a 32-year-old backend developer who grew up in Isfiya, a small Druze village just a few miles south of Haifa. “I feel bad, but it is in my subconscious.”

Growing up, Zaher felt connected to his Jewish peers. He played soccer in Haifa, which meant he was in contact with Jewish people from an early age, and longed to be a part of their world. Even as an atheist, he felt connected to the Jewish religion. He likes Friday Shabbat dinners and Jewish holidays and has a distinct memory of his grandfather lighting a candle for Israeli Independence Day, a pivotal image that has become something of an urban legend in his family.

“My grandfather was the first Druze person to light a candle on that day,” he said. “I think this is the moment that made me a Zionist.”

“No matter what, I love this country,” he continued. “I love the Jewish people, and I am blessed that I am living here.”

Now Israel’s Druze, unlike their brothers and sisters throughout the Arab world who have traditionally pledged allegiance to sect, clan and the land they inhabit rather than to a modern nation-state, feel betrayed by the only country they have embraced as their own. Even though they say that their community has not been treated equally — for example, Druze villages have traditionally suffered from a lack of infrastructure improvements by the state — many believe that there used to be at least the possibility of change and achieving equality. But any such hope has been wiped out by the new nation-state law.

“The Druze always had this hope that one day we’ll have this equality, integration,” Ayal Kheir told New Lines. Kheir is a 28-year-old Druze studying for a master’s in government relations at the University of Haifa, researching the way the Druze community has changed over time. “The nation-state law came, and it killed all their hope.”

Indeed, since the new law passed in 2018, the number of Druze men refusing to join the Israeli army has spiked, and both national and international observers have paid attention to the thousands of Druze who stood alongside Israeli Jews in protests against the law. However, since then, the momentum has dwindled.

“I just think they have fallen off the public consciousness now,” said Dahlia Scheindlin, a political analyst based in Tel Aviv, as she discussed the way that the Druze anger which fueled the 2018 protests has tapered into a kind of despondency, many feeling that their place in Israeli society is forever changed.

“Lawyers can argue in the Supreme Court, we have a basic law in Israel that allows us to discriminate in favor of the Jews,” Scheindlin continued. Interestingly, according to Kheir’s research, which is still in the preliminary stages, many Druze are reconnecting with their Arabic identity, referring to themselves as “Arabs” far more frequently than before.

As Israel’s political landscape grows more competitive, the space for Druze politicians grows smaller and smaller.

“Druze politics remains completely dependent on their representation in Zionist parties,” said Amal Jamal, a Druze political scientist at Tel Aviv University. He explained that, without a Druze political party, Druze politicians are bound to other parties, most of which are Jewish and ethnonationalist. Because these parties do not solely represent Druze constituents, their needs are not always a priority and thus are rarely met.

In some parties, Druze politicians are placed low on electoral lists, which means that they can only enter the Knesset if enough people specifically choose to vote for them. With a small community that holds many different opinions, the likelihood that the community will all vote for the same politician is small. Inevitably this leads to a precarious position for Druze politicians.

“The Druze could find themselves outside the Knesset completely because they have no democratic power, neither in the Jewish community nor in the Arab community,” Jamal elaborated.

Given their military service, the Druze have traditionally been viewed as a part of Israeli society. However, if more and more Druze refuse to do military service, the value of this symbolic act will decline and, with it, the political benefit of having a Druze candidate within a political party. At this rate, the Druze may lose their place in Israeli politics entirely.

With the loss of political power comes the loss of potential for change. In addition to dwindling representation, voter turnout among the Druze has been declining for years. According to Jamal’s research, 20 years ago about 80% of the Druze population voted in elections. His research shows that now that number has been cut almost in half and is much lower than the national average, as reported by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

Those who still vote have also apparently been influenced by the nation-state law. According to the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, most Druze used to vote for the secularist, nationalist right-wing party Yisrael Beiteinu, or the social democratic Labor Party. Recently, the majority of Druze have supported Blue and White, an opposition party that hoped to defeat Benjamin Netanyahu and opposed the nation-state law.

According to Amal Asad, Druze men may still have to join the army by law, but some are less willing to risk their lives by taking front-line combat positions. Prior to 2018, the army was a source of power for the Druze, because it granted them a unique and respected status in Israel, especially in comparison to other minority groups. Now, according to Jamal, the community is split between those who view the army as an instrument for better jobs in the Israeli market and those who refuse to serve. Even though the Israeli army does not share its data, making it difficult for researchers to estimate the full effect of the law, based on speaking to members of his community Jamal thinks that more Druze will refuse to serve in the future.

“If the state doesn’t belong to you and the army of the state defends the state, if you serve in the Israeli army, then you are not defending something that you can identify with or includes you,” he explained. “The only choice they have is to go back and unite with the Arab community.”

Amir Asad, the son of Amal Asad, grew up hearing his father’s heroic army stories. When it was his time to join up, there was no question about it, even though his period in the army brought its own challenges. For example, Asad remembers when his mother used to call when he was on the bus with other soldiers, and heads would turn the minute he answered in Arabic. The fear only dissipated when they found out that Amir was Druze.

Despite this “open racism,” Amir is still in favor of serving in the army. According to him, the military can also offer the first opportunity for other Israelis to learn about those who are different from them.

“This is where the melting pot happens,” he said. Still, the nation-state law has changed his views.

“I don’t want my kid to go into the army,” he continued. “My father would have flipped if I said that many years ago.” Now, however, Amir thinks his father would not want his grandchild to serve either.

Although he now lives in New York, Amir used to be very involved in Israeli society and committed to “educating people” about Israel in New York. But he added that he has declined every request to give such presentations since 2018, and he is not even sure he will ever live in Israel again.

While men like Omri Zaher and Ayal Kheir can only look at their time in the army with hindsight, younger generations are forced to grapple with these situations now. For 18-year-old Kayan Mansour, hearing that he was deemed physically unfit to serve in the army was a big relief. His disdain for the army caused some family disputes, but Mansour is sure of his conviction.

“Even if I had to spend time in jail, do some work, I didn’t know what the punishment would be, but I was very sure that I would not serve in the military,” he said. He describes himself as an Arab Druze who lives in Israel; he does not define himself as an Israeli.

Unlike his son, Amal Asad is intent on staying in Israel — and is one of the few Druze who continue to attend the protests, in the belief that his voice matters. As he marches down Tel Aviv’s streets, he is surrounded by flags of a country for which he fought and which he swore to protect. Even though Israel is eroding his community’s sense of belonging, he is determined to keep fighting for his place in Israeli society.

“It doesn’t matter what Netanyahu said or what [far-right Finance Minister Bezalel] Smotrich said, or what everybody said. This is our country,” he told New Lines. “One thing I’m sure of is that the Druze will stay here.”

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