The Druzes

Israel Table of Contents

The case of the Druzes is a special one. The Druzes belong to an eleventh century offshoot of Shia Islam, which originated in Egypt. They soon migrated northward, settling first along the western slopes of Mount Hermon, and thence westward into the Shuf Mountains of Lebanon, south to Galilee and Mount Carmel, and east into Syria. In 1988 there were approximately 318,000 Druzes in Syria and 182,000 in Lebanon. Including the Druze population of the Golan Heights, annexed by Israel in December 1981, there were about 72,000 Druzes in Israel. This number represented a large increase from the 1948 population of about 13,000. Besides the Golan Heights, in the late 1980s Druzes lived in seventeen villages in Galilee and around Mount Carmel. Of these, nine were all Druze and the rest mixed, mostly with Christian Arabs. Less than 10 percent of Druzes in Israel lived in cities--compared to more than 60 percent of Christians.

The Druze religion is known mainly for being shrouded in secrecy, even from large groups of Druzes themselves, the juhhal, uninitiated or "ignorant ones." The uqqal, the "wise," or initiated, undergo periods of initiation, each signaling an increased mastery of the mysteries of the faith. Although there is a formal separation between religious and political leadership, the wise ones (particularly the ajawid, or excellent, among them) have traditionally wielded considerable political influence. The religion is fiercely monotheistic and includes an elaborate doctrine of the reincarnation and transmigration of souls. It shares with Shia Islam the doctrine of practicing taqiya, the art of dissimulation in hostile environments. In the past this practice meant seeming to worship in the manner of the conqueror or dominant group, without apostasy. In more recent times, some observers note, it has meant being loyal to the state in which they reside, including serving in its army.

Because the Druze religion was considered schismatic to Islam, even to Shia Islam, Druzes occasionally suffered discrimination and persecution at the hands of Muslims and, like other Middle Eastern dissidents, inhabited marginal or easily defensible areas: mountain slopes and intermontane valleys. Because the Druzes have long enjoyed a reputation for military prowess and good soldiery, they have often not suffered discrimination or persecutions lightly or without responding in kind. Whether because of the desire to settle old scores, or because the doctrine of taqiya can be stretched in this direction, Druzes have been remarkable in being a non-Jewish, Arabic-speaking group that has supported the Jewish state, both in the late Mandate period and since Israel's independence through service of Druze young men in the IDF and the paramilitary Border Police. About 175 Druzes have been killed in action, including a large proportion of that number in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

Jewish Israelis have recognized this service and sought to reward it. Druze villages had military supervision and restrictions lifted from them about four years before other Arab areas. Since 1977 there has been a Druze member of the Knesset from the right-of-center Likud, and under Labor they have served in highly visible positions such as that of presidential adviser on minority affairs and, at one time, the Israeli consul in New York City. In 1962 Israeli authorities recognized "Druze" as a separate nationality on internal identification cards--previously Druzes were differentiated only under dat, religion; their nationality was Arab. Although authorities assured Druzes that recognition as a separate nationality would enhance their most favored status, some analysts and younger Druzes have viewed the identification as an attempt to drive a wedge between them and other Arabs.

Many among the younger generation of Druzes have been partly radicalized in their politics--for a number of reasons. First, the favored status accorded the Druzes has not significantly helped them materially. Druzes have been among the least affluent of all groups in Israel, the number receiving higher education has been low, and few Druzes could be found in top professional or technical positions. Even those who have made the army their career have complained of severe limitations in promotions. Second, Israeli actions against Druzes in the occupied and then annexed Golan Heights troubled their coreligionists in Israel. Particularly troublesome was the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. During this invasion, Israeli soldiers, as allies of the Lebanese Christians, were opposed by Druzes of the Shuf Mountains. Pitched battles or military encounters between the IDF and the Lebanese Druzes were avoided. Nevertheless, the Lebanese Christian Maronites have been among the Druzes' most bitter enemies, and many Druzes serving in the IDF were killed or wounded in Lebanon. This was a particularly difficult time for Jewish-Druze relations, one from which they had not fully recovered in 1988.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress