A rare moment of dissent has catapulted the generally well-integrated, army-serving Israeli Druze community to the forefront of opposition against the controversial new legislation that officially defines Israel as the Jewish nation-state.
On Sunday, Druze lawmakers were the first to file a High Court of Justice petition against the Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People. A hundred Druze Israel Defense Forces reserve officers added their voices to that effort on Wednesday, prompting Education Minister Naftali Bennett to speak out in support of “our blood brothers” on Twitter. And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he will hold a meeting next week to discuss the impact of the new law on Israel’s Druze community.
Despite only making up about 2 percent of Israel’s population (according to the most recent government data), Netanyahu’s quick response to Druze concerns shows it is a minority the Israeli government cannot afford to ignore.
Who are Israel’s Druze?
The Druze are a unique religious and ethnic group that broke away from Shia Islam in the 11th century. There are about 1.5 million Druze worldwide, living mostly in Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan.
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Like many other ethnic groups in the Middle East, the Druze were splintered geographically by international borders drawn based on the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement and implemented after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Israel’s roughly 136,000 Druze live primarily in the northern regions of the Galilee, Carmel and the Golan Heights.
Druze practice a monotheistic, Abrahamic and secretive religion that is closely guarded by its spiritual leaders. However, it is known that the Druze do not have set holy days, liturgy or pilgrimage obligations. The faith instead values philosophy, spiritual purity and an individual connection to God.
Almost all Israeli Druze (99 percent) say they believe in God, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center study of Israel. However, most say that belonging to the Druze community is more about ancestry and culture than religion. As a result, very few Israeli Druze (less than 1 percent) marry outside of their religion.
Druze are not Muslim, obviously, but they are Arabic speakers: In Israel, they represent about 8 percent of the country’s Arab population. But unlike other Arab citizens, Druze men are subject to the army draft and the community’s soldiers have long been venerated for their distinguished service.
Why do Israeli Druze serve in the IDF?
Druze culture upholds a tradition of political loyalty to the ruling regime, which has been the subject of much academic debate. Most Druze did not oppose the founding of Israel as a Jewish state in 1948. They also supported the young government’s decisions to extend compulsory military service to Druze men in 1956, and then to recognize the Druze as an official independent religious community in 1957.
Some Druze men volunteered to serve even earlier in a special “non-Jewish” IDF unit established in 1948, according to the Inter Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues. All IDF units were officially opened to Druze recruits in 1982.
The same political loyalty argument has been used to explain the continued support of Syrian Druze for President Bashar Assad’s regime. Many Druze in the Israeli Golan Heights also support Assad and identify as Syrian – and since most Druze there have refused to accept Israeli citizenship since Israeli annexation in 1981, they don’t serve in the IDF with the same vigor as Druze from the Galilee and Carmel regions.
Israeli government data show that Druze men serve in the IDF at even higher rates than their Jewish peers – due in part to the fact that many ultra-Orthodox Jews do not enlist. Some 83 percent of Druze serve in some capacity, with 60 percent in combat units. In the 2016 Pew Research study, six out of 10 Druze men polled said they had served (45 percent) or were currently serving (15 percent).
There’s no question that Druze serve at far higher rates than most of Israel’s other minority groups (such as the Bedouin), and many Druze have obtained high ranking positions.
As of 2017, 421 Druze had died fighting for the IDF in Israel’s wars (or in terror attacks), and an annual “Beshvil Habanim” (“For the Sons”) trail race is held on Mount Carmel to commemorate them.
What do Druze stand to lose from the nation-state law?
The Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People approved by the Knesset on July 19 affirmed that only Jews have the right to self-determination in Israel. It also downgraded Arabic to a language with “special status,” among several other controversial measures that affect the Israeli Druze.
But Druze lawmakers and reserve officers were quick to emphasize the threat – and insult – that the legislation poses to Druze soldiers. “The Druze community’s loyalty to this country is more profound and serious than any political statement,” said Brig. Gen. (res.) Imad Fares, speaking to Ynet News. “Why is it necessary to hurt us every time, to test our loyalty?” he asked.
“The feeling we are not equal was always a bit present in the street,” he added. “It’s sad, because we’ve always believed that someday we would be treated as equals. But now, when it’s enshrined into law, this looks further away than ever.”
And three lawmakers were among Druze leaders who petitioned the High Court on Sunday, calling the legislation an “extreme” act that discriminated against the country’s minorities.
Bennett may well advocate for a change to the law. “We, the government of Israel, have the responsibility of finding a way to repair the rift,” he tweeted on Wednesday, later adding, “A specific flaw arises regarding our Druze brothers and that must be amended.”
On Thursday, though, Netanyahu hinted that no changes will be made to the legislation. Instead, he said, a plan will be put together “to express the deep commitment Israel has to the Druze public.” Netanyahu’s statement came after he met with Druze lawmakers, including Communications Minister Ayoub Kara, who is in Netanyahu’s Likud party. Netanyahu is set to meet with Muwafak Tarif, the spiritual leader of Israel’s Druze community, on Friday.