This Ethnic Minority in Israel Still Swears Allegiance to Syria. But for Many Young People That's Changing

With the Syrian civil war raging next door, more youngsters are taking out Israeli citizenship as they feel more kinship with the country than their parents do

Young municipality volunteers pose while setting up for the evening Majdal Shams carnival following Id al-Adha, September 2017.
Young municipality volunteers pose while setting up for the evening Majdal Shams carnival following Id al-Adha, September 2017. Ari Plachta

Enjoying the last days of summer earlier this month, hundreds of residents in the Golan Heights town of Majdal Shams headed to the town center for a carnival, complete with cotton candy, live music and a slow-turning chocolate shawarma log. The festivities were organized to commemorate the Muslim holiday of Id al-Adha by the local municipality, an institution that residents once disparaged as an arm of the Israeli state.

The 25,000 or so Druze on the Golan Heights are part of a small Arabic-speaking, ethno-religious minority in the Middle East practicing a distinct offshoot of Ismaili Islam. Communities in the four villages of Majdal Shams, Buq’ata, Masadeh and Ein Qiniyye held firmly onto their Syrian identity following Israel’s annexation of the territory in 1981.

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But young Majdal Shams municipality volunteers, arranging chairs for last week’s big concert and fluent in Hebrew, weren’t shy to flaunt their bright yellow T-shirts emblazoned with the institution’s Hebrew name. Many residents say volunteers and city hall employees, living in the swath of land between Lebanon, Syria and Jordan captured by Israel in 1967, are respected today for their work to improve the community. Posing for photographs, the high-school-age crew could be mistaken for an Israeli youth group.

The teens illustrate a larger generation gap that has emerged between young and older Druze in the Golan Heights. In these communities, many grandparents and parents who spent their formative years in Damascus now sit around the dinner table with children studying and working in the Israeli cities of Haifa, Kiryat Shmona and Tel Aviv.

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After 50 years under Israeli control and nearly seven years into Syria’s bloody civil war, does the young waiter at a Golan restaurant frequented by Jewish Israelis on Shabbat see himself as Syrian, Israeli or something in between? While many members of the older generation are defeated by today’s devastation in Syria and Israeli permanence, young people spreading their wings in Israeli society are both breathing sighs of relief and recoiling in dismay.

Syrian flags are still flown proudly on Golan rooftops, and organizations of the community’s small civil society, like Arab Human Rights Center Al-Marsad, spend time and resources reminding the world that they remain occupied under international law. They refer to nearby Jewish communities Neve Ativ and Nimrod as “settlements,” though they bear little resemblance to their cousins in the West Bank.

Majdal Shams residents enjoy the Id al-Adha festivities, September 2017.
Ari Plachta

At the same time, Interior Ministry data show that a growing number of Golan Druze have adopted Israeli citizenship. Out of 26,500 residents, nearly 5,500 have applied for and received an Israeli passport since 1981. The yearly number of applicants are steadily rising, with 183 people having filed applications in 2016 compared with only five in 2000.

Unlike Druze communities in Israel’s northern Galilee, known for nationalist pride and punching above their weight in the Israeli army, Golan communities largely refused citizenship in 1981. The majority carry residency status, paying taxes and receiving civil services, but they lack passports and must apply for visas upon every exit from Israel.

On their Israeli ID cards, “Undefined” is written in the nationality section – an identity that has become a beloved inside joke, manifested in a popular bar on Majdal Shams’ main drag called Undefined.

But the growing number of Israeli citizenship applicants is also reflected in outward expressions of rapport with Israel, like those of candy salesman Adham Pharhat, whose small shop in Buq’ata sells bonbons, oversized red teddy bears and jewelry in glass cases.

“What more can I ask for? I’m in my thirties – I have security, money, social services, education. In Syria? You can forget about it,” he says, laughing. “I’m proud to be part of Israel.”

Still, he won’t be applying for citizenship anytime soon, for a reason expressed by many: “It’s disrespectful to the older generation.”

Some elder Golan Druze wistfully narrated their relationship with Syria through numbers: How old they were in 1967, how many years they spent in Damascus and when they last visited cousins. They consider the adoption of Israeli citizenship an insult to their history.

“I was 10 in 1967,” says Faris, who declined to give his last name, sitting with friends in the afternoon shade beside his Majdal Shams home. “Of course I’m concerned young people don’t have a connection to Syria – or what’s left of it. It’s a sad situation we have here. The young people, they couldn’t care less.”

Majdal Shams, the largest Druze town in the Golan Heights, September 2017.
Ari Plachta

Another Majdal Shams native, Dr. Salim Brake, knows this generational gap firsthand. “Young Druze are not as connected to their Syrian background,” he says. “Unlike their grandparents and even parents, they’ve never visited family in Syria; they speak Hebrew and know Israeli society well.”

The Syrian civil war has brought these divisions even more to the fore, since some members of the younger generation perceive their grandparents’ hero, Syrian President Bashar Assad, as a murderous dictator.

Shefaa Abu Jabal, once an anti-Assad activist known for what villagers called “opening her mouth too much” about the war in Syria, believes that, unlike their elders, young Golan Druze were thrown into a struggle to define their identity at the war’s outset.

“The older generation is Syrian, and they know it,” she says. “But 2011 was the year my generation was forced to really ask what we think and feel about Syria. Do I want to be Syrian or Israeli? Many hardly knew Syria to begin with, or didn’t have a family connection.”

Now living in Haifa and working at an Israeli human rights organization, Abu Jabal chooses not to judge the members of her community who have decided to embrace Israeli identity.

“Life is different for young people now, especially the ones who have studied in Haifa and Tel Aviv,” she notes. “For Israel, the Syrian revolution was a gift. By saying, ‘Look what we give you here in Israel and look what’s happening over there in Syria,’ young people aren’t afraid to praise Israel and consider citizenship.”

But a young Druze woman working at a Majdal Shams shop, who requested she not be identified, isn’t impressed. A student at the University of Haifa with dreams of becoming a psychologist, she chooses not to take Israeli citizenship because of her general distaste for the country, especially Israel’s treatment of its Arab citizens.

“I have some friends who have Israeli citizenship and I sort of look down on them,” she says. “I think they’re suckers.” Her boyfriend, who owns the shop, nods in agreement in the background.

Druze men relaxing in Majdal Shams, September 2017.
Ari Plachta

With Israel’s announcement of local elections in Golan Druze towns for the first time next year, she can vote as a resident, but she doesn’t express much interest. And at the end of the day, Israeli citizenship doesn’t offer her anything other than a smoother security check at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, she says.

“It’s difficult, because to pursue my professional goals I need a country. I need to leave Majdal Shams,” she thinks aloud, “but Israel is just not my home.”

Brake, who sometimes teaches at the University of Haifa, echoes the sentiment. “My Druze students feel a negative atmosphere around them,” he says. “Back in the Golan, my father used to tell me how much he appreciated Israeli democracy. But he would see a different country today.”

Tall with broad shoulders and a toothy smile, Mahran works in the Golan’s acclaimed apple industry. He’s an Israeli citizen, like his father. At 31, he says he’s too old to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces, though his brother did recently. He and his wife Mona met while studying at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan. About a year ago, they moved into their newly built house in Buq’ata and are beginning to think about kids. “Israel is not an issue for me. I want my children to grow up exactly like they would in Haifa,” he says.

Mona is slightly more careful. “I don’t always feel welcome in Israeli society, there is definitely discrimination,” she says. “But you have to accept it. This is our only country.”