Admired for Their Army Service, Druze Remain Second-class Israelis

Societal discrimination and their own conservatism cause high poverty rates, few job opportunities, while army service hinders economic progress

Israelis from the Druze community participate in a rally against the nation-state law, in Tel Aviv, Israel, August 4, 2018.
Sebastian Scheiner/AP Photo

Alya (a pseudonym), a 29-year-old Druze woman studying for an MBA, lives with apartment mates in the Gush Dan metropolis. A few months ago she began working at a large financial institution in Tel Aviv, in a relatively junior position but one she hopes will eventually lead to a promotion and let her become head of investments.

In many ways Alya illustrates the situation of Israeli Druze, whose place in society has become the focus of attention since the nation-state law was approved by the Knesset a month ago. The Druze, who number 140,000 people, or 1.6% of Israel’s population, have won the respect of many Israelis for their loyal service to the army, but economic equality hasn’t followed, both because of discrimination and the fabric of Druze society.

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“In recent years, young Druze have gradually started to build themselves up outside the boundaries of the neighborhood and the family, but this is still rare, certainly for a woman on her own,” says Alya.

Because of the complex relationship she has with her family, she prefers not to go by her real name in this report, as in her birth village in the Galilee there are those who take a dim view of the path she has chosen.

“When I say in the village that I’m studying for a master’s degree, older women raise an eyebrow. One of my neighbors said to me, ‘What are you exerting so much effort for? You know that in the end you will only be in the kitchen.”

Alya grew up in a village in the north, but her college degree in economics and human resources did not advance her in the labor market. “It’s my impression,” she says, “that more than 50% of the Druze women who get degrees simply put their diploma away in a drawer. First of all, the woman has to take on the job of raising the children. That’s what they are tracked for. Most of the women who do indeed work, go into education. Among the women of my age from the village, some have gone in for teaching, some are working as cashiers or in small businesses and a few have even opened businesses of their own. Some of them aren’t working outside the home at all.”

She says that every time she returns to the village, she feels the difference. “In the village there is no infrastructure – the roads are in terrible shape, it’s not a normal situation. Here in the center of the country I know that the roads are in good shape and there are buses every five minutes.”

She joined the August 4 demonstration against the nation-state law at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv. The feelings among her peers, she says, are very grim.

“The nation-state law is the straw that broke the camel’s back. You have to understand – it’s not just the difficulties we have within the Druze community or the feeling that we sometimes have towards the Jews, who have a better life than we do. We are the target of a lot of animosity from Arab society because of our loyalty to the state and military service.”

The protest against the nation-state law surprised a lot of people. The Druze community was suddenly center stage, voicing a cry of affront at the state’s having determined – by law, in writing – that the members of the community are second-class citizens, despite their loyalty and the sacrifice of their military service.

Socioeconomic link

Within the community itself, though, there are many who link the protest to the social and economic conditions in Druze society.

For example, the poverty rate among the Druze is 38%, not very different from the 48% rate among Muslim and Christian Arabs. Moreover, in both societies there are problems of identity and, among other things, substandard infrastructure in their communities and a dearth of land to build on.

At the end of 2015 the government approved a major plan to invest 2.4 billion shekels ($650 million) in the Druze and Circassian sectors between 2016 and 2019. However, to date only a quarter of the sum has actually been spent. In the areas of education, transportation, health and infrastructure, nothing from the budget has been spent.

“Let’s say that building a community center costs 5 million shekels,” says Col. (res.) Anwar Sa’ab, one of the leaders of the Druze protest. “To get money from the state, the local authority has to plan the project. But it doesn’t have a budget for that. With other projects, too, there has to be matching funds – that is, the government adds funding only after the local authority brings money. These factors partly explain why the funds haven’t come through.”

Amir Khneifes, who rearches Druze society and is a leader in the Druze fight against the nation-state law, said the anger exposed by the law reflects the scarcity of jobs, housing and local businesses. Scores if not hundreds of homes await construction approvals.

“The housing crisis among the Druze is crying out to the heavens. There’s no Mechir L’Mishtaken for the Druze,” he said, referring to the government’s affordable housing campaign. “Just as unfortunately, there’s no commercial construction [in Druze communities] of any kind either.”

Assad Assad, a former Likud Knesset member, said governments of the right and left have treated the Druze no differently from the way they do other Arabs. “When they took land from the Arabs, they also took it from the Druze. If you look at Druze villages in the Galilee and at Arab villages there, for instance, it’s hard to detect many differences in terms of infrastructure,” he said.

But the Druze as a rule serve in the Israel Defense Forces and in combat units at a higher rate than Jewish Israelis – 80% versus 50%. Indeed, career army service, as well as jobs in other security forces, is a major source of employment for the community, accounting for about 30% of all jobs among working-age Druze.

There is a downside to this, which is that relatively few Druze go on to higher education because many young Druze decide after army service to start a family. Rabah Halabi, a lecturer at Hebrew University and Oranim Academic College, says army employment conditions have deteriorated in recent years, but remain good compared to the available alternatives.

“So the Druze pursue army careers – the pay is good, you get a car and a nice pension. Weigh in the fact that there’s no industry or other business in [Druze] villages and you can understand why Druze serve in the army. The problem is that while the army is a financial option, it traps Druze. If there wasn’t the army, more would go on to higher education and get a profession.”

In recent years, there have been signs of change, with more Druze going into the professions or high-tech. The government is helping through employment centers in five Druze villages, but it remains a challenge, not just because of resistance from Israeli society but from inside the conservative Druze community.

Echoing the saying about Druze women in the kitchen, Ayman Tarbia al-Kasam, who works in the Labor Ministry, says that this was the attitude in her Galilee village when she was growing up. “Those are the kind of things you heard 30, 40 and 50 years ago and may still even now. But it’s an attitude that’s gradually disappearing,” she said.

To help speed the process, the Labor Ministry runs a center that teaches English and ecommerce skills to religiously observant women who refuse to leave the home for work. “To cope with cultural barriers, we do the maximum we can,” says Kasam. “Here, the solution is to enable them to open an online store without leaving home. We don’t want the Druze to be ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water.’”