Playing With Fire

The Druze community, as well as the Circassians in Israel, has for the past 50 years been the living proof that you don't have to be Jewish to be a loyal citizen of Israel or to share with Israel's Jewish citizens the burden of defending the country.

Last week's violent clashes between the police and the Druze inhabitants of Peki'in should be a wake-up call for Israel that we are facing a problem which is too hot to be handled by local police officers. The dimensions of the problem, the underlying anger and rage of the villagers and the support for them in much of the Druze community in Israel, go far beyond the unruly, and possibly criminal, behavior of some of the inhabitants of this Druze village. The real problem here was not their acts of vandalism but rather that the decision on how to attempt to control these acts was made by the local police and not at the highest level of the government, in full recognition of all the ramifications of this local problem if it spun out of control. The resulting violence which engulfed the whole village and led to many injuries threatens to endanger the long-standing relations between the State of Israel and the Druze community.

The Druze community, as well as the Circassians in Israel, has for the past 50 years been the living proof that you don't have to be Jewish to be a loyal citizen of Israel or to share with Israel's Jewish citizens the burden of defending the country against its enemies. The Druze, whose language and culture are Arab, have demonstrated that in itself that is no obstacle to being an integral part of Israeli society. They might be the tipping point of Israel's minority population, whose example would be followed in time by the other segments of Israel's Arab minorities.But for this to happen the Israeli government must have a policy toward Israel's minorities. A policy whose aim is the establishment of equality of rights and obligations among all segments of the population.

A fundamental part of such a policy must obviously be affirmative action toward the Druze community, demonstrating the advantages that are attained by those who serve in the IDF.It may come as a surprise to many Israelis that this has not been the policy of Israeli governments. For many years, it was quite the contrary. Until relatively recently, Druze soldiers in the IDF did not enjoy equality of opportunity with Jewish soldiers. Many branches of the service and the highest ranks were closed to them. It was only during my first two tenures in the Ministry of Defense that this discriminatory policy was changed, and that turned out to be a long and laborious process.

When I entered the Foreign Ministry in 1988, not a single Druze was a member of the foreign service. A policy instituted by me, that Druze who had served in the IDF be recruited into the foreign service, in time gave Israel its first Druze consuls and ambassadors. Other government ministries, and government offices, to this day do not pursue such a policy. Nor does the Supreme Court have a single Druze judge.

It is hard to understand why the ministers who preceded me in the Ministry of Defense and in the Foreign Ministry did not adopt such a policy, and why the government now does not insist that such a policy be pursued in all ministries and government offices.The recurrent talk of the need to give Israel's minority population representation on the boards of government companies, regardless of whether they have served in the IDF; the elevation of Arab MKs to membership in the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and membership in the Cabinet, may at first sight seem like the most progressive of measures, but it is actually counterproductive. To the Druze, it demonstrates that serving in the army is nothing special, and to the rest of the minority population, it demonstrates that equality of obligations is not one of the norms of Israeli society.

When members of the Druze community argue that Arab Israelis who do not serve in the IDF are passing them in advancement economically and professionally, there is an element of truth in their complaints, since those not serving in the IDF have a three-year head start on those who fulfill their obligations as citizens of Israel.

Now along comes the present government and it announces a policy of national service for those who do not serve in the IDF. What does this say to the Druze community? That there is nothing special in putting your life on the line for the defense of Israel. So why should they continue to do so? Rather than the rest of the minority population following the example of the Druze population and accepting the full obligations of citizenship, we may next find the Druze following the others and ceasing to serve in defense of their country.

The Druze community is a tipping point for relations between the State of Israel and its minorities. What happened in Peki'in was far too important to have been left to the discretion of the local police.