This week, Israel will celebrate its 74th Independence Day. It’s a Jewish, democratic state that even I, a Druze man born in the village of Rameh, feel I am a part of, and I’m happy to celebrate its achievements.
Nevertheless, there’s one thing I don’t understand. After 74 years of existence, how can a country that has come such a long way – that has gone through wars, built cities from scratch, built infrastructure and roads, developed advanced technologies and created a hub of high-tech unicorns – how has this country still not been smart enough to invest in one of the greatest resources at its disposal, its Druze community?
Every year, I wait for the moment when I’ll be able to celebrate Independence Day wholeheartedly and feel like a normal citizen. I served in the army for 11 years, including as a company commander in the Golani Brigade, and I was even wounded in a military operation in the Gaza Strip. Nevertheless, I and others like me feel that from the moment we reenter civilian life, the state rarely sees us and doesn’t understand that it has the power to reap the fruits of our growth in the army in regular life as well.
In the spirit of the Jewish sage Hillel’s statement “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” a group of young, highly motivated Druze founded Ofakim La A’tid (New Horizons) in 2009. It’s a community of people from Druze villages aged 20 to 40 who are creating informal education programs together with the community’s youth – this country’s next generation. The goal is to preserve Druze values and traditions while also refusing to rest until we can feel changes on the ground – real equality of opportunity, rather than remaining second-class citizens.
Since then, we have been active in Maghar, Rameh, Beit Jann, Hurfeish, Yanuh, Julis and Shfaram, setting up educational and cultural activities on a volunteer basis during the hours that are most challenging for every boy and girl in Israel – the after-school hours. In cities, Israeli kids have access to community centers, extracurricular activities and places of entertainment. We’re creating a new framework for the children of our villages, who, if no such thing existed, would surely be roaming the streets with nothing to do.
We thereby enable them to dream – to dream that they will be not only soldiers, but also doctors, lawyers, teachers and scientists. Through leadership programs, workshops and weekly meetings taking place in buildings that have become cultural and leisure centers for the benefit of local young people, we’re creating a future for them.
But all our enormous efforts to turn kids from the margins into tomorrow’s leaders – and also to preserve and even bolster their connection to the state, out of a desire to be an integral part of Israeli society – aren’t enough on their own. When these young people leave their villages for the army, and then for civilian life in Israel, they can’t help but compare Tel Aviv, Haifa and even Carmiel and Ashdod to Beit Jann and Hurfeish.
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They see the condition of the streets in their villages and of the schools there. They observe the differences between what the big cities offer and what they find in their villages, and they can’t help but feel like second-class citizens.
Many of them join us, go back to their villages and try to effect the changes they want to see by themselves. For instance, these young people have set up a tourism enterprise that for years now has been bringing visitors to our villages. Teenagers give tours in English and Hebrew, thereby improving their command of the languages; they are empowered and empower others. Local businesses have flourished, Druze women can sell their wares, and everyone benefits.
But I don’t understand how, after so many years, and after thousands of young Druze have been drafted into the army and served the country loyally throughout these years, the state’s neglect of this community still continues today. We aren’t asking the state to do too much by itself. We live in these villages, we’re closely acquainted with the problems, and we have a wealth of knowledge, experience and ideas for solutions.
You don’t have to be a great genius to know that investing in education, operating clubs for teenagers and programs for children, and offering academic guidance and participation in leadership programs are some of the necessary keys to reducing the gaps and providing young Druze with their first opportunity to truly integrate into Israeli society, acquire an education and advance to key positions not just in the army, but in civilian life too.
Even if we strive with all our might, we can’t be a substitute for the state, which is responsible for all its citizens. With one simple decision, it has the power to allocate funding that won’t humiliate us, invest resources in developing our villages and nurturing their residents, and adopt existing grassroots models and leadership programs run in the youth communities in our villages.
The country can eliminate 74 years of neglect and start viewing us as genuinely equal citizens. And then it will discover how much more we still have to contribute to it and how many new achievements we can bring it.
Sleiman Abbas is the director of Ofakim La A’tid and a major in the army reserves.