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The Israeli Druze Community: A Covenant of Brotherhood

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avatar by Chaim Lax


Gadeer Mreeh, a Druze women running on a ticket alongside former armed forces chief Benny Gantz, listens during an interview with Reuters at her home in her village of Daliyat al-Karmel, northern Israel March 6, 2019. Photo: REUTERS/Amir Cohen.

The Israeli Druze community is one of the groups that make up the 26% of Israel’s non-Jewish population that contributes to the diverse makeup of Israeli society. Although they only account for less than 2% of the population, the Druze of Israel have contributed significantly to the Jewish state and are integrated in all levels of Israeli society, including the military, politics, diplomacy, and the private sector.

Here, we take a look at the origins of the Druze community, the role that it plays in Israeli society and the distinct characteristics of the different Israeli Druze communities.

Who Are the Druze?

Although they self-identify as Arabs and speak Arabic as a mother tongue, the Druze community is religiously and culturally distinct from the larger Arab minority in Israel.

The Druze community is rooted in the 10th century when it split off from the Ismaili community (a branch of Shia Islam) in Egypt.

Considered to be a new interpretation of the three Abrahamic faiths, the Druze religion blends together Islamic theology, Greek philosophy and aspects of Hinduism.

Since the year 1050, the Druze community has been closed to converts and the Druze community is self-sustained through marriage within the community.

Similar to Islam, members of the Druze community do not smoke, eat pork or drink alcohol. However, the Druze have no fixed liturgy, holy days or rituals.

In addition, the Druze religious literature is only accessible to those members of the community who are initiated into the world of the holy texts. These men and women are recognizable by their white turbans or head coverings. For the rest of the Druze community, their faith is accepted as a matter of tradition handed down from one generation to the next.

Although the Druze have no sacred sites, they do have sites that hold some significance for their religion and culture. These sites are used as meeting places for the discussion of communal affairs.

In Israel, one of these significant sites is the Tomb of Jethro, overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Every April 25th, members of the Druze community gather there for a festive celebration and to discuss issues affecting the community.

The Druze in Israel

In Israel, there are between 120,000 and 150,000 Druze citizens (the third-largest Druze community in the world, after Syria and Lebanon). Most Israeli Druze live in villages that are solely populated by members of the Druze community while others live in Druze villages that contain a small population of Christian or Muslim Arabs.

The majority of these villages are located in the Carmel and Galilee regions of northern Israel. The largest villages with a majority Druze population in these areas are Daliyat al-Karmel, Yarka, Beit Jann and Isfiya.

Like other religious groups in Israel, the Druze community’s courts and religious judges are officially recognized by the state.

The Druze community in Israel dates back hundreds of years, when the first Druze migrated to what is now southern Lebanon and northern Israel.

During the period of the British Mandate of Palestine, the Druze community began to develop ties with the Jewish community while also suffering persecution at the hands of Palestinian Arab nationalists.

An unsuccessful attempt by Arab nationalists to take over Jethro’s Tomb in the 1940s further solidified the bond between the local Druze and Jewish communities.

During the Israeli War of Independence, members of the Druze community volunteered to fight on behalf of the nascent Jewish state and since then the Druze community has taken an active role within Israeli society.

The Druze in the Israeli Military

As mentioned above, the first members of the Druze community to take up arms on behalf of Israel did so in 1948, as volunteers in the fledgling IDF.

Following the War of Independence, members of the Israeli Druze community continued to volunteer for military service until 1956, when the Israeli parliament enacted a law mandating the draft of all eligible male members of the Druze community (female Druze are exempted from military service).

This mandatory draft was initiated at the behest of Druze leaders, who wished to raise the profile of the Druze community within the Jewish state.

Since 1956, Druze and Jewish soldiers in the IDF are considered to be bonded together in a “covenant of blood.”

Originally, Druze Israelis who wished to serve in a combat position were drafted into a majority-Druze combat unit, eventually named the Herev (Sword) Battalion. In 2015, this battalion was disbanded due to the wish of most Druze draftees to serve in standard military units.

During its years of operation, the Herev Battalion was awarded two citations: One for helping to take down an Egyptian Intelligence Unit in the Negev Desert and one for its service in the Second Lebanon War.

According to a 2016 poll, 60% of Druze Israeli men are reported to have served in the IDF (as compared to 75% of Jewish Israeli men). However, this gap is likely to shrink as the number of Druze draftees continue to rise.

In fact, according to a 2018 statement by the Knesset, the percentage of Druze men drafting to the IDF (86%) is higher than the percentage of Jewish men drafted to the Israeli army.

As citizens of Israel, the Israeli Druze have a right to vote in local and national elections. However, unlike the larger Arab minority, the Druze vote is more diverse in which parties it supports in the Knesset.

Between 1951 and 1999, the Labor Party received the majority of Druze votes, due in part to the positioning of Druze candidates on the lists of Arab Israeli satellite parties that were connected to the Mapai / Labor party.

Even though the Likud party list began to feature Druze candidates in 1977, the Labor Party was still the dominant party in Druze villages until 1999.

After 1999, there was no single political party that achieved the majority of votes in the Druze community. This changed in 2019, when Blue and White became the dominant political party in the Druze community. 2019 was also the first year that a female Druze politician was elected to the Knesset.

In the November 2022 national election, 90% of Israeli Druze voted for Jewish/Zionist parties, as opposed to the larger Arab Israeli community, which voted overwhelmingly for Arab/non-Zionist parties. The top five parties to receive the Druze vote in the 2022 elections were the National Unity party (30.4%), Yisrael Beiteinu (18.3%), Meretz (14%), Likud (10.6%) and Yesh Atid (8.1%).

According to a 2021 study conducted by members of the Druze Heritage Center, the reason that there is minimal support for the Arab parties within the Druze community is that the Druze are politically moderate and pragmatic. Thus, “the radical political views that the Arab parties try to promote are unattractive to most Druze voters.”

In addition, according to the 2021 study, Druze voters are most likely to vote for a party that has a Druze member in a reasonable position on the list of candidates. For instance, the village of Beit Jann supported both the centrist Kadima party and the Arab nationalist Balad party in 2006 and 2009 since both parties had a candidate from that village on their list of candidates during those elections.

In an extreme example of this phenomenon, the village of Yarka supported the Arab Joint List party in 2015 but switched to the the Zionist Likud party in 2019 due to the placement of a member of that village on each party’s list.

Thus, integration in Israeli society, pragmatism, political moderation and familiarity with an individual candidate seem to be all determining factors in the Druze vote in Israeli elections.

The position of the Druze community in Israel is fraught with contradictions as it is one of the most integrated groups within the Jewish state but also suffers from discrimination as a minority group.

In the past 10 years, the position of the Druze community in Israel has risen as the first Druze Israeli diplomat was appointed in 2012, the Knesset enacted an official day for recognition of the achievements of the Druze community in 2018, and the first female Druze parliamentarian was elected in 2019 before being appointed in 2021 as the first Druze emissary for the Jewish Agency.

In addition, the matriculation rate among Druze students rose from 53.5% to 82.5% in 10 years, putting it above the national average as well as above the rate of matriculation among Jewish students.

However, as a minority, members of the Druze community have suffered discrimination in the private sector, such as in housing and the hiring processes of companies.

In the past few years, one of the most striking depictions of the complex position of the Druze community in Israel has been the enactment of the “Nation-State Law” in 2018.

Following the passage of the legislation, a number of Druze lawmakers, mayors, high-ranking IDF officers and community activists joined together to publicly protest the law, claiming that it harms their rights within the Jewish state.

In response to the outcry from the Druze community, members of Knesset from both political camps have attempted to introduce amendments to the law that would seek to temper some of the community’s concerns associated with the legislation.

The enactment of the Nation-State Law, the subsequent tumult surrounding it and the attempted rectification of the Druze community’s issues with the law are the perfect illustration of the Druze community’s complex relationship with the Jewish state.

While this piece has largely focused on the Druze community in Israel’s Galilee and Carmel regions, there is another Druze community in Israel: The Druze of the Golan Heights.

Following the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel gained control over the Golan Heights from Syria, including those who lived there at the time. This included four Druze communities, the largest of which is Majdal Shams.

Since 1967, most Druze residents of the Golan Heights have not been able to meet with their family members in Syria. Prior to the proliferation of the internet and modern telecommunications, those Druze who wanted to communicate with their family across the border were forced to shout at each other from one side to the other.

In 1981, the Knesset enacted legislation that extended Israeli civil law over the Golan Heights. With this legislation, Israel also offered the residents of the area the opportunity to apply for Israeli citizenship.

Unlike the Druze in other parts of Israel, most of the Golan Druze have not taken Israel up on its offer of citizenship and have been reluctant to publicly identify with the Jewish state. This is due to their historic identification with Syria, concern for the welfare of family members still living in Syria and concern that they will be viewed as traitors by the Syrian regime (and may face repercussions if Israel were to ever hand the Golan Heights over to Syria as part of a peace agreement).

However, in the 10 years since the Syrian Civil War began, the number of Golan Druze who attained Israeli citizenship rose from 10% to 20%, a possible sign that, with the political turmoil in Syria, more are turning to Israel as a source of stability and security in the tumultuous region.

The author is a contributor to HonestReporting, a Jerusalem-based media watchdog with a focus on antisemitism and anti-Israel bias — where a version of this article first appeared.

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