JERUSALEM, Aug 28 (JTA) — A group that has prided itself on its loyalty to Israel — and has served in the Israel Defense Force for 45 years — is now being pressured to abandon its military service.
Earlier this month, the Druse leader in Lebanon, Walid Jumblatt, urged his compatriots in Israel not to serve in the IDF.
Jumblatt said serving in the Israeli army during the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians “cannot be justified” — and he compared Druse in Israeli uniform to collaborators during the Nazi occupation of France.
Israeli Druse leaders, however, told their Lebanese counterparts to “refrain from interfering in internal community affairs.”
Some 70,000 Druse live in Israel, about 1.8 percent of the total population. They are members of an offshoot of Islam that was founded in the 11th century.
Their service in the Israeli army differentiates them from Israeli Arabs, who are not eligible to join the IDF.
Several hundred Druse are currently in the army, according to an IDF spokesperson.
Last week, Druse leaders from Lebanon, Syria and Israel met in Amman, Jordan, to discuss Druse service in the Israeli army.
“This conference didn’t change anything,” said Saleh Tarif, who is the first Druse government minister in Israel’s history. He added that “99.9 percent of Israeli Druse still feel like Israelis, in every sense of the word.”
According to reports, nearly 100 Israeli Druse participated in the Amman meeting. Community leaders said the number of Israeli Druse who attended may have been exaggerated — and that those who attended represent a minority in Israel’s Druse community.
The conference had little impact on Israeli Druse, but was more relevant to the Syrian and Lebanese Druse communities, according to Gabriel Ben-Dor, a political science professor at Haifa University, who has studied the Druse community.
“They’re trying to get the Druse involved vis-a-vis the intifada, but the Israeli Druse are loyal and affiliated with the State of Israel,” Ben-Dor said.
At the conference, Lebanese Druse leaders pledged to step up their campaign against Druse enlisting in the Israeli army.
The two-day meeting concluded that the Druse community in Israel is subject to cultural, political and social discrimination, and that Israeli policy “aims at obliterating” the Druse “identity, abolishing their history and eradicating their language,” according to a statement from the meeting.
The conference was simply trying to “ostracize” the Israeli Druse community, Tarif said, adding, “They’re trying to get the Arab world on our back.”
It’s a problem that the Druse have been dealing with since the 11th century, when the movement was started in Egypt by a prophet named Ismail al-Darazi — literally, Ishmael the Tailor. The term “Druse” is derived from his last name.
Subject to persecution, the community was forced to leave Egypt for southern Lebanon, and significant Druse communities remain in Syria and Lebanon. There also are Druse immigrants in France and the United States.
In the 16th century, a portion of the community came to what is now Israel from Lebanon. They settled in two large villages on Mount Carmel, near Haifa, and some 16 other villages in the Galilee.
In the mid-1950s, when Israel faced repeated Arab threats to its existence, the Druse leadership appealed to then-Defense Minister David Ben-Gurion to draft Druse men into the army.
In part, the move reflected an economic decision. Most Druse villages rely upon agriculture, but this did not provide enough income for the communities’ survival.
Another marketable item was the men’s military skills. As a result, many Druse serve in the army, police, border police and prison service, and a man’s wages often support his entire extended family.
There always have been conflicting social issues for this marginal community.
Full citizens of the state, the Druse complain that they are given second class treatment. They also complain that their villages don’t receive the municipal grants and subsidies given to Jewish communities.
On average, they are less educated and earn less than Israeli Jews.
While the Druse follow many Arab customs, they do not share the political convictions of the Arab world, Ben-Dor said.
“They’re a strong community with a strong sense of survival and a long tradition of being loyal to the country in which they’re based,” he said.
Nevertheless, some Israeli Druse intellectuals feel closer to Arabs than Jews because of their common language and history.
This tension has been exacerbated during the ongoing violence, when Arabs from surrounding countries — and segments of Israel’s own Arab population — are banding together to support the Palestinians.
Moreover, with anti-Arab sentiment rising in Israel during the past 11 months of violence, Druse often are lumped together with other Arabs in the popular perception.
Earlier this month, a Druse couple and their baby reportedly were verbally and physically assaulted at a Haifa mall. Tib Anan, a 25-year-old Druse man who serves in the IDF on the Golan Heights, was called a “stinking Arab,” and his son’s stroller was sent crashing into the wall.
The Israeli-Palestinian violence has exposed divisions within the community between loyalty to the Jewish state and loyalty to their fellow Arabs, Tarif told JTA.
“We’re on one side in reality, but we hope the government will do right by the Palestinians,” he said. “It’s not comfortable for us, but we feel like Israelis.”
“We have a Druse that is a brigadier general in the army. That’s just like a Jew becoming an ambassador or vice president of the United States,” said Tarif, who served in paratrooper and tank units during his army service. “This is the most natural thing in the world to us.”