With the outbreak of civil war in Syria, more Druze turn to Israel for citizenship.
By Jennie Wood
The civil war in Syria has ravaged the country, pitting President Bashar Assad loyalists against a diverse group of dissidents and opposition leaders. The war has also caused an identity crisis for many Druze in Israel. Once fiercely loyal to Syria, the Israeli Druze are beginning to turn toward Israel for stability and security.
Who are the Druze?
The Druze, who speak Arabic and identify as Arabs, broke away from Islam in Egypt around the 10th century. Their religion incorporates monotheism with elements of Greek and Hindu beliefs. Druze has no specific rituals or formal activities, however, it does have strict rules that prohibit adherents from smoking, eating pork, or consuming alcohol. Completely closed to outsiders, the Druze accept no converts. In fact, their religious texts are kept not only from the outside world, but from most members of the community. Only the uqqal, an elite group of elders, have access to the sacred Druze scriptures.
Because of the break from Islam, the Druze have suffered under both Shiite and Sunni rulers in Syria and Lebanon as far back as the 11th century. In 1305, the Mamluk Sultans in Egypt issued a fatwa against them and other non-Sunni Muslims. Later, in 1585, the Druze were attacked by Ottoman Turks. However, the Druze have been an empowered, protected minority in Syria under the regime of President Bashar Assad. Assad, who comes from the minority Alawi sect, offered protection to other minorities, including the Druze and Christians. In exchange for their support, Assad promised that these minorities could practice their beliefs in Syria without any threat. Since Assad's rule is threatened by Syria's descent into civil war, there are no guarantees that the Syrian Druze will continue to be protected. In fact, if Assad's government is overthrown, the Syrian Druze may once again be persecuted. This isn't lost on the Israeli Druze who may now view staying in Israel as a better option than returning to Syria.
The Druze in Israel
As of 2012, about 1.4 million Druze live in the Middle East. Approximately 120,000 live in northern Israel, 450,000 in Lebanon and 800,000 in Syria. In Israel, the Druze mainly reside in three areas: the Carmel region, Galilee, and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Most Druze live in separate villages from the general Israeli population. They also have their own schools and court system. In Carmel and Galilee, Druze are Israeli citizens. In the Golan Heights, they are Syrian citizens who also have permanent resident status in Israel. They can request Israeli citizenship, but for decades many have shunned the option, given the hostility that has persisted between Israel and Syria since Israel annexed the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. (The international community does not recognize the annexation.) However, in 2012, according to Israel's Population, Immigration, and Border Administration, an increasing number of Druze residents in the Golan Heights are requesting Israeli citizenship as Syria slipped into a violent civil war.
The Druze religion was recognized as early as the late 1940s by the Israeli government. While Arab nationalists persecuted the Druze, including an unsuccessful attempt in the 1940s to take over the holiest Druze site, Jethro's tomb; the Israeli government worked to build a positive relationship with them. As a result, many Druze volunteered to join the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) before the 1956 law was passed that extended mandatory military service to all Druze males who are Israeli citizens. Over time, service in the IDF enabled many male Druze to advance to top positions in the government and military.
The 20,000 Druze who lived in the Golan Heights after the 1967 war steadfastly maintained their allegiance to Syria. Since the early 1980s, Druze leaders have threatened to exclude anyone who accepted Israeli citizenship from the community. Until recently, only a few hundred had become Israeli citizens.
Still Dealing with Discrimination
The Druze still face employment and housing discrimination in Israel today, despite their service in the military. Ballad of Druze, a popular Israeli song, written by Yehonatan Geffen, captures the plight of the Druze Israeli Soldier: With the Doobon and the Uzi, who can see that he is Druzi? Without the Doobon and the Uzi, everyone can see that he is Druzi.
Exposure to Israeli Jewish society has helped the evolution of women in Druze communities. According to a survey conducted in 2008 at the University of Haifa, most Druze support women going to work and are willing to vote for women running for public office. However, there's still progress to be made in this area as well. Widows and divorced women are traditionally not allowed to remarry in the Druze community. These beliefs get especially complicated with widows of soldiers in the IDF.
It's too soon to tell how the civil war in Syria will affect the Druze in Israel over the long term, but more Israeli Druze are choosing to apply for citizenship. While they still face discrimination in Israel, the country is proving to be a better option for living than the neighboring war-torn Syria.
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