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Analysis: The Druze 'covenant of blood' after the Jewish nation state law

A Druze man visits Nabi Shuaib shrine during the annual pilgrimage near the small village of Kfar Zeitim by the Sea of Galilee, northern Israel, Monday, April 25, 2016
AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

The 135,000 Druze citizens in Israel, concentrated mainly in four villages in the country's north, rarely make headlines. When they do, it is mainly when a Druze soldier falls in service. Statistically, it makes sense.

An estimated 83% percent of Druze youngsters join the Israeli army; the highest enlistment percentage of all communities and sectors of Israeli society, including all Jews. This has always been a source of pride for both the Israeli establishment and the Druze community.

The state cites the statistic to negate accusations of racism. The Druze (at least most of them) take pride demonstrating their heroism and loyalty.

But in an unexpected twist of events, the Druze community is making front-page headlines for their leading the struggle against the controversial new Jewish nation-state law. The Druze, Israel's brothers in arms, are left out of the very specific definition of the law which defines the character of the state.

The Druze resent being “the other”. Other Arab communities and Jewish liberal circles have joined the voices criticizing the law, but it is the Druze who are taking the lead.

Kobi Gideon (GPO)

While other minorities in Israel can speak only in terms of democracy and equality (not very popular terms nowadays) the Druze have the right to speak in the name of a “covenant of blood”, which makes politician move uneasily in their seats.

In a matter of just a few days after the law was passed, Israeli government ministers realized they made a mistake. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s "Kulanu" party suggests an amendment to the phrasing of the law, which defines Israel as a Jewish nation state. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu states repeatedly that not a single letter of the law will be changed, but he comes bearing gifts. The premier has already met with representatives of the Druze community several times since the law was passed, and offered them a package of investment in their sector. So far, they have refused.

“Nobody can buy us,” says Rafik Halabi, head of the municipality of Daliat el Carmel and former chief news editor at Israel's state-run television news network.

“It’s is not a political struggle," says Halabi, who was part of the delegation that met with Netanyahu. "We fight against an arrogant law for our place in this society.”

To make matters more complicated, Netanyahu openly declared that it is the Israeli left that forgot what Zionism is and that is behind the incitement against the law.

The Druze community interpreted Netanyahu's remarks as a declaration that “not only do they not belong, but are not smart enough to make their own decision without advice from the left”.

GPO

The Druze vote in Israel's 2015 elections, which solidified Netanyahu's grip on power, reflects a more complex picture. Some 40% of the Druze vote went to the Joint (Arab) list, which had one Druze lawmaker on the ballot.

But comparatively, right-wing Zionist parties got more of the Druze vote than left-wing parties did. Indeed there are some voices within the Druze community that actually agree with Netanyahu.

Atta Farhat, the head of the Druze Zionist Council for Israel, openly accuses the political left of using the Druze and agrees that only Jews only deserve national rights. According to Farhat, many other Druze feel this way but say their voices are being silenced.

On Saturday, the Druze community will play major role in a mass protest demonstration in Tel Aviv, a rare environs for Druze activism. Meanwhile, Druze officers have announced their resignation from the army calling on others to follow.

A young Druze woman announced she would not let her sons serve in IDF. “We are not suckers of this country anymore,” she said bitterly.

The army's response was immediate. Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkott and retired Brigadier General Amal As'ad, a Druze serviceman, issued a call to keep politics out of the IDF.

Military service has been part of Druze identity since Israel's conscription law was applied to the Druze in 1956. It was a significant dividing line between the Druze and Arab communities.

AFP/ Jalaa/Marey

But debate whether Druze are Arabs continues today. Not all Druze or researchers agree with the distinction between the two communities. Though they share a common language, the Druze are followers of a secretive offshoot of Shiite Islam and earned official recognition as a separate religious community after centuries of persecution throughout the Middle East.

“I am Druze, Arab, and Israeli,” says Salman Masalha, a renowned poet and essayist who writes both in Arabic and Hebrew. One of his books was awarded the Israel’s President Prize for literature. The English title of the book is “In Place”, without specifying what that place is.

“The Jewish nation state law is part of a colonial concept seeing the Druze as natives," he tells i24NEWS. "They are perceived as a native tribe in the hope they will forget this place belongs to them.”

The compromise to the law offered by Netanyahu's office may actually widen the gap between the Druze and other Arab communities, especially Muslims.

The benefits offered to minorities who serve in the defense of the state, but which will be denied to others, can become explosive. It will also certainly mark a growing gap between the older and younger generations of the Druze community.

The young Druze ostensibly identify as Arabs or Palestinians. At the same time, the number of Druze conscientious objectors to military service grows too. These numbers have certainly not reached alarming figures, but it is a relatively new phenomenon. Experts who follow such developments say they have less to do with ideology, and more with growing resentment towards the country and sense of discrimination.

This is a dangerously fertile ground for the Jewish nation state law to flourish. The fact the the Druze are left out of definition of the state is not a coincidental omission.

The fact is, the Druze have been fighting the spirit of the bill since it was first raised as an idea. Druze forums and networks have been openly debating the issue for a long time. It now remains to be seen if the community's protest is just an episode or a true turning point in the unique relations between the Jewish state and the Druze.

Lily Galili is a feature writer, analyst of Israeli society and expert on immigration from the former Soviet Union. She is the co-author of "The Million that Changed the Middle East."

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