Meet the Israeli Druze


The Druze are a tiny minority in the Jewish state, and the only community to share a so-called “blood covenant” with Israel’s Jews. But in 2018, the Israeli government passed a controversial basic law, known as the nation-state law, that threatened to upend this status quo. So, who are the Druze, what is the nation-state law, and what responsibility does Israel owe to its minority populations?

Subscribe to this podcast

Remember the days before October 7th, when controversy rocked the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, and protests filled the area known as Rabin Square in Tel Aviv? Tens of thousands turned out, holding signs, yelling slogans, fighting for the very identity of their nation.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. The Judicial reforms! Nope… I’m not talking about those protests of 2022 and 2023, which were pretty wild, and one day I have to do an episode about those. But we’re going a little earlier right now – to the summer of 2018. I know, it feels like a lifetime ago. But 2018 was a BIG year for the world. Wildfires consuming California where I lived at the time. Meghan Markle joined the royal family, that was a smooth process. J.R. Smith made a pretty silly play in Game 1 of the NBA finals for the Cavs against the Warriors, costing Lebron James one of the greatest NBA finals games of all time, leading to a Golden State Warriors sweep of the Cavs. And, what else? Israel passed the Nation-State Law. And lots of Israelis were not about it. Yes, lots of Israelis were happy about it, and lots weren’t.

Ah yes. It’s all coming back to me now. 

See, we talk a lot about Israel being a Jewish state, which it is, but this law legally cemented the state of Israel’s status as a Jewish Nation and Homeland.

Which, on its face, doesn’t sound so controversial, right? I mean, it’s right there in the Declaration of Independence… and in the intro to this podcast: “WE HEREBY DECLARE THE ESTABLISHMENT OF A JEWISH STATE IN ERETZ-ISRAEL, TO BE KNOWN AS THE STATE OF ISRAEL.”

No one’s ever tried to hide the fact that Israel is the Jewish homeland. I mean, the flag has a Jewish star, a star of david!

So why on earth did Reuven Rivlin, who was Israel’s president at the time, call this new law “bad for the State of Israel and bad for the Jews”?

Why did opposition leaders in the Knesset call it a violation of the values set forth in the Declaration of Independence? As in, the same Declaration of Independence that established Israel as – wait for it – a Jewish State.

Isn’t that kind of like opening a vegan, gluten-free bakery and then getting in trouble for making vegan, gluten free cookies? Which by the way, I love eating all kinds of food. I love ribs, steak, burgers…and I am also thinking that within 8 years, I should become a vegan, which is a topic for another time. Not sure how good the odds are on that, so if you’re a betting person, not sure if you should take that bet, but it’s a thought. Anyway, Israel declared itself as a Jewish State… and now the law says Israel is a Jewish State. What am I missing? What am I missing, folks?

Well, if you want to understand a protest, it helps to know who’s protesting. Some of the loudest voices against the Nation State Law came from the Israeli Druze community – a tiny minority that makes up less than 2% of Israel’s population.

A newly-recruited Israeli paratrooper draped in the Druze flag marches with others in full combat gear on a 50-kilometer 12-hour hike in the mountains near Jerusalem on November 10, 2022. (Photo by Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP via Getty Images)

And they are a community that is worth getting to know. So that’s what we want to talk about today. In this episode, we’re gonna take a deep dive into one of Israel’s most fascinating populations. Turns out that Druze – D R U Z E – and Jews have a lot in common, aside from just their rhyming names. (And I’m going to try to really enunciate today, and not slur my words, so wish me luck on that.) And here’s my theory, ready? The Druze experience sheds a bright and sometimes uncomfortable light on the whole messy project of building a democratic Jewish state.

So let’s get into it. Starting with… who are the Druze, anyway?

Well, the Druze, or Druzim, as they’re known in Israel, are a people originally defined by their religion, which started in 11th century Egypt as an offshoot of Shiite Islam. The name ‘Druze’ comes from an early preacher of the religion named Muhamad bin Ismail Nashtakin ad-Darazi. (As usual, a much cooler name than Noam Weissman.) Incidentally, he was later declared a heretic and killed by a rival. (Come on, what religion’s history doesn’t include some Game-Of-Thrones-style scandal and intrigue?)

But heretic or not, ad-Darazi’s name lives on in the Druze people.

Anyway, as you might imagine, local Muslims weren’t jazzed about this whole heretical breakaway religion thing. They persecuted the Druze heavily. No matter how far the Druze fled, persecution followed. Their history is shot through with stories of violence, vandalism, and even forced conversion.

Sound familiar? 

Yeah, sounds a lot like…aspects of Jewish history. Except in the Jewish case, it’s the breakaway religions that persecute the Jewish people, not the other way around… but I digress. Either way, both peoples share a history of violence and displacement. 

But that’s not all we share. One of the Druzes’ main prophets is a guy named Jethro, who Israelis and Jews know as Yitro. As in, Moses’ father-in-law. How cool is that?? As in (NERD CORNER), the guy who had one of the best songs in the Prince of Egypt. As in the guy who gave Moses all the advice on how to be a leader. As in the guy who has a whole Torah portion named for him…The Druze call Yitro slash Jethro by his Arabic name, Shu’eib, and every April, Druze pilgrims journey to his tomb in northern Israel, near Tiberias. C’mon, that’s a pretty cool fact, no?

But back to the history. Desperate to escape persecution, the Druze fled to various parts of the Middle East, taking refuge in the mountains, where persecuting armies tended not to follow. And there, they built tight-knit communities. VERY tight-knit. And that’s by design. They have some important aspects to them:

The Druze do not intermarry. 

And they do not allow converts. 

The global Druze population is tiny: somewhere between 800,000 and one million. Like, I think of the Jewish people as tiny, but the Druze population is under 10% of the Jewish population! Wild.

So… what’s their deal? What do they believe?

Well… I have no idea. And no, not because I did no research on this episode. Because no one knows. See, the Druze keep their religious doctrine very close to the vest. I don’t mean just to outsiders. Only twenty percent of even their own community has access to the holy writings and religious meetings. Basically, you want to know more? You’ve gotta be holy enough to learn it.

Learning this blew my mind. Can you imagine if only the holiest twenty percent of Jews or Christians or Muslims were allowed to study their holy books? To attend services? I know some synagogues so desperate to get a minyan – a quorum of ten for prayer services – that they’ll take basically anyone off the street as long as they enjoy a good bagel with schmear. I’m only sort of exaggerating, and not sure why I did that NY accent, probably cuz I said bagel with schmear, but anyway.

But despite their secret religion and their strict ban on intermarriage, the Druze aren’t exactly insular. In fact, they’ve made it a point to blend in with their neighbors as much as possible, building strong ties with whatever land they call home. And I see the logic: be a good neighbor, and maybe you’ll be okay.

And they have good reason to worry. Because the Druze live in the tinderbox we call the Middle East. A tiny percentage make their home in Jordan. The vast majority live in Syria or Lebanon.

And…now we come to our episode. Because 10% of the Druze are Israelis. And they occupy a very interesting position in Israeli society.

Are they Arabs? Arabic IS their primary language, after all. But where some Druze see themselves as ethnically Arab, others don’t. In fact, some Druze identify simply as… Druze, scoffing at outsiders’ attempts to define their identity for them.

Which is actually one of the things they like about living in Israel. One Israeli Druze explains it this way:

“…but in Israel, we found a unique kind of freedom. Here we could talk about our independent and unique identity as a Druze, not from a Jewish, Islamic or Christian religious perspective. Whereas the Druze in Arab countries are still presented today as an Islamic sect.”

You know, I was gonna say that I can’t imagine how frustrating it is to be defined by others. But let’s be honest. After October 7th, I – and lots of other Jews – know just how ENRAGING it is to hear other people explain what is and isn’t antisemitic, instead of, you know, just listening to the people affected by antisemitism. So I REALLY sympathize with the Druze’s frustration over the way they’re labeled. ESPECIALLY because they intentionally broke away from Islam more than a thousand years ago. They don’t see themselves as a Muslim sect. And they should be the only ones in charge of defining their identity.

Israel guarantees freedom of religion and speech, and the Druze can identify and describe themselves any way that they like. Which is why so many identify as Israelis. Often, very proud ones.

All the way back in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, groups of Druze, Bedouins, and Circassians volunteered to fight for the creation of the Jewish State. (And if you’re like Circassians, huh, who are those? Unfortunately we won’t be able to get into that in this episode – another future podcast episode, one day, maybe?) Anway, their unit was known as “Unit 300,” or sometimes “The IDF Minorities Unit,” until it was changed to the MUCH cooler גְּדוּד חֶרֶב, “The Sword Battalion.” The Sword Battalion – I love saying that, it sounds like a death metal band – remained active until 2015. It was disbanded because its soldiers didn’t want a special unit. What did they want? Something simple – To serve side-by-side with their fellow Israelis. Incredible.

Today, the Israeli Druze are one of only two non-Jewish minorities included in Israel’s mandatory military draft. (NERD CORNER ALERT: the other group is the Circassians, who, like I said, deserve their own episode!) 

But that wasn’t always the vision. When the state established mandatory conscription in 1949, only Jews were required to enlist. All non-Jews were automatically exempted.

But the Druze leadership didn’t accept that. They appealed to Prime Minister David Ben Gurion to include Druze men in the military draft on the same basis as Jewish men. I’m going to repeat that because it’s absolutely wild. The Druze had a “get out of military service free” card from the State of Israel and they chose – no, demanded – to do it anyway. 

This is the exact opposite of draft dodging. This is draft…insisting. Or draft… absorbing. I don’t know what to call it because it hasn’t happened often enough to warrant a label. Other than… mind-blowing. Or incredible. Or… really, really smart. Because even then, Druze leadership understood that military service was the best way to cement themselves as full members of Israeli society.

And guess what. They were right.

The Israeli army is where Israelis and Israeli-ness are forged. Go back and listen to our episode on Haredim, what in English, is poorly defined as the Ultra-Orthodox, and the army, if you want to understand more about the social importance of the IDF. In many cases, the army is the great equalizer, where kids from every background and social class mingle and form connections. And the bonds you forge in boot camp or in battle can last for life.

The Druze knew that. The army is where they build unbreakable ties with their Jewish neighbors, where they’ve begun high-level careers in government and security, where they’ve cemented their status as quote, “Brothers In Arms.”

And honestly, I can’t get over this.

We talk a LOT on this podcast about Israel’s enemies, sone’i Yisrael. And though we try not to focus on the negative, we talk a LOT about antisemitism – both current and historical.

But how amazing is it to know that we also have friends? No, more than friends. Brothers. Brothers who believe in this whole messy, complicated state thing, who have laid down their lives to defend their country. Who are proud members of a Jewish state… despite not being Jewish themselves.

And that’s not something we should take for granted. Because when Druze Israelis fight for their home, they may well be fighting other Druze… including their relatives.

Things get real dicey when loyalty is determined by lines on a map. Because borders shift. Territory changes hands. But family ties? Friendships? Inclusion in a wider community? Those things don’t change so easily. 

So when a community of Syrian Druze suddenly found themselves living under Israeli control in 1967, no one was entirely certain what would happen.

How exactly did Syrian Druze become a part of Israel? Well, you’ll have to listen to our three-part series on the Six Day War later this season for more on that. It’s going to be a great one. But all you need to know for this episode is that over six days in the summer of 1967, Israel nearly quadrupled its territory, taking over the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Sinai Peninsula, and the Golan Heights. And don’t forget Gaza.

Well, the Golan Heights? Which just happened to be home to a Syrian Druze community.

Talk about whiplash. One second, you’re Syrian – a sworn enemy of your southern neighbor. The next, you’re Israeli? As in, the entity you’ve been fighting against for 19 years?

Can you imagine how confusing that is? Especially knowing that the Golan Heights are technically disputed, and could potentially be returned in a peace deal? (Though, spoiler, I doubt that will ever happen. Israel passed a law that more or less annexed the Golan in 1981, and the US recognized its sovereignty over the territory in 2018. But back in 67, everything was up in the air!)

So the Syrian Druze in the Golan made a communal decision. They rejected Israel’s offer of citizenship, choosing to regard themselves as Syrians. But Israel and Syria are still enemies. You can’t just cross from one side to the other.

Near the Druze town of Majdal Shams in the Golan is a landmark known as “Yelling Hill,” where Druze families gather to see one another and shout news across the barbed wire that separates them. It would be comical if it weren’t so sad. In fact, the whole dilemma is summarized really poignantly in a great Israeli movie called The Syrian Bride. The basic plot is this: A Druze bride who has grown up on the Israeli side of the border gets engaged to a Druze on the Syrian side. But it’s not all sparkles and butterflies. Marrying him means she can never go back.

I’m not gonna spoil the end for you. You’ll just have to watch it. But it’s a really effective encapsulation of this whole dilemma, this whole drama – and in some ways, of the wider Middle East.

I sympathize with the Druze in Majdal Shams, I really do. But their rejection of Israel just highlights for me how incredible Israeli Druze are. Want me to blow your mind? OK, I got you. Today, and this is cool, a higher percentage of Druze than Jews enlist in the IDF. You heard that right. The stats differ depending on the source, but more than 80% of Druze men enlist in the IDF, compared to roughly 72% of Jews. Unbelievable.

Because part of me can’t help but wonder… why?

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s noble, quite noble that the Druze serve their country, but in the spirit of curiosity, I also am intrigued about what motivates them.

I know what motivates Jewish soldiers. Remember when we interviewed Israeli war hero Avigdor Kahalani for this podcast? Yeah, top 10 most surreal moments for me, for real. Go back and listen to our miniseries on the Yom Kippur War, the guy’s a gem.

Well, we asked him to explain how it was possible for a handful of Jewish soldiers to defend the Golan against basically the entire Syrian army during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. His answer boiled down, basically, to Jewish history.

You know what, we’ll just play it:

“In Israel, everybody feels that he’s holding the flag of the country. And one day, he had to prove that he can do it. And my soldiers at that time, they ran like crazy to fight and to stop them. And I got the courage from them… It comes from kindergarten, and after, elementary school and high school. All the time, we studied our Bible and our roots and the Holocaust — the whole picture. And it comes one generation to another generation, they give a mission that one day you’ll have to protect your country. And this is exactly what we have done.”

You’re getting that? Kahalani says that Jewish soldiers carry 2000 years of history into battle. Their flag reminds them that they’re personally responsible for the survival of their nation. We waited millennia for this. We’re not going to let it go. 

But it doesn’t explain the Druze. Because the Druze don’t have 2000 years of Jewish history anchoring them to this place. The official flag they carry into battle doesn’t even bear the symbol of their people. And yet, there they are. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Jewish soldiers (say that ten times fast, you have no chance), carrying that same flag, that same commitment, into the battlefield. 

And if you’re wondering, “why,” like I am, well… the answer might lie in a visit that the Israeli Minister of Minorities paid to the Druze communities in November of 1948. Remember: Israel was at war with all of its neighbors – a war the Druze had joined, on the Israeli side. Among the Druze dignitaries who came to greet the government delegation was a spiritual leader named Sheikh Salman Tarif, whose speech evoked the ancient connection between the two communities. Quote:

“The friendship between the people of the Druze community and the people of ISrael is not a new one, but an ancient one; not only are the relations ones of friendship but they are also familial relations, because we are after all in-laws… the familial closeness is strengthened in our day through a closeness of blood in the battle… the blood of Israel and the blood of the Druze mingles for liberation of the land.”

This is why the relationship between Jews and Druze is known as a “Blood Covenant.” It’s a promise, based on kinship, based on common history and shared goals. And it comes up almost constantly in any discussion of the Druze. This brit damim, blood covenant, is a crucial component of the relationship between the two communities. And that’s one reason that the Nation State Law was perceived as such a slap in the face. 

Because Israeli Druze have voluntarily and eagerly woven themselves into the fabric of Israeli society. They share in Israel’s wars. In its victories. And in its heartbreaking losses. As of March 2024, 75+ years after Israel’s founding, nearly 500 Druze have died defending Israel. And I hate to say this, I hate to even think it, but that number will probably grow as the war in Gaza drags on, and who knows what will happen up north.

For so many of Israel’s minorities, October 7th was a wake-up call. A reminder that they are Israelis first. That an attack on one is an attack on all. 

The Druze did not need that reminder.

In the wake of October 7th, some have already made the ultimate sacrifice. And I want to tell just one of their stories, because you should know them. Because they’re stories about brothers, the shared fate of the Jewish people, the shared destiny.

23-year-old Major Jamal Abbas was the third generation in his family to serve in the IDF. Both his father and grandfather rose to high military ranks. But Jamal never got the chance. On November 18, 2023, he was killed in combat in the southern Gaza strip. During the battle, his father and brother managed to reach him on walkie talkie. We have a recording of his father’s last words to his son:

“Take care of yourselves. Fight Hamas. Destroy them. Fight boldly. Stay in there as long as needed until victory. I miss you very much and love you.”

I can’t hear those words without tearing up. And I want everyone in the world to hear this from Jamal Abbas. “Destroy Hamas.” This is not coming from some Jewish settler, I don’t know, in the West Bank. It is coming from non-Jewish minority in the only Jewish state. Not an attack on Palestinians, but the hateful and radicalized ideologues of Hamas.

I remember being 23. You think you’re so grown up. But from my vantage point, 23 is just a kid. Too young to die in battle. Too young to be a hero. But Jamal was a hero. And so was Lieutenant Colonel Salman Habaka, who was among the first to arrive at Kibbutz Be’eri, which is in Israel near the border of Gaza, on October 7th, and who fell in battle in Gaza less than a month later. And so is Lieutenant Colonel Alim Abdallah, a career officer killed on October 9th, protecting the northern border from Hezbollah. Make sure to check out our episode about Hezbollah.

So is every other Israeli Druze who has fought for Israel, whether or not they survived the fight. 

And the fight doesn’t just happen on the battlefield. The Druze Veterans Association has made it their mission to combat anti-Israel false information online. (Which is kind of like holding back a flood by sticking your finger in a dam, but hey – it’s noble work.)

And then, there are people like Nasreen Youssef, who saved her entire mostly-Jewish community on October 7th by convincing the terrorists – in Arabic – that she’d give them money and smuggle them out of her moshav unharmed. Instead, she used their trust to pass critical information to the IDF. It’s an incredible story – the link in the show notes will give you more details.

It’s stories like these that highlight why the Nation-State Law, which I mentioned at the beginning of this episode, was so controversial and in some ways so painful to much of the Druze community.

I hope I’ve made it clear at this point that the Druze are an inseparable part of Israeli society. And to them, broadly speaking, the Nation-State Law is a slap in the face. In fact, after his son’s funeral, Jamal Abbas’ father, Anan, called on the state to change the law.

Start at 8:20 – 9:10:

“As I said, we’re part of this country. We’re an inextricable part of this country. This is a Jewish country. There’s no doubt about that. We are partners in destiny and have been since before the state was established. Both of my grandfathers took it upon themselves to fight for the establishment of this state. My dad fought in all of Israel’s wars, in order for it to exist. We’re part of this country, and this country has to change the nation-state law and recognize the Druze as a community that shares its destiny, because we are one. There should be no difference between nations here. We have to change the law.”

So… what does the law actually SAY? 

Well, first of all, it’s a special type of law. Nerd corner alert: unlike America, the only other country whose legal system I understand reasonably well, or at least decently, Israel does not have a formal constitution! I know, I know, the Saudis, UK, New Zealand and Canada don’t have constitutions either. One of those super cool facts to whip out a dinner party, only to help make sure you never get invited back again.

Instead, Israel has a bunch of regular laws, and 14 quasi-constitutional laws known as “Basic Laws,” in Hebrew, chukei hayesod, which are more enshrined and harder to undo than the regular ones. To date, there are 14 Basic Laws on topics ranging from establishing the Knesset, to governing the military draft, to laws surrounding basic Human Dignity and Liberty. Links in the show notes for more on that.

This is the latest Basic Law, which makes it roughly equivalent to an American constitutional amendment. And those are… a pretty big deal. 

Especially because the Nation-State Law formally establishes the State of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish People, with a cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination. Sounds okay so far, right? “Self-determination” basically means “being in charge of your own destiny, not subject to any outside governments.” Pretty important for a historically persecuted minority and pretty fundamental to Zionism. 

But here’s where things start getting awkward. Because the law goes on to say that “the realization of the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is exclusive to the Jewish People.” And, here is the point where I ask you to exercise some empathy. Try to see why that might alarm non-Jewish Israelis. Pause and imagine. Especially because the law contains no reference to democracy or equality for the roughly 25% of Israel’s population that isn’t Jewish. Think about that. Think about the message it sends to Israel’s non-Jewish minorities, including Israel’s friends, the Jewish people’s friends, the Jewish people’s brothers-in-arms, the Druze. Think about the message it sends to the families of Jamal Abbas and Salman Habaka and Alim Abdallah and Nasreen Yousef. Think about how it feels to know that your government just passed a law that says this country has clear priorities that don’t include you.

We’ll come back to that, but let’s go through the rest of the law first. 

The law also formalizes use of Jewish cultural elements as official symbols of the state: The Magen David, aka the Jewish star, as the flag, Hatikva as the national anthem (see show notes for the link to our episode about Hatikva), and the seven-branch Menorah as the state’s emblem. The emblem, of course, is vitally important because… I’m not really sure. I never understood the whole emblem thing, other than it looks cool, and I like things that look cool.

Next, it declares Hebrew as the official language of Israel. Which it already was, of course, along with English and Arabic. But now, Arabic is described not as official but as having “special status,” while English isn’t mentioned at all. (Rude.) “Special status,” by the way, sounds kind of ominous, but it just means that the state must ensure that all state services are accessible to Arabic speakers.

The law also enshrines Jewish settlement as a national value. “Settlement” is a loaded term, but we’re not necessarily talking about the West Bank settlements here, folks. NERD CORNER ALERT: The Hebrew word used in the text is “hityashvut.” Literally, to settle, to establish a seat. The word used for West Bank settlements is “hitnachlut,” which carries a connotation of inheritance – as in, this is a land you’ve inherited. Man, language is wild.) But in any event, the word used in the law literally just means to settle in. The connotation here is that the country will encourage Jews to live in Israel and will support those who want to do so… though critics note that the law never specifies what territory “counts” as Israel.

There are also some other not-particularly-interesting items in there – things dealing with the Hebrew calendar and Shabbat and stuff like that.

But practically speaking, the law didn’t really change anything. The flag has been the flag since before ’48. The emblem has been… emblem-ing… for a long time. I’ve been singing Hatikvah since I was a kid in school. And I don’t mean to age myself, but that was way earlier than the summer of 2018.

Still, the law is a symbol. And symbols are powerful.

Plenty of Jewish Israelis were deeply uncomfortable with this particular symbol. In fact, only 52% of Israeli Jews thought the law was necessary. And that ambivalence was reflected in the Knesset, where the law passed by a slim margin of 62 to 55, with two abstentions.

Some who voted for the law were elated. They took selfies with Benjamin Netanyahu on the Knesset floor, congratulating themselves and each other on their victory. But some who voted against were enraged. A few tore up the text of the law. And it’s not because 55 Knesset members don’t want Israel to be a Jewish State. It’s because they want Israel to remain a Jewish and democratic state, with equality for all.

After all, that’s what the Declaration of Independence promised, way back in 1948. 

“It [the State of Israel] will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principle of the Charter of the United Nations.”

Literally Israel’s first official document as a Jewish state, and it guarantees freedom and equality to every citizen, Jewish or otherwise.

In fact, it even defines that freedom and equality, enumerating exactly what the state owes its citizens: freedom of religion, conscience, education, etc.

You know what it doesn’t define? What it means to be a Jewish state.

Think about that for a second. This is Israel’s very first official document, its “mission statement,” as it were, outlining that the country would be both Jewish and democratic. It defines one of those terms. It doesn’t define the other. Really, the only thing the declaration specifies about Israel being Jewish is that all Jews are welcome. It doesn’t even define “Jew.”

And that was intentional. Think about it. “Two Jews, three opinions” is a cliche for a reason. 

As the scholar Simon Rabinovich notes in Defining Israel: The Jewish State, Democracy and the Law, there was no consensus among Jews on what they wanted their state to look like. After all, the state would be home to conservative Jews and liberal Jews. Religious Jews and secular Jews. Jews from Europe, from North Africa, the Middle East and Ethiopia. Jews who were ALL IN on religion and culture, and Jews who were like, ew, Judaism? No thanks.

There was no way to satisfy all of these wildly diverse and contradictory visions. So the state’s founders didn’t try. They simply declared “We’re a Jewish state” and moved on, allowing Jews from all countries, backgrounds and ideologies to see Israel as the homeland they wanted it to be.

In fact, David Ben Gurion said four days after the UN voted there would be a Jewish state, that “Now, as we are about to establish a state, it must be remembered that it will not be a Jewish state, it will be a state of all its citizens. It will be a Jewish state only for aliyah and settlement – all citizens will be equal.”

So they were very clear on the status of minorities. On guaranteeing equality under the law. The practice of that has been a work in progress ever since.

In 1948, the state’s founders had been living under the British mandate for decades. The global Jewish community was still traumatized by the Holocaust. The modern Zionist political movement was only 50 years old, but it reawakened a dream held for millennia. This is the first time in nearly two thousand years that the Jewish people have had autonomy, authority, self-determination.

And in the very first expression of their independence, they make sure everyone knows that the Jewish State isn’t just for Jews. Every citizen is an equal member of society with an equal right to vote.

It’s an especially poignant item in the declaration because let’s face it: the last two thousand years of Jewish history has seen the Jews living in a lot of places where they were anything but equal.

In establishing “equality for all” as a basic tenet of the nation, the founders of Israel created a state that promised others the basic human rights they’d been denied all those years. Call it a bit of treating others how you want to be treated. That which is hateful for yourself, don’t do to others.

Which is why Israel, and Jews, proudly tout the country’s status as a Jewish democracy. But to many Israelis, Jewish or not, this law felt like a major step away from the ideals outlined in the Declaration. And no community was more outspoken than the Druze:


“We are here to send a clear message to the Israeli Government. We will not settle down for nothing less than equal rights as Israeli citizens.”

Here’s the head of the Druze Information Center: “We ask the government and all the members of the Knesset to delete this law. Not to correct this law, to delete this law from history.”

Another Druze man – who served in the IDF for 22 years – said that he’s proud to be Israeli, but that this law humiliated him. Some Druze have questioned whether they should continue to be included in the draft, and whether they want to fight for Israel at all. A high-ranking Druze veteran said his son was having second thoughts, wondering why he should protect a state that considers him a second-class citizen.

And while in many ways, I don’t see the Druze as second class citizens, and many Druze don’t either, honestly… I don’t blame him.

And look, I don’t want to pretend that everything was perfectly equal for Israel’s minorities before. It would be naïve to say that Jews haven’t gotten preferential treatment within the Jewish state. Non-Jewish neighborhoods don’t get the same investment in infrastructure or development as Jewish neighborhoods. For years, the Druze haven’t been able to expand their villages, even as their population has continued to grow.

The government has made big pushes in the last few years to invest in non-Jewish communities. However, those attempts are often met with mixed feelings. In East Jerusalem, Arab residents worry that increased investment will bring waves of Jewish quote unquote “settlers” that will eventually displace them. Many are deeply skeptical that Jerusalem mayor Moshe Lion’s sweeping plan to improve infrastructure and general “quality of life” has a more sinister motive.

Among Druze, those investments are not only welcomed, but expected. In May 2020, Druze and Circassian leaders declared a “month of rage,” protesting for – among other things – increased investment in their communities. In 2021, the government approved the Druze and Circassion Empowerment Program, a 3 billion shekel investment in infrastructure, construction and education. Which is great. But the fact of the matter is that the Druze have felt the sting of inequality since before 2018.

Which, in some ways, makes the symbolism of the Nation-State Law even more painful. As one Druze Brigadier General said, “It’s sad, because we’ve always believed that someday we would be treated as equals. But now, when it’s enshrined into law, this looks further away than ever.”

The Druze aren’t alone in their anger and frustration. According to one poll, 60% of Israelis said the law should have included a clause on equality. And that includes big players on the Israeli political stage – including Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman – to demand a change.

But as of early 2024, the law is still in place. Many Druze people still feel its sting. The war has shifted our priorities, but when it’s over, Israel will have to confront all the ways that Israel has changed in the wake of October 7th. And that includes confronting the Nation State Law and deciding which values and symbols are worth enshrining in a Jewish, democratic state… and which are not.

So, that’s the story of the Nation-State Law and the Druze, and here are your five fast facts:

  1. The Druze are a thousand-year-old offshoot of Islam which has faced a tremendous amount of persecution. They’re secretive about their religion, and they’ve made a point to blend in with their surroundings and build ties with whatever country they call home.
  2. The Israeli Druze are fiercely loyal citizens of Israel – they’re included in the IDF’s mandatory draft, and considered “Blood Brothers” with the Jews.
  3. In 2018, Israel passed The controversial Nation-State Law, which enshrines that Israel is the Jewish homeland, where only Jews have the right to self-determination. It also establishes Hebrew as the sole national language, and giving Arabic a “special status.”
  4. The law was and is extremely controversial. Those in favor believe the law is necessary to ensure that Israel will always be a Jewish State. Those opposed point out that the law doesn’t enshrine the equality guaranteed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
  5. The Druze great prophet is Jethro, father in law of Moses, so yea, the Jewish people and Druze have been connected for quite the while.

Those are five fast facts, but here’s one enduring lesson as I see it.

Do you remember what it was like to be Jewish in the first few weeks after October 7th? Or, if you’re not Jewish, and you were around the whole thing, and you felt it? To me, it felt like the world had been divided into friends and enemies. 

There were those who sympathized with Israel, and those who blamed Israel for everything. Those who extended their hands in support, and those who somehow praised Hamas and rode a new wave of antisemitism. Or, maybe those who said, “What Hamas did was bad, but c’mon, Israel, chill.”

It got to the point – at least for me – where just walking down the street, I wondered if the people I was passing secretly hated me or hoped for the destruction of the Jewish people’s homeland. My homeland.

It’s lonely to be surrounded by enemies – whether they’re real or figments of your overactive imagination. And Israel has always been surrounded by enemies. 

But the Druze? They’re friends. True friends. And it’s a friendship based on mutual appreciation and respect, where each side gives to the other.

The Druze appreciate that their state offers religious freedom, security, democracy and, for the most part, equality. And the state appreciates that the Druze serve in the military and the Knesset, contributing to Israeli society in every way imaginable. There’s a reason they’re sometimes called Israel’s “Model Minority.”

But that may just be part of the problem. “Model Minority” has a nice ring to it, but it’s one of those compliments that’s secretly not really a compliment. Because it values conformity and obedience. And it can cause the majority to take some communities for granted, ignoring their needs.

But Israel cannot afford to make that kind of mistake. The relationship between Jews and Druze is earned. Even the Druzes’ protests against the Nation State Law are deeply patriotic. They’re not angry because they hate Israel. They’re angry because they love Israel, and want it to live up to its stated ideals. It’s the same reason that I get angry at Israel sometimes. The same reason that lots of Israelis do. We love the Jewish state. And that love means we want it to be better. We want to fight for it, not against it.

Jews know as well as anyone what it’s like to be a minority, strangers in a strange land. There’s only one place in the world where we aren’t. And that brings with it a real responsibility to the quarter of the country that isn’t Jewish.

After all, ״ואהבת לרעך כמוך״ – “love your neighbor as yourself” – is THE fundamental Jewish value. But, the former chief Rabbi of the UK, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks ob’m, reminds us that vi’ahavta et ha’ger, love the other is mentioned 36 times in the Hebrew Bible, many more times, than the mandate to love your neighbor. Flags and emblems are nice. But if we really want to make Israel a Jewish State, loving the neighbor and loving the other are the best places to start.

Enjoy this podcast with friends by hosting a podcast listening party.

Subscribe to This Week Unpacked

Each week we bring you a wrap-up of all the best stories from Unpacked. Stay in the know and feel smarter about all things Jewish.