Who are the Israeli Druze?

An Israeli Druze woman mourns at the funeral of 17-year-old Tiran Fero, in Daliyat al Karmel, Israel, on November 24, 2022. (Photo by Jalaa Marey/AFP via Getty Images)

We’re curious…

Last Thursday, thousands of mourners gathered in Daliyat al-Karmel in northern Israel for the funeral of Druze teenager Tiran Fero. Fero was a senior in high school and his funeral was on what would have been his 18th birthday.

Fero was seriously injured in a car crash in Jenin and taken to a nearby hospital where he was kidnapped by terrorists. His body was returned to his family 30 hours later, following negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

“It is incredibly sad that we are accompanying him to his final resting place instead of celebrating his big dreams,” Fero’s uncle Eddy said at the funeral. “We are now starting to internalize this disaster. I hope that our entire family can survive this disaster and mourning.”

It is unclear whether Fero died before or after he was taken. Fero’s family claims that the Palestinian gunmen disconnected Fero from life support, killing him. Israeli security officials and the IDF are currently investigating the claim.

However, the military and a senior defense source told the Times of Israel that Fero was already dead when he was taken.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid sent his “heartfelt condolences” to the family and said the return of the body was “the least we could do to bring them comfort.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz thanked the Palestinian Authority for working to return Ferro’s body to his family.

“This is a basic, humanitarian measure taken after a horrific incident. Thank you to the security forces and institutions, the leaders and officials, who worked tirelessly to return him,” he said.

In memory of Tiran, this week, we are dedicating this newsletter to the Israeli Druze community. Who are the Druze and what is their relationship with the Jewish state? Read below to learn about the Druze and their commitment and dedication to the Jewish state.

Who are the Druze?

First of all, it’s worth it to check out our video on the history of the Druze. The Druze are a distinct religious and ethnic group dating back to the 10th century when they broke off from Islam in Egypt. 

The Druze consider themselves Arab and speak Arabic. Their monotheistic faith blends elements of Islam, Hinduism, and classical Greek philosophy. But their actual beliefs are secrets that are closely guarded by their religious leaders.

The community numbers about one million people worldwide, with the largest populations living in Syria and Lebanon.

In Israel, the Druze population is about 143,000 people (which is less than 2% of the country’s total population). They mostly live in the northern regions of Carmel, the Galilee, and the Golan Heights.

Based on a religious obligation, Druze are fiercely loyal citizens to the country in which they live. In Israel, 85% of Druze men serve in the IDF, primarily in combat units. This is actually higher than the percentage of Israeli Jews who serve in the army (73%).

The relationship between the Druze community and the Jewish state is referred to as a “covenant of blood” or “brit damim.” This expresses their shared sense of loyalty, allegiance, and sacrifice to the state.

As of 2017, 421 Druze had died fighting in the IDF or in terror attacks. Watch this short segment by Israel’s Channel 10 showing the deep commitment and sacrifice made by the community.

The Druze community is also highly represented in Israel’s government, serving as Knesset members, diplomats and IDF officials. 

Relative to the small size of their population in the country, they are integrated into Israeli society at an extraordinary level. At the same time, the Israeli Druze experience has been far from perfect.

The Druze “have won the respect of many Israelis for their loyal service to the army, but economic equality hasn’t followed, both because of discrimination and the fabric of Druze society,” Shuki Sadeh of Haaretz reported.

According to Amir Khneifes who researches Druze society, there is a scarcity of jobs, housing, and local businesses in the community.

Former Knesset member Said Nafaa who advocates for equal rights for Druze, put it this way: “We had hoped that serving in the military would afford us equal rights to those of other Israelis. We soon, however, discovered that this is a mere illusion.”

One contributing factor is that, after their army service, many young Druze decide to start a family instead of going on to higher education, according to Sadeh. “There have been signs of change, with more Druze going into the professions or high-tech,” he added.

How the Druze and Jews became close

The bond between the Druze and Jews goes all the way back to Biblical times. The Druze regard the Biblical figure Jethro (the high priest of Midian who was Moses’ father-in-law) as their ancestor, chief prophet, and spiritual founder.

Jethro became Jewish and was dedicated to helping the people of Israel, so it makes sense that the Druze would feel a strong connection with the Jewish people.

The Jewish and Druze communities started forging alliances in the days of the British Mandate of Palestine (before there was a state of Israel). During this period, conflicts would erupt between the Druze and Muslim communities from time to time.

Rami Zeedan, a professor at the University of Kansas who specializes in the history of Druze in Israel, explained: “Both communities were minorities at that time. So, some Druze villages established individual alliances with the Jewish communities around them.”

On the eve of Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, the Jewish and Arab communities each pressured the Druze to join their side.

Initially, many Druze leaders preached a stance of neutrality. According to Yoav Gelber, a history professor at the University of Haifa and author of “Jews and Druze in the War of 1948,” Druze leaders gave different explanations for their neutrality.

While some said it was a mask to conceal their real position of support for the Jews, others maintained their position was actually impartial.

Meanwhile, Gelber writes, “The IDF, the Foreign Ministry and Daat (or the “Political Department”), the predecessor of the Mossad (Secret Service), were all active… in cultivating the Druze connection.”

The Jewish community’s efforts ultimately prevailed and the Druze community fought on Israel’s side during the 1948 War of Independence. 

The communities grew closer after the establishment of the state. In 1956, Israel passed a law extending mandatory military service to Druze men. 

According to some historians, the Druze agreed to the policy due to pressure from the Israeli government. Others say that Druze leaders actually asked the government to make the change, based on their belief that military service would help the community integrate into Israeli society.

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