Despite the deep alliance between the State of Israel and its loyal Druze community, somehow the younger generation has fallen through the cracks, says activist Koftan Halabi, who insists that the problem has nothing to do with racism.
By: Atara Beck (Exclusive to World Israel News)
Entering Daliyat al-Karmel, Israel’s largest and southernmost Druze village, one is greeted by Israeli flags and signs in Hebrew.
Koftan Halabi, chairman and founder of the Druze Veterans Association (DVA), gave World Israel News a tour of his hometown, situated on Mount Carmel in the Haifa District, while explaining his mission.
The Druze in Israel are a unique minority, numbering over 130,000 among a population of over 8 million. Their language is Arabic, although the younger generation is becoming more integrated with the general population, Halabi says, mixing Hebrew with Arabic while speaking among themselves. Their religion, which is monotheistic, is kept secret.
More important, they are absolutely loyal to the State of Israel, which they respect as the Jewish state but also consider to be their home. Indeed, their connection to the land, according to some accounts, goes back a thousand years.
In the 17th century, during the years of Ottoman rule, Syrian Druze from the hill country near Aleppo moved south and settled in Daliyat al-Karmel. They believe they are descendants of the biblical Jethro, father-in-law of Moses who, according to scripture, assisted the Israelites after the exodus from Egypt and accepted monotheism. His tomb, located near Tiberius, is the most important gathering site for the community.
Druze Zionist Movements
Thousands of Druze belong to Druze Zionist movements and close to 90 percent of the young men enlist in the IDF – the highest percentage among all Israeli communities. In fact, they are subject to mandatory enlistment, just like the Jews. In the mid-1950s, their leadership appealed to Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to enlist 18-year-old men on the same basis as the Jewish citizens. Although the State Defense Act of 1949 permitted exemptions for minorities, the Druze requested that theirs be canceled. The first Druze IDF unit was recruited on May 3, 1956.
The first stop on the tour of the village, in fact, was a sizable military cemetery. Next was the Yad Labanim Memorial for Fallen Druze Soldiers. Halabi pointed out the photo of Zidan Saif, the Druze policeman who died in a gunfight with terrorists while preventing further carnage at a synagogue in Har Nof, Jerusalem, where two Arab terrorists slaughtered four rabbis and wounded seven, one of whom succumbed to his injuries 11 months later.
Another interesting site he proudly showed the visitor was the summer home which, in the 19th century, belonged to Sir Laurence Oliphant, a South African-born Christian Zionist whose secretary was Hebrew poet Naftali Herz Imber. In 1886, Imber published his first book of poems, which included Tikvateinu, “Our Hope,” which later became Hatikvah (“The Hope”), Israel’s national anthem.
‘Could Ben-Gurion Have Imagined This?’
Halabi, 46, who has worked in the Prime Minister’s Office and served as a senior adviser to ministers and Knesset members, mentions Rassan Alian, 45, the first non-Jewish commander of the elite Golani Brigade. Alian exemplifies his people’s devotion to the state. Wounded in battle in July 2014 in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge, he was evacuated to Soroka hospital in Be’ersheva where, during treatment, he reportedly said, “I have a lot of soldiers and I need to get back to them” – which he did.
“Could Ben Gurion, when he legislated mandatory IDF service for the Druze, have imagined this?” Halabi wonders.
Yet despite the warm relations between the Jewish and Druze communities, somehow the opportunities afforded Druze men upon release from the army are limited, Halabi says.
The DVA is campaigning for “intensive support for the integration of the Druze soldiers into Israeli society” upon their release from the army, particularly within the high-tech industry.
“Their integration into the high-tech professions is minimal. In the government offices, not reaching even one percent,” Halabi says.
‘Israel is Not a Racist Country’
“It is not racism,” he insists. “Israel is not a racist country. Rather, our children just fall through the cracks.”
In fact, his organization has representatives speaking around the world in defense of the Jewish state against the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. “We are not begging,” he states; rather, his community deserves recognition for “fighting against BDS and against the Radical Islamic threat.”
The problem boils down to connections and opportunity. The Muslim community, for instance, has its own supporters, he explains, giving the example of a startup owner who managed to get support from a Qatari source. The Christians have their own backers, he adds.
Joining the conversation, his cousin, Ashraf Halabi, 43, who lives in the Druze village of Beit Jann in the north, asks, “How do you know a Druze won’t invent the next Waze if he’s not given the chance?”
Ashraf Halabi, director of Sports at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, travels to the US and other countries as a spokesperson for DVA. Both cousins hail from a family of seven brothers, all of whom served in the IDF, as do their sons.
“We give our lives for the state,” Koftan Halabi says. “Try going to Sakhnin,” a northern Arab village. “No way you’ll see an Israeli flag there.”
As explained in the DVA literature, the non-profit was founded in 2009 “as a result of the need to empower the younger generation in the community, particularly the newly released IDF veterans.”
“Unfortunately,” DVA states, “these brave [Druze IDF] veterans are only partially supported by the government after their discharge. Surprisingly, Israel does not have Veterans Affairs Department that oversees the entire reentry into society.”
Some attempts to improve the situation have been made. In 2007, the Authority for the Economic Development of the Arab, Druze and Circassian Sectors was established, operating within the organizational framework of the Prime Minister’s Office. The stated purpose is “to maximize the economic potential of the Arab, Druze and Circassian population by encouraging the economic and business activity within the Arab, Druze and Circassian communities, and integrating them into the national economy.”
IT Works, an independent charity that offers vocational training programs for a disadvantaged populations in Israeli society, held the “Creating Career Opportunities in High-Tech for Druze” conference in December 2010, which was financially supported by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Prime Minister’s Office.
This past May, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the appointment of Member of Knesset Ayoub Kara, a Druze, as minister of communications
Michael Oren: ‘We Still Have So Much To Do’
Deputy Minister and former Ambassador to the US Michael Oren, speaking at Beth Jacob Synagogue in September 2016, described the Druze as “one of Israel’s most committed and courageous communities,” known as friends of the Jewish nation for over 1000 years. In the presence of Koftan Halabi and the DVA, he spoke about the “covenant of blood” between the two peoples and encouraged the audience, on the eve of the Jewish New Year, to “pledge to make Israel’s covenant with the Druze people stronger, deeper and more meaningful… a convenant not only of blood, but of caring and dignity and love.”
Describing his profoundly moving experience in the IDF under an exceptional Druze commander, he concluded, “Druze are our bridge to the Middle East…an example to the wartorn region of the Middle East. An example of how minorities can be loyal citizens of a nation state and how that nation state can reciprocate. But we still have so much to do,” such as helping them gain the best education and integrating them in the most dynamic sectors of Israel’s economy.