By Julie C., Palestine Monitor
October 14, 2013
“First of all, I am a human being, then I am a woman, then I am a Palestinian. Period.”
This is how Maisan Hamdan, a 22 year-old student at Haifa University and member of the Druze community, chose to introduce herself when we met for an interview in August 2013. She lives in Isfiya, a mixed Druze and Arab Christian village near Haifa. As a student in the Arabic Department of Haifa University, Maisan spends her time outside school volunteering with both Baladna – an Arab youth organization based in Haifa – and the American Friends Service Committee, an international Quaker organization focused on social justice and peace. Even at such a young age, Maisan has dedicated herself to mobilizing and creating awareness within and around the Druze community, showing it as part of the larger Palestinian community that continually falls victim to the discrimination of the Zionist state.
Originally from present-day Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel, the Druze are an Arabic-speaking religious group whose beliefs include elements of Neo-Platonism, Ismailism and Gnosticism. About 122,000 Druze Israeli citizens currently live in 22 villages in the north of Israel, especially in Dalyat el-Carmel and Isfiya, near Haifa. The Druze community has been [called up for] Israel’s compulsory military service since 1956 and has been considered a distinct ethnic community by the Israeli authorities since 1957.
The leaders of the Druze community have indeed signed a “Blood Bond” with Israel, declaring the loyalty of the community. This bond is supposed to originate from the concept of “Taqqiyya”, or dissimulation, referring to the secrecy kept around the Druze’s beliefs and the adoption of the codes of the main religious group. The Druze are regularly used as an example of the successful integration policy the Israeli military pretends to be implementing within its ranks.
Statue commemorating the Druze uprising against French colonial rule in the 1920s. The statue is in Majdal Shams in the occupied Golan Heights where the Druze community had traditionally identified as Syrian.
“Back in the ’40s, when the State of Israel was called Palestine, the Druze joined in the struggle against that Arab rebellion. When the Declaration of the State of Israel was announced in 1948 they fought shoulder-to-shoulder with the Jews for the sake of the young state,” brags a page on the official website of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). The all-Druze Herev (or Sword) Battalion is also praised for being “the first arrow on the Lebanese border,” meaning the first one in and the last one out during Israel’s incursions in the area.
According to Kais M. Firro, Professor and researcher in Haifa University, in his essay “Reshaping Druze Particularism in Israel” (2001), this “bond” is the product of a strategy implemented … by the Zionist movement and, after 1948, by the State of Israel aimed at dividing the present Arab communities. Since the inception of such a plan, several lower-ranking leaders have been co-opted by the Zionist movement and have helped the state in overthrowing the higher leadership of the Druze community in exchange for future privileges. Firro further argues that, after its creation, the state of Israel has committed itself to the reshaping of the “Druze traditional particularism (…) into a Druze identity that is part reconstruction, part invention.”
Resistance and forced re-shaping of the Druze’s identity through education
Israel’s strategy of co-opting and remaking the Druze has long faced resistance as the Druze, like all other Arab citizens of the State, are victims of the discriminatory policies. The 1948 … law granting the state the right to confiscate land for “security reasons,” and the creation of nature reserves in the north of the country, deprived the Druze of about two-thirds of their land (Firro). High property taxes also made access to property difficult for the Druze (B. Strauss*). Protests and resistance therefore started in 1948. The Mubadira, or Druze initiative, created in the 1970s consistently opposed Israel’s conscription of Druze men, as well as the discriminatory policies of the Israeli state, arguing for the creation of a non-Zionist state.
According to Maisan, “the Druze are not aware of their history. The resistance of the Druze against Israeli colonization is intentionally hidden from the Druze themselves in order to serve the Zionist movement’s agenda.” For that reason, she took it upon herself to research the story of Isfiya, her village. Although she did not want to disclose their names, Maisan told the Palestine Monitor she discovered that many of the Druze living in Isfiya did resist Israel’s colonization. Her own grandfather participated in the resistance, helping dozens of Palestinians victims of displacement escape via the trunk of his bus.
“Now most of the people participating in this resistant movement deny what happened (…). It is easier for them to say that they were not involved,” said Maisan.
Maisan’s public display of her attachment to the Palestinian identity got her expelled from the first college she attended. Even though they were not clear on the reasons, the administration of the College of Communication in Afula, a Jewish Israeli city near Haifa, forced her to leave after she “quite frankly” expressed her political opinion.
Maisan is currently studying at the University of Haifa, in the Arabic studies department, where she has noticed an important gap between her knowledge of the Palestinian history and that of “official” Palestinian students.
As she explains, in “1976, the government separated the Druze municipalities from other Arabic municipalities, including the educational system and the curriculum.”
Unlike the rest of Arab students, Druze students are required to undergo two units of history, one on Israel and one supposedly on Druze history: “the Druze history as they presented it wasn’t concerning the Druze of Palestine but rather Lebanese and Syrian Druze. The way they teach about the Druze in Israel is through a lesson supposedly about legacy, tradition, or religion. In reality, this class was used to teach loyalty to Israel and the importance [of serving] in the army.”
The insistence on the discrimination experienced by both the Jewish community and the Druze community is also one of the tenets of the Zionist discourse designed to strengthen the particular bound the two communities.
“We must strongly uproot every discrimination. We must give to each Druze the chance to progress like Jews,” former Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, wrote in his personal diary back in 1960.
In reality, this “chance” at equality was not granted to the Druze community. According to Maisan, apart from the Palestinians recognized by the State as Arabs, “socially, economically, [and] in terms of education, Druze have the lowest ranks (…). The main reason is that Druze men were forced to serve in the army in 1956, they work now mostly in security and police forces (…). When they go to the army, they choose their path.”
“The Druze are not well represented in politics. The only representatives of the Druze are part of Zionist parties, not Palestinian parties. A tiny part in the communist party, but without much support from the rest in the community,” Maisan argues.
Acting within the community
Maisan is now working with the Quaker American Friends Service Committee, and is the Coordinator of a support group for the Refusal of Military Service organized by Baladna and New Profile – an organization aimed at the demilitarization of the Israeli society. For Druze in Israel, the military seems to represent an opportunity to secure future employment, which could be jeopardized by refusing service. Yet, in the first two weeks of her volunteer work this August, seven Druze men from Isfiya and Dalyat al-Carmel have contacted Maisan for guidance on how to approach their refusal.
The Druze Herev Battalion, 2013. Photo from IDF.
Through her volunteer work, Maisan is also trying to preserve and build her Palestinian identity, in order to increase her feeling of belonging and to challenge the image the rest of the Palestinian population have of Druze being collaborators in Israel’s occupation.
Her involvement in Baladna began while she was in high school. In 2008, as Israel’s Operation Cast Lead was taking place in Gaza, Maisan came to school wearing a keffieh (a traditional Palestinian scarf) in solidarity with the people of Gaza. The other students “not only attacked me but also called me a terrorist,” remembers Maisan.
Acting against violence as well as against the conscription of Arab youth into Israel’s civil service, she now participates in the training of youth leaders within the Arab community.
Due to the image of Druze held by both the Jewish-Israeli and Palestinian communities, Maisan is faced with a two-sided struggle: “To Israeli Jews, Druze, no matter what they do, no matter how they serve the country, will always be Arabs; and to the rest of the Palestinians, Druze, no matter what they do, will always be traitors.”
Notes and links
Reshaping Druze particularism in Israel Journal of Palestine Studies, 2001 [Paywall]
Abstract: In order to suppress Arab and Palestinian national sentiments among the Druzes, Israeli policymakers have systematically tried to reshape Druze traditional particularism since 1948 into a Druze identity that is part reconstruction, part invention. In so doing, Israeli government officials, with the help of a coopted Druze elite, are practicing a policy seeking to politicize Druze communal and sectarian dimensions while depoliticizing their noncommunal and national dimensions. This paper, based largely on Israeli archival material, documents some of the political, social, and economic factors that have led to the “success” of these policies.
On the Israeli Druze, Benjamin Strauss