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The Stranger Among Us

Druze-memorial The memorial for fallen soldiers in the Druze village of Daliyat el-Karmel

On a Field Trip in March we pensioners from Nes Ziona spent a day visiting Mount Carmel and Druze towns.

The minority in Israel that was most disconcerted by the Nation-State law that was passed by the Knesset in 2018 was the Druze. This Basic Law specifies that the State of Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people. The Supreme Court ruled in 2021 that it is largely symbolic and declarative in nature and does not contradict other basic laws pertaining to democracy and human rights. However, the Druze, who fought with the Jews against the Arab invading states in 1948 and who have always served in the army, see it otherwise and feel slighted.

Who are the Druze? In Israel, they are a group of about 150,000 people who live mostly in villages in the north, on the Carmel, the Upper Galilee and the Golan Heights. Globally this is the third largest concentration of Druze with the other major communities in Syria and Lebanon. They speak Arabic, but do not identify as Muslims, and do not follow the Five Pillars of Islam. Over the centuries they have been persecuted for their religion by different Muslim regimes such as the Fatimid Caliphate, the Ottoman Empire, and Eyalet in Egypt, and hence generally try to live in out-of-the-way places. This persecution of the Druze included massacres, demolishing Druze prayer houses and holy places and forced conversion to Islam -- essentially attempts at genocide. In 1957 Israel was the first country to recognize the Druze as a distinct ethnic community.

The religion began in Egypt as an offshoot of Shia Islam in the 10th and 11th century. The Druze religion is monotheistic, and recognizes many prophets, including Jesus, John the Baptist, Mohammed, and Moses. However, the most respected prophet in their religion is Jethro, Moses' father-in-law. The tomb of Jethro near Tiberias is the most important religious site for the Druze community and they gather there every April. Conversions are not permitted in the Druze religion, because they believe that the first generation after the establishment of the Druze religion had an opportunity then to join the religion, and every Druze person alive today is reincarnated from that generation. This obviously limits the spread of the religion and keeps their population small.

There are two groups within the Druze community, the religious (al-Uqqal) and the secular (al-Juhhal). A person decides when he is in his teens if he wants to become a religious sage. The secular group comprises about 80% of the population; they do not have permission to view the holy texts, and they do not attend religious meetings. The Epistles of Wisdom is the foundational text of the Druze faith, accessible only to religious sages. It incorporates elements from Islam, and from other religions and philosophies, creating a distinct and secretive theology known to interpret esoterically religious scriptures, and to highlight the role of the mind and truthfulness.

Armed with this background information from our guide, we (pensioners from Nes Ziona) spent a day in March visiting Mount Carmel and the Druze towns. There once were eight Druze villages on Mount Carmel dating from the 17th century, when there was a Druze Ottoman governor, Fakhr al-Din II. Six out of the eight Druze villages established on Mount Carmel were abandoned or destroyed during Egyptian rule in the Levant (1831–1840), due to the oppressive rule of the governor Ibrahim Pasha, the son of the ruler of Egypt, Muhammed Ali, the Ottoman Albanian governor. Daliyat al-Karmel and Isfiya are the sole Druze settlements remaining on Mount Carmel.

We turned inland from Route 4 on the road to Beit Oren just after the village of Ein Hod, and wound our way up the scenic and twisty road through the Carmel Park. Our first stop was in the park at a site called Rakit. There we walked through an abundance of wild flowers to Horvat Rakit, a Druze village that was destroyed in the 1840s. Among the ruins of Horvat Rakit is also a synagogue from Byzantium times with a mosaic floor with an inscription in Greek. And prior to the Greek period there are some burial caves from Roman times. However, on the day of our visit it was a gorgeous area of wild flowers among olive and pistachio trees, with views of the Mediterranean Sea and the coastal plain.

From there the bus continued climbing until we entered Isfiya, a town of about 15,000 inhabitants. It too is built on older settlements. Remains of a 5th century Jewish town, Huseifa, have been found as well as Crusader remains. The Jewish town had a synagogue with a mosaic floor with the inscription 'Peace upon Israel.' However, we were visiting a more modern institution in Isfiya. We exited the bus on the main road and walked down a driveway between two office buildings. This ended precipitously at a wall and far below we could see the western end of the Yisrael Valley. Before tumbling into the valley we entered a door to a large room. This was part of the sheltered workshop of Tzipor HaNefesh, or Soul Bird, which is the workplace of over 40 adults with special needs and with special abilities.

The Soul Bird Association was established 17 years ago by Irit, an occupational therapist who worked in mental hospitals, and felt that some of her patients were very talented in various ways but could not fulfil their potential in the hospital environment. Soul Bird employs about 40 artisans with special needs from both the Druze and Jewish sectors. They are unable to be absorbed into the free labor market and normal rehabilitation frameworks. The members take part in the design, production, and development of various products. She told us about two Russian brothers who were talented artists but had psychological problems; she helped to find a market for their art. In a tour of the workshop, we spoke with a man who had lost an arm in his previous profession but found joy in making things from wood. The woman who gave us the tour was a young Druze woman with Down Syndrome, who nonetheless explained things very well in Hebrew although her native language is Arabic. After touring the workshop, we went up to the street level. There Soul Bird has a store where we were able to purchase both articles that we saw being produced in the workshop, as well as many ideas for presents that came from China.

From Isfiya we continued on the main road and soon reached Daliyat el-Karmel, a town of around 20,000 inhabitants. We alighted from the bus in the center of town and spread out to find lunch. It was a weekday, and the streets were free of the tourists who come to the market and the restaurants on the weekend. We enjoyed a nice, uncrowded lunch before beginning our tour of the town.

Daliyat el-Karmel has a long history. It was mentioned in 1283 as part of the domain of the Crusaders. The local tradition traces Daliyat al-Karmel's founding to the 18th century when a Druze family from Jabal al-A'la near Aleppo settled on ancient ruins in the village. Successive waves of Druze families followed from the same area and together they formed the Halaby ("Aleppine") clan. Until today the Halaby clan of the town speaks in the Aleppine Arabic dialect rather than the Palestinian dialect.

We had a walking tour of the old section of the town, through a gateway of the main road. There are signs of gentrification, with some trendy stores and colorful mosaics and pictures on some of the walls. We passed the local community center, with separate entrances for men and women, and went down a small street to an unpretentious building at the end of a parking lot. This is the religious house where the al-Uqqal hold services twice a week, on Sunday and Thursday. We ended the tour at a plaza where there is a memorial for all the Druze of the town who have died during the different wars. There also is a preparatory military school 'mechina'.

On the other side of the plaza is a large impressive stone building. This was the summer home of Laurence Oliphant, who bequeathed the house to the town after his death in 1888. He was a Member of Parliament in England, and an author, traveler, diplomat, British intelligence agent, Christian mystic, and Christian Zionist. He and his wife settled in the German Colony in Haifa but spent summers in Daliyat el-Karmel. His secretary, Naftali Herz Imber, author of the Israeli national anthem, Hatikva, lived with them. The house is being currently renovated to be used as a community center.

At this point the bus picked us up and took us to our last stop in Daliyat el-Karmel, the home of Tamir and Botaina Halaby. Botaina is an artist whose pictures depict the Holocaust. She gave us a tour of her gallery and an explanation of how she became interested (or obsessed) with the Holocaust. The pictures are in some cases symbolic and many are very moving. She has exhibited in a number of galleries around Israel, as well as Jewish museums abroad. The gallery is called the Holocaust Memorial Gallery.

After this sobering visit we took our leave of the Druze towns on the Carmel, and traveled back to Nes Ziona. It was a very interesting day, full of surprises.



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Wednesday, 19 June 2024

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