Following the Strong Horse

By Elliot Jager
Friday, June 24, 2011

A Druse physician from the Golan Heights, who works at an Israeli hospital, was one of 24 members of his community arrested for pummeling IDF troops with rocks during so-called Naksa Day protests. Just a few miles south in Daliyat El-Carmel, the Israeli Druse community is planning a memorial museum that will tell the stories of the 400 Druse soldiers who fell in defense of the Jewish state.  In Lebanon, meanwhile, the Druse leadership has become an essential constituent in the Hizballah-dominated government.

Just where do Druse loyalties lie?

An understanding of their history can help answer that question. The Druse are a breakaway stream of the Ismaili strain of Shi'ite Islam, followers of an ascetic Egyptian ruler named Al-Hakim (996-1021), himself a descendant of Muhammad's son-in-law Ali. Influenced in part by Greek ideas, Al-Hakim's persecuted followers broke away from orthodox Islam, eventually coalescing into tight-knit communities in the mountainous regions of Lebanon, Syria and Israel, awaiting the messianic return and salvation of their leader.

Druse keep their esoteric religious practices mostly to themselves. Unlike Muslims, Druse Arabs do not observe Ramadan.  They don't make pilgrimages to Mecca and they don't proselytize. They venerate Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, as a main prophet.  Marrying out is considered an unforgivable breach of communal solidarity—a solidarity that is in turn based on strong ethnic identity, martial skills, and mutual aid. Today, there are perhaps 2.5 million Druse living mostly in Syria, Lebanon and northern Israel with smaller communities dispersed as far away as North America and Australia.

In predominantly Sunni Syria, the Druse comprise perhaps four percent of the population. With the arrival of the French after the First World War, the Druse were encouraged to maintain their own autonomous region. But Druse attitudes toward the French were conflicted, and the community ultimately embraced emergent Arab nationalism as the century progressed.

Syrian independence in 1946 was accompanied by long decades of political convulsions. Adib ibn Hasan Shishakli, the military dictator during the early 1950s, pursued a Syrian nationalist line yet violently persecuted the Druse whom he perceived as a threat. After Shishakli's overthrow, conditions for the Druse did not improve as a long succession of military coups saw insular and paranoid factions within the Ba'ath Party compete violently for control.

By the time Hafez al-Assad (current president Bashar's father) took power in 1970, the Druse had been purged from positions of influence in the party, army, and security services. 

However, the Assad dynasty, itself rooted in the Alawite minority, relied on the Druse, and the Druse, true to form, displayed remarkable loyalty to the regime for decades.  Recently, though, matters have become more complicated.  According to Mordechai Kedar of Bar-Ilan University, Bashar has distanced himself from the Druse.  This may be because, in this period of unrest, he wants to draw closer to the Sunni majority.  Druse fidelity has begun to crack only as anti-Assad demonstrations have gained inexorable momentum and security forces have targeted the Druse. Kedar speculates that if Syria should disintegrate, the Druse could push for the autonomy that was outlined for them by the French. 

On the Golan Heights, a very small number of Druse accepted Israeli citizenship when the Knesset applied Israeli law to the territory in 1981, while most remained loyal to the Assad regime. Some Druse have been arrested for spying for Syria, but on the whole, most simply seek not to fall afoul of either Jerusalem or Damascus, knowing that control of the Heights could flip in any peace deal.  Israel has been generally sensitive to the Druse predicament. In mid-February, for instance, 12,000 tons of apples grown by Druse farmers near Majdal Shams were exported to Syria despite the de facto state of war between the two countries.  At the start of the anti-government protests in Syria, some Golan residents demonstrated in support of Assad. But as the demonstrations gained traction, more Golan Druse—like their Syrian brethren—have turned against Assad and expressed solidarity for the opposition.  In both Syria and Israel, the Druse are apt augurs of the shifting winds of political change and they determine their fealties accordingly. 

The Druse penchant for coldly calibrating alliances is nowhere more pronounced than in the failed state of Lebanon.  There's been no verifiable census there in decades, but there are believed to be hundreds of thousands of Druse in Lebanon with a stronghold in the Chouf Mountains. After the previous Druse leader was assassinated (in all likelihood by the Assads), his son and successor Walid Jumblatt actually drew closer to Syria. Over the years he has switched sides intermittently between Lebanon's numerous and violent factions.  Nowadays he backs the Shi'ite Islamist movement Hizballah—themselves clients of the Assad dynasty, though ultimately beholden to Iran. 

Only Jumblatt's anti-Israel rhetoric has been unwavering.  Lebanese Druse have been sympathetic to the Palestinian Arabs—permanent "refugees" in Lebanon—though their advocacy has not guaranteed the Druse immunity from attack by uncompromising Palestinian Islamists.  Earlier this month Jumblatt lauded the Golan Druse who collaborated in Syrian-inspired Palestinian efforts to storm across the Golan boundary with Israel, and he has long urged his coreligionists in Israel not to serve in the IDF. Yet as the Assad regime wobbles, possibly weakening Hizballah, the Lebanese Druse are becoming more assertive. A Druse member of the Hizballah-dominated new cabinet recently resigned to protest the dearth of patronage posts allocated to his community.

Which brings us back to the 127,000-strong, overwhelmingly loyal, Druse citizens of Israel. Their young men have long been conscripted into the army, where many have served with distinction. A Druse journalist, Rafik Halabi, was news director for Israel's Channel 1 during the 1990s. By 2001 a Druse had been named to Israel's cabinet (by Ariel Sharon).  Patronage delivered by the Likud to the Druse town of Daliyat el-Carmel has encouraged many locals to join the party.

But the acculturation process has not been effortless. Many Druse schools teach the sciences in Arabic, and Israel's education ministry has been trying to encourage a shift to Hebrew so that graduates can better integrate into Israeli higher education.  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has (belatedly) budgeted substantial sums for the socio-economic development of the community. Efforts are also underway to prepare Druse youth for jobs in Israel's hi-tech sector. This is not to suggest that Israel could not still do more to reward Druse loyalty or demonstrate greater cultural sensitivity.

The seemingly Machiavellian character of Druse loyalties reflects their status as a minority people in a mostly intolerant Muslim Middle East. Just as the Druse have found it strategically prudent to concentrate mostly on high ground away from urban areas, their political strategy toward outside powers has been one of "adaptability and fluidity," in the words of the University of Haifa's Gabriel Ben-Dor. Osama bin Laden famously said that when a strong horse is pitted against a weak horse, people will naturally follow the strong horse.  The Druse have bet their survival on it.

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