Often overlooked, the Druze minority seeks path to peace
When Israeli forces were scaling the Golan Heights during the country’s pre-emptive June 1967 war, members of the little-known Druze minority were among its ranks.
The status of this secretive, monotheistic religious sect of 118,000 living in Israel, now including the Golan, is usually overlooked when critics attempt to tar the country with the “apartheid state” sobriquet.
Salman AbuRukun, a member of that community, was training as a commander in the Israel Defence Forces when war erupted. He saw active duty in the West Bank and Golan.
AbuRukun, 64, has a master’s in geography from Haifa University and runs external relations for Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority. When he recently visited Canada, we asked him how he felt knowing that some co-religionists—perhaps even relatives—were fighting on the other side as he battled for the Jewish state.
“It’s not an easy situation, but it becomes simple when I know that I was born in Israel. I am an Israeli, Israel is my country, my roots are there, and they are deep, so I have to be faithful to my country where I was born.”
The mantra holds true for the Lebanese Druze and Syrian Druze, he noted. More than 18,000 Druze who live in Golan Heights communities for the most part maintain fealty to Syria.
In Israel’s case, Druze loyalty was cemented in the summer of 1948 when, according to historian Benny Morris, a Druze battalion, after first supporting the Arab Liberation Army, became persuaded the Arabs would lose and switched sides.
That loyalty continues today. Druze are drafted into the IDF and serve in various capacities all over the country, especially in agriculture.
“We are proud that we are Druze and that we are Israelis, and we have to be faithful to our country,” noted Salman’s wife, Samira AbuRukun, 59, a University of Haifa graduate in Arabic language and literature who works as an educational counselor.
Salman AbuRukun finished his compulsory military service as a lieutenant and was promoted to the rank of major in the reserves, proving his loyalty to the country.
Much of the rhetoric unleashed against Israel involves the charge that its military uses disproportionate force against hostile neighbours and privileges Jewish citizens over those who are not.
On the first allegation, AbuRukun maintains, “The standing orders in the army are so clear—not to harm civilians, to be careful not to harm women or children. “Yes, the army has to use more force, and that is because the situation is so bad.”
Druze men, and those from the 4,000-member Circassian community of Sunni Muslims, serve in the forces as part of their integration into Israeli society. Bedouin men also serve in the border police and as scouts.
Does the Druze experience provide a pathway that could help better integrate Israeli Arabs into the country’s socio-economic fabric? AbuRukun believes all citizens have a duty “to give something to their country.”
He suggested some form of national service for Muslim and Christian Israeli Arabs who are reluctant or not welcome to serve in the IDF.
“They can service their community, instead of the army, in hospitals or villages, but they must give service to their country,” he suggested.
The Israeli government has a leadership role to play here as well, Samira suggested, so Israeli Arabs can “live at peace” with a Jewish majority government.
As far as impediments to an accommodation with 4.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, Salman AbuRukun said the times call out for “brave leaders on both sides.” He cited Israel’s Menachem Begin, Egypt’s Anwar El-Sadat, and the late King Hussein of Jordan as examples of courageous leaders who made the leap for peace.
“We need brave leaders to prepare their nations. We cannot reverse history. We have to be realistic.
“All the (Jewish) settlements in the West Bank cannot stay. And Arab refugees cannot return to Haifa or Jaffa. “There has to be a middle way.”