At first glance, the office of Amal Nasser el-Din might belong to that of any proud and patriotic Israeli politician. A closer look around the room reveals photos of elderly men with flowing white beards, dark robes and tall hats. They are sheikhs of the Druze faith to which Nasser el-Din belongs, and steps from his office in Daliyat el-Carmel is a memorial to 427 Druze soldiers who died while serving in the Israeli military; the fallen include Nasser el-Din’s own son and grandson. The sacrifice of these soldiers has become a rallying cry in recent months for Druze politicians, military officers and citizens who have marched in protests after the Israeli Knesset passed the “Jewish Nation-State Law,” which critics say reduces minorities in Israel to second-class citizens.
Druze and Jews have a deep history of partnership, with some Druze even fighting in the Jewish Haganah militias in the Arab-Israeli war of 1948. It is a monotheistic religion whose beliefs include reincarnation and influence from Islamic and Greek philosophy. The Druze diaspora historically faced persecution in Arab countries where strict interpretations of Islam considered its believers to be heretics.
Civil engineer Ramiz Hiraldin in the northern Druze village of Hurfeish, Israel, describes the partnership as “the best thing for the Druze in hundreds of years. Like the Jewish people in Europe, the Druze were persecuted in Lebanon and Syria and other countries. We have a brit damim (Hebrew: blood covenant) with the Jewish people. Like blood brothers. We believe it started from Jethro and Moses. All the Druze people in Israel feel the same feeling about this law. It’s a disappointment.”
The majority of Arabic-speaking Druze live in neighboring Syria, where a 2017 suicide attack by al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front militants killed nine and injured dozens in the Druze village of Hader. It prompted the Israeli military to take the unusual step of issuing a warning that it was “prepared and ready to assist the residents of the village and prevent damage to or the capture of the village Hader out of commitment to the Druze population.”
As a diaspora with no designs on forming its own nation-state, the Druze are generally loyal to their host country. But there is anxiety about the Nation-State Law even in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights — where many older Druze still identify with Syria. Kanj Abu Saleh, a farmer from Majdal Shams near the Syria border, says: “I’m connected to Israel. I have many Jewish friends. Many very nice people. The problem now is the right side. Maybe if Netanyahu changes, the [Nation-State] law will change. Maybe. They’re going to a bad place.”
With the approaching Israeli elections on Tuesday, many Druze have placed their hopes in Benny Gantz, a three-star military general whose new Blue and White party hopes to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Gantz has promised he will work to “fix” the Nation-State Law if he is elected, and leaders and military officers from the Druze community marched to Gantz’s home outside Tel Aviv on Jan. 19 to hear him make a public statement. The marchers carried flags of Israel alongside the rainbow-colored flag of the Druze people, and there was applause in the crowd assembled in front of his driveway when Gantz said into a microphone, “you’re fighting for your home, keep going.”
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