When I made my pilot trip to Israel three years ago, I first encountered differently dressed people shopping in the Karmiel mall. I had no idea who they were, but I was quite intrigued by them. The women were all dressed in black with perfectly pressed, white headscarves trimmed in lace. The mustachioed men (think Sam Elliott, actor) also were dressed in black with wide-crotched pantaloons and white knit beanies (Amame) on their heads.
After moving to the North of Israel, I’ve begun to learn more about the Druze. The women set up long tables at the local malls on Thursday and Friday mornings selling food. I have never bought any, but it looks and smells delicious! And I’ve asked these women about their cooking –
A few weeks ago John and I had the unexpected opportunity to meet a Druze man. John and another friend stepped in to intercede in a small, but decidedly racist altercation between a Druze and another man. After the situation was diffused, Rami thanked us heartily for clarifying what had been misconstrued, and invited us to his town, Hurfeish on the Northern border with Lebanon. What a great opportunity! So, to prepare myself, I started studying up on these people and their culture.
The Druze are a people, a culture, and a monotheistic religion. Around 1000 AD, in Egypt, two men, Hamza and Darzi, felt that the Muslim religion had strayed too far from its basic tenets and its emphasis on violence and inequality and needed major reform. They formed their faith upon Abraham, Jethro (father-in-law of Moses and their great patriarch), and the Prophets of the Old Testament as well as Jesus, El Hakim, the Greek philosophers, and various teachings of Hinduism. The religion was called Al Tawheed. It was a Gnostic religion, with only a few having access to the complete knowledge of the writings. Open to adherents for only fifty years, the religion became closed. There are no converts. One has to be born into the Druze faith. They believe in theophany, or the transmigration of souls – not reincarnation. When a Druze person dies, they believe after a very short period, the soul of the deceased enters into the body of a newborn baby Druze. They have no set houses of worship, but rather, holy sites on mountaintops, usually at the tombs of their prophets.
After a period of intense persecution by the Muslims in Egypt at the beginning of their formation, they fled to the mountains of the Galilee in Israel, on Mount Carmel near Haifa, and to the mountains of Lebanon and Syria. The Darzi, or Druze, are centralized and organized into large family units. They are monogamous, with the women held in high esteem in their society. Very seldom is there divorce, and in the event of a couple who feel they are unable to live together, the husband and wife appear before a panel of elders who try to settle and make amends in the family. In the rare circumstance of infidelity or completely irreconcilable differences, the marriage is annulled – the man must move to another community, the women always maintains custody of the home and children and receives support from the husband. Neither are allowed to remarry. All of the Druze follow a strict moral and ethical code. They do not drink alcohol and follow the Scriptural Levitical food laws forbidding the consumption of unclean animals (pork, shellfish…). They are people of their word. They do not gossip and strive to tell the truth at all times. Their word is their bond. Having faced tremendous persecution in Syria and Lebanon in recent years, many have escaped to refuge in Israel.
The Druze are a noble warrior culture in the absolute sense. They only fight in defense of their country. There are many communities of Druzim scattered across Northern Israel. They are absolutely Zionistic, believing that G-d has given this land to the Jewish people, and that they have the right to return to their homeland. They enjoy full rights of citizenship here in Israel. Many Druze communities are right upon the borders of Lebanon and Syria forming a first line of defense for us. They have sworn an allegiance to defend the land of Israel, and most Druze men serve in the Israeli Defense Forces. They have risen to the highest ranks of command, and after their service, many Druze work as guards in our schools, banks, public institutions, synagogues, and even as guards for members of Knesset. Despite their strong agrarian ties to the land, many are highly educated, and are doctors, pharmacists, judges, members of parliament, and other professionals.
So it was with a great sense of honor and pleasure that we joined Rami one afternoon for a tour of his town. Druze take pride of ownership. Their villages are well kept and very clean, with lots of greenery and flowers everywhere. They are proud to hang their multi-colored flag along side the Israeli flag.
We met Rami at one of their holy sites, the mountaintop grave of Nebbe Sabalon (their prophet, Zebulon, founder of one of the tribes of Israel). From the top of the mountain, we could see all the North from the Mediterranean to the mountains of the Golan, and into Lebanon to the North. It was breathtakingly gorgeous, but for me, quite sad, as just a few miles to the North between two mountain peaks, I could see Ayta alShab, the Lebanese town where Michael Levin, a Lone Soldier for the IDF from Philadelphia, was killed by Hizbollah forces in the Second Lebanese War (2006).
After taking in the view, Rami drove us through his town of Hurfeish, pointing out the home where his grandparents and parents were born, and showing us other various landmarks. We then made our way up the hill and onto a dirt road where we saw his brother’s chicken farm, and family fields of olives, pomegranates, goats and cows. The spring day was beautiful and the trees were abloom with pink, white and yellow. Fields full of flowers with the fragrance of Spanish broom and sages hung heavy in the air. We had made it to a military service road on the border. “Do you see the fence? That’s the border of Israel. See the outposts? And the military bases? And that fence over there? Right past that fence is Lebanon. The dirt was piled up to keep stray bullets from hitting us on the road here…” Never did I dream that he would nonchalantly take us right up to the border. The place where Hizbollah has its arms build up. Yet the day was so peaceful – the only sounds were the breeze and the twittering of songbirds. When we turned around, Rami pointed out the tracks of tank treads in the dirt. Haunting.
We were then privileged enough to merit a visit to Rami’s family museum in Hurfeish. A war memorial to his cousin, Nabi Meri. In 1972, Meri joined the IDF with hopes of becoming one of the elite paratroopers. At that time, the Druze were put into a special minorities brigade, but with the help of Moshe Dayan, Defense Minister, and David Elazar, Commander of Forces, he was able to realize his dream. After fighting in the Sinai during the Yom Kippur War, Nabi Meri became commander of Herev, the minorities units, lobbying to change the name to generate more pride. By 1978, he had become Deputy Commander of the elite Givati Fighting Brigade; then as full colonel, headed up the Arava Battalion – all while getting married, having a family, and receiving bachelors and masters degrees in Political Science and National Security. After serving as Commander of the Northern Gaza Brigade, he was promoted to Brigadier General Commander of the Gaza Division. I 1996, Nabi Meri, age 42, was killed in action by a Hamas sniper while trying to give support to his soldiers during a Palestinian attack. His younger brother showed us the museum in the first floor of his home. It was filled with memorabilia, including pictures of Meri with many Israeli and foreign officials – prime ministers, diplomats, generals – as well as his weapons, flags and uniforms from his various posts, and the bulletproof vest he was wearing when he was killed. The bullet hole was a mere 2mm from the ceramic deflectors on his breast.
It was late in the afternoon, and Rami drove us up to his home to meet his wife and family. Such a gracious, kindhearted gentleman. When we arrived, his lovely wife, Dahlia, had fixed us a Druze platter – all homegrown and homemade. Olives, humus, vegetables, goat cheese, pickles, tabbouleh, labane cheese with olive oil and the herb blend, zata’ar (she gave me her recipe and a huge jar full of this AMAZING blend of hyssop, roasted sesame seeds, lemon salt, and sumac. It would have been an insult to their hospitality to say no, so we sampled a bit of each of the delicious and healthy goodies. Dahlia made sure to tell me she had honored all the Kosher laws and there was no meat or anything that was unclean. It was so nice of her to think of honoring us in this way. She had made wonderful cookies filled with cinnamon and dates, and the signature Druze soft flatbread. Their specialty is coffee – home roasted over an open fire. Strong, but very smooth.
We ate on the patio in front of their house under the shade of a tree that held a “shrine” – a remnant of a Lebanese-fired Katusha rocket that had come down next to their home and split the branch of a tree in 2006. Afterwards, the couple warmly invited us into their home. It was lovely. Dahlia had her own very feminine parlor, with the first wall-to-wall carpeting I’ve seen in Israel. Their main living area had intricately carved wooden beams across the ceiling, and low sofas lined with pillows against the walls. We sat and talked for quite a while, listening to their history and promising to get together soon. We have since hosted them in our home, and have formed what I hope will be a strong and lasting friendship. They are lovely and gracious people – we have been invited to their extremely handsome son’s wedding when he finishes his IDF service next fall. His fiancee is equally gorgeous and is in university studying urban planning and architecture. We are so blessed to have been given the opportunity to experience a new culture first hand and to have been given this gift of friendship.