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Arianna D. Fini Storchi

Circassians of Israel: An identity issue

Aibek Napso, director of the Circassian Heritage Centre in Kfar Kama, gives an overview of Circassian history and this people’s current struggles to preserve its identity  in Israel

The Circassian Heritage Center in Kfar Kama. Photo source: https://www.alarab.com/Article/1014994

Since the 19th century, a little, proud group of Circassians has lived in the Israeli towns of Kfar Kama and Rehaniya. For over 150 years, this community – actually about 5000 people – has managed to preserve its identity within the Ottoman empire before, and the British rule after, up to the modern days in the Jewish state. But why is its presence in the Holy Land so distinctive and yet so painful? I had the chance to explore this topic with Aibek Napso, director of the Circassian Heritage Center in Kfar Kama.

From Caucasus to Middle East: the painful story of the Circassians

Circassians are an ethnic group native of the Caucasus which counts about ten million people scattered around the world. Defined by common roots, a language of its own, as well as a unique culture and – for the great majority – the Muslim religion, they are nowadays mainly living in Turkey; however, until the mid-19th century they had their own land leaning against the Black Sea, Circassia, and were renomated as valiant warriors. In 1763, Caucasus’ history changed forever: the Russian empire attacked Circassia. The two parts fought each other for more than 100 years; in the end, Russia prevailed and perpetuated the systematic expulsion of the Circassians from the region and, according to many sources, a planned massacre of this population which culminated in a genocide. Circassia was annexed to the Russian Empire and most of the survivors were forced to escape abroad. The inhabitants of Kfar Kama and Renyiha descend from the majority who fled to the Ottoman Empire: because of their loyalty and fighting skills, they were relocated in the Golan Heights, at the time a true hotspot where warriors were needed. Napso explains:

Our ambition and main goal is to have back what belongs to us, our homeland .

The Circassian Heritage Center that he manages in Kfar Kama is at the forefront in condemning the Circassian genocide. In fact, its prime purpose is to spread knowledge about Circassian history, identity and culture. Not only does it organize informative tours across the town (with culinary experiences and dance shows), but it also brings tourists to visit the site’s museum, where traditional Circassian costumes, weapons, musical instruments, and farming tools are displayed; interestingly, most of these objects were brought to Kfar Kama by the first Circassians who escaped to the Ottoman Empire. As a result of the center’s efforts, more than 30.000 tourists visit the site every year – about ten times the population of Kfar Kama!

Traditional Circassian clothing. Photo source: provided by the Circassian Heritage Center.

Diaspora’s effects on the Circassian language 

One of the main consequences of the diaspora is the reduction of Circassian language speakers. The collapse of the Ottoman empire and the recent conflicts between Israel and many of its neighboring countries further hampered the contacts between Circassians scattered in the states of the region. Moreover, in an attempt to undermine Circassian identity, their language was sometimes declared illegal – like in Turkey. Those who lived in big multicultural cities didn’t transmit their native tongue to their children. Circassians were able to maintain their linguistic heritage only in suburbs, small towns and isolated villages – even if those communities were threatened by depopulation due to poor living conditions. Currently, only one tenth of the Circassians worldwide (1-1,5 million people) are speaking their idiom. In  Kfar Kama and Rehaniya, however, things have gone differently: the first language learnt by new-borns is still the Circassian language – even if the two villages speak different dialects. In Napso’s words:

We were able to live in the village and go to work and to university out of it. We have all that we need here. In brief: there is no need for the people to be relocated.

In Kfar Kama, the teaching of the Circassian language starts at home and continues in the village’s kindergarten, elementary and junior high school. Up to the 9th grade, even if the education is conducted in Hebrew, Circassians dedicate every week one school hour to the study of Circassian culture, one hour to Circassian folklore, and two hours to the teaching of reading and writing. 

Despite these joint preservation efforts of the whole community, several terms of their idiom are threatened to be forgotten. Many students have spelling issues: their consonant-rich language, written in the 64-letters Cyrillic alphabet, is really complex to learn. Besides, more and more words from Arabic, English and Hebrew are entering the common language – sometimes replacing Circassian terms. In fact, from the second grade, kids are also taught Arabic – crucial for this Muslim population to be able to read the Koran and communicate with the neighboring villages – and English, necessary for international interactions. As a result, they master the astonishing amount of four alphabets, two of which are written from right to left and two from left to right. Napso explains:

The reason why Kfar Kama still remains Circassian, is that we are still living as a community. Only Circassians live in Kfar Kama. In school, you get into a class where everybody is Circassian and speaks the Circassian language.

Road signs in Kfar Kama, written in Hebrew, in Arabic, and in the Circassian language. Photo source: private.

Kfar Kama counts only about 20 couples where one of the partners is non-Circassian.  But the ‘foreigner’ who enters the community will be assimilated in the local culture, and the children will be brought up as Circassians. Because of its communal lifestyle, Kfar Kama is considered as a lighthouse by the Circassian around the world.

Georgia’s recognition of the Circassian genocide 

In 2011 the Georgian parliament officially recognized the genocide: this was an historical moment for Circassians worldwide. Georgia was the first and only country to have acknowledged this tragedy. Nevertheless, this event was also considered with some skepticism. First, because of the political tensions between Russia and Georgia, Circassians tend to believe that the genocide’s recognition was more of an anti-Russian political move than an ‘act of love’ towards them. Second, Circassians are deeply concerned by the ongoing strife between Georgians and Abkhazians. Indeed, these latter constitute an ethnic group belonging to the Circassian family – so much so that the marriage between Circassians and Abkhazians is not considered foreign marriage. Abkhazians mostly live in Abkhazia, a region formally part of Georgia, but which in 2008 – backed by Russia – declared its independence. Circassians stand with their ‘cousins’ in sustaining Abkhazian freedom, and therefore their opinion on Georgia – and its recognition of the genocide – is disputed.

Israel and the genocide: remembrance celebrations of the Circassian community

Every 21st of May, the Circassian community organizes ceremonies in remembrance of the genocide; in 2023 was celebrated its 159th anniversary. In the past, the scattered Circassians separately held very small ceremonies, but with the emergence of mass media, more and more people attended them. Nowadays, every Circassian in the world is aware of this recurrence. Of course, although Israel officially doesn’t recognize the Circassian genocide, Israeli Circassians hold their remembrance ceremonies.  Napso narrates:

Every year we go as a delegation to the Knesset to give explanations, brochures, and talk about what happened. We were upset that no member of the parliament used to come to our ceremonies. Last year, Mufid Mari, a Druze Knesset member, promised his support. He was the first Knesset member to attend a Circassian ceremony on the 21st of May. It’s another barrier that we just crossed.

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Circassians and the Israeli- Palestinian conflict

Circassians feel outsiders to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even though they believe in the right of every population to own a country to live on, the small Circassian minority in Israel is persuaded that the fight between Israeli and Palestinians is too complex to take a defined position. At the same time, they consider themselves Israeli citizens, and as such they serve in the army, moreover appreciating Israel’s active support to the preservation of their ethnic identity. Nevertheless, they keep honoring everyone as a person regardless of their origin – everything, in the hope of a brighter future for Circassians, Jews and Palestinians.

About the Author
Arianna (called Dafne by her friends and family) was born in 1998 in Florence, Italy. Deeply fascinated by the history of the Middle East, she is an exchange student at Tel Aviv University. In this blog, she intends to deepen and report the charming cultures, difficulties and political ideas of the diverse populations living in Israel.
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