search
Elana Sztokman
Award-winning feminist author, anthropologist, educator, coach, publisher, and activist

Israel squandered its Druze friendship. What will happen now?

Jamal in front of the memorial to IDF soldiers in Peki'in. Photo by Elana Sztokman
Jamal in front of the memorial to IDF soldiers in Peki'in. Photo by Elana Sztokman

The small, predominantly Druze town of Peki’in in Israel’s far north boasts six abundant natural springs, a candle factory, and the cave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. It is also home to a 2000-year-old synagogue, which is visited by tens of thousands of Israeli youth each year, and holds several stones believed to have come from the destroyed Second Temple, as well as a Torah scroll that predates the Talmud. The synagogue is preserved by 91-year-old Margalit Zinati, whose family has had a continuous presence in Peki’in for as long as the Torah scroll has been there. Although there are four Jewish families currently living in Peki’in, Zinati is the last representative of the original Peki’in Jews.

Peki’in synagogue
Photo by Elana Sztokman

I am listening to this story being told by our Druze guide, a man named Jamal who owns the local hotel and loves taking groups on walking tours around his village. I am spending the weekend here with a group of Palestinian and Jewish activists who are coming together to collaborate on a project for shared society in Jaffa, a neighborhood where the forced evictions of Palestinian families are threatening not only the 1400 Arab families being ousted, but also the entire social fabric of a community that has prided itself on shared society for a long time. Some believe that Jaffa is approaching a breaking point, much like that experienced by residents of Sheikh Jarrah. The group organizers, supported by the Neve Shalom School for Peace, are hoping to bring people together to create grassroots change and actualize a vision of truly shared society. We are here in Peki’in for an intense experience of mutual learning, connecting, and strategizing.

During the two-hour walk through Peki’in, Jamal shows us the synagogue, and points out what surrounds it. Right across from the synagogue is Margalit Zinati’s house. On the other side are homes belonging to Druze, Muslim, and Christian families. A few meters down the alley is the Druze house of worship. In fact, each one of the four religions of this town – Druze, Muslim, Christian, and Jewish – have houses of worship within a space of 100 meters. “And there have never been any religious feuds here,” Jamal says proudly.

It all sounds inspiring.

Indeed, Peki’in is unique in that people of all religions live together. “There is no ‘Jewish quarter’ or ‘Muslim quarter’,” Jamal says. In fact, following an ancient construction style common in places like Greece, Turkey, and Italy, houses in Peki’in are connected to each other with shared walls and shared roofs. People could visit their neighbors by walking along rooftops. And in Peki’in, that meant that people of four different faiths were living in extreme proximity.

Jamal, a religious Druze born in 1963, showed us the house where he was born – right next to the house of his Jewish neighbors. “I used to turn on the fire for them on Shabbat,” he recalls fondly. He can cite Jewish law fluently, explaining how he knows whether a Jewish family is religious or not based on whether they do things like drive or put on the television on Shabbat, or eat pork. On Friday, when I asked him if he had any candles, he said to me, “Of course. Candle lighting for Shabbat is at 4:18.”

Jamal, like most Druze in the Galilee, has been intensely supportive of the Jewish state. He served in the army and fought in Lebanon from 1982-83 – along with his entire graduating class – where he was permanently injured. He shows us his “IDF injured veteran” card like it’s a medal.

The Druze community, which numbers some two million in the Middle East and is often mistaken for a Muslim sect, claims to predate Judaism. “Our first priest was Jethro,” he says, referring to the father-in-law of Moses as described in the Bible. Jamal is very proud of his tribe, and spends time explaining to us many of their core beliefs.

The town square and surrounding roads were built by the villagers themselves with money collected anonymously from residents. Photo by Elana Sztokman

He stops in front of the memorial plaque in the center square to talk about life, death, and communal responsibility. He tells us how, when the streets needed repairs, the community put out a box and collected anonymous donations until they had enough money, and then the villagers themselves volunteered their time on weekends to fix the roads and build a beautiful new square. He points out another box in the center for collections for Druze in Syria. This box, full of money, does not even have a lock on it. “Nobody will take it,” he says with calm certainty.

The Druze community does not have any nationalistic ambitions of their own. “Wherever we live, we support the government,” he explains. “In Israel, we serve in the Israeli army, in Lebanon we serve in the Lebanese army, in Syria we serve in the Syrian army.” Or what the Jews would call, dina d’malchuta dina, the idea that Jews respect the laws of the nation, a central tenet throughout 2000 years of Diaspora (that has, ironically, only been broken in the Jewish state of Israel by ultra-Orthodox communities who don’t recognize the state. But I digress.) Druze are a people deeply connected to their land, without any national sovereignty of their own – and they like it that way.

Entrance to the Khalwa of Peki’in. Photo by Elana Sztokman

“All we expect from our government is three things,” Jamal explains. “Religion, land, and honor.” In terms of religion, they want to live where their religious practices are given space and freedom. He points out the Khalwa, the Druze house of worship, and shares with us some of the community’s religious practices – they do not need a minyan, he says, and anyone can pray at any time of day, as long as they are a practicing Druze.

Peki’in is in the Eastern region of the upper Galilee, north of Carmiel and Akko, 15 km from the Golan Heights

In terms of land, all they ask is that the land on which they have lived for generations continues to be theirs. “A Druze would rather die fighting on his land than ever leave,” he says, explaining why the Druze villages in the Golan Heights will never disappear.

By “honor” he means respecting their practices, especially regarding women. He says that Druze believe in women’s equality and rights – and points out as an example that a Druze woman who wants to get divorced can do so in exactly the way a man can, as opposed to Jewish women who have no such rights and can be stuck in unwanted marriages for years or forever. I felt justifiably reprimanded by my new Druze friend for my religion’s oppression of women.

For most of Israel’s history, these three demands have been met, which explains why the Druze community was comfortable and even proud of serving in the army and supporting the State. But this relationship is not absolute or automatic. The Druze are a tight group whose primary loyalty is to their own tribe. “If Druze serving in the IDF find themselves up against Druze serving Syria, we would all put down our guns,” he says simply.

Against that backdrop, Jamal says, Israeli Druze have been fiercely loyal to Israel.

But all that has changed. In 2007, the loyalty of Israel’s Druze community was shattered by some very painful events, and the pain was further exacerbated by the passing of the 2018 Nation-State Law.

Yet very few Israeli leaders seem to notice or care. In fact, the government has mostly poured salt on the wounds. And with the incoming government, things may be about to take a turn for the worse.

In the early aughts, a group of right-wing yeshivah students representing a new NGO called Peki’in Forever, led by Aviv Zegelman and financed by the late Irving Moskowitz, began buying up property in Peki’in at wildly inflated prices. Religious Jews began moving in. Jamal says that everything was fine for the first 3-4 years. He would often invite the Jews to his hotel on Friday nights “to make a minyan”, so they wouldn’t have to trek to the next village to pray.

But then, the group’s political agenda began to become more overt, Jamal recalls. This was at a time when radical religious Zionist leaders such as Baruch Marzel, Bezalel Smotrich, and Itamar Ben Gvir were emerging as local provocateurs, pushing a strategy of aggressively buying up properties in Arab neighborhoods especially around Jerusalem – in Silwan, in the old city, in what is now Har Homa. In an interview in the religious Zionist media, Aviv’s wife Orit Zegelman said that they were not there to “Judaize” Peki’in but simply to revive the Jewish community, and claims that she was treated with hostility from the Druze community, but Jamal tells a different story.

Zegelman’s group wanted to take over the synagogue from Margalit Zinati, but she did not want to give it to them. This was her family’s legacy, as one of the original Jewish families of Peki’in. The group also wanted to take over the town square and one of the streams, but the rest of the town resisted those pressures, too. Peki’in Forever went to the rabbinic courts and sued Zinati and the town of Peki’in to give them ownership. This led to months of tensions and hostility between the Jewish residents and their Druze neighborhoods. “We were there legally,” Orit Zegelman insisted, casting these events as a form of antisemitism and taking no responsibility for aggression. “In Israel, Jews are not allowed to say anything racist about anyone, but everyone else is allowed to do whatever they want to us,” she said, without even a hint of irony or self-awareness — or realizing that she seems to dream of being able to say racist things with impunity.

This once peaceful village began experiencing violence. Jamal says that the yeshivah men began burning cars and other things. Orit says that Druze kids were doing it. This was new for Peki’in, the community where people do not lock doors and leave boxes of charity unattended in the town square.

Then, on October 30, 2007 everything changed. That is the day of the “Battle of Peki’in,” when the community woke up to the shock of hundreds of armed police officers running through the streets shooting at residents. By the time the “battle” was over a few hours later, the police retreated with dozens of injuries on both sides, followed by a tense prisoner exchange and a government inquiry, and some of the Jewish houses were burned. In the end, 11 police officers were fired for collaborating with Zelegman, the Jews moved out, and the Druze community stopped serving in the IDF.

The beautiful alliance between the Druze community and the State of Israel cultivated over 70 years was broken.

What happened on October 30, 2007?

The story goes like this:

For days, some residents of Peki’in had been protesting the placement of a cell-phone tower in a farm right outside Peki’in. Like many people around Israel and around the world, they were aware of the danger to people’s health from these towers, and in a neighboring village there were reports of spikes in cancer from a similar cell-phone tower. People were angry and scared, but their complaints had no effect. The tower was on a private farm whose owner was being paid $2000 a month for the tower. The protests did not move him. Money is money.

Then, the protesters upped their game. On October 28, 2007, two days before the Battle of Peki’in, seven men from Peki’in went and set on fire the chicken coop that held the cell-phone tower.

The police reacted. And with force.

Two days later, several hundred police officers in riot gear and armored vehicles entered Peki’in looking for the seven protesters. They threw tear gas, and opened fire. In a fateful error, they opened fire in the Khalwa, the house of prayer.

Once the police had desecrated the Khalwa, a line was crossed. At that exact moment, the entire village turned against them.

The village, which is composed of many IDF soldiers and officers, fought back. They chased the police out of the Khalwa, except for one police officer, a woman named Liat Daoudi, who was hiding. When the local residents entered the Khalwa, she took off her helmet so that they could see she was a woman – “Druze don’t shoot at women,” Jamal explained – and instead they took her hostage. Some 100 women held her in the women’s Khalwa.

As the battle between the Israeli police and the IDF soldiers of Peki’in, Aviv Zegelman, the head of the Jewish settlers, went onto the radio and announced, “The residents of Peki’in are terrorists.”

Within a few hours, the villagers pushed out all the police and got their village back. Someone also set fire to one of the Jewish houses.

Forty police officers were injured. 30 residents of Peki’in were hospitalized, including three who were shot directly with live ammunition. Every single police vehicle that entered Peki’in that day had to be towed out. And the Jewish families who had bought houses in order to reclaim a Jewish presence in Peki’in ran. Significantly, Margalit Zanati stayed, and continues to manage the synagogue.

The police detained a handful of residents, while the Peki’in residents were still holding Liat Daoudi hostage. Jamal led the negotiations between the police and the residents. Within five hours, he had arranged a prisoner swap, what he calls the quickest prisoner swap in Israel’s history.

Then it was all over. The police were gone, and the residents were left to pick up the pieces.

The physical damage would be much easier to repair than the deep emotional, social, and cultural damage from these events.

Then prime minister Ehud Olmert ordered an inquiry into why police officers decided to open fire in Peki’in. As a result of the report, which was publicized 56 days later, 11 police officers were fired for the decision to send hundreds of officers in riot gear through the streets of Peki’in in order to arrest 7 cellphone-antenna rioters.

By contrast, the report concluded that not a single resident of Peki’in was to be arrested for any wrongdoing.

Orit Zegelman is furious about this. She wants the State of Israel to punish the people of Peki’in. And she has Bezalel Smotrich on her side.

“The non-Jewish residents of Israel want to take over the country,” he told the media in 2010, reflecting on the events of Peki’in three years later. “And the State of Israel is not doing anything about it.”

In other words, according to Smotrich — our next minister over the West Bank — the desire of Peki’in residents to continue to live their lives without violence, or Jewish attempts to claim the town square or the local stream as Jewish property is an example of “taking over”.

It is astounding to me how easily this narrative gets sympathy among Jewish Israelis and Jews around the world generally. We are so accustomed to hearing that the world hates Jews that even when those accusations are lobbed against a community that has been one of our most supportive communities in Israel’s history, people listen.

But the real problem here is the failure of people like Smotrich and the Zegelmans to take responsibility for the implications of their own political actions and agendas. The complete lack of respect for the people whose neighborhoods they were aggressively moving into was the real threat here. But the whole “world hates Jews” narrative obscures those actions and turns Jews into victims, even when we are not.

We, Jews and Israelis, need to let go of the idea that everything is because of antisemitism, to take responsibility for our own actions,  and to start practicing respect for the people we share this land with.

Most of the people in my group had never heard of these events. For Jamal and his village, every minute of that fateful day is etched in their minds as a moment of massive trauma. Yet, none of us had any idea.

We didn’t know about the events, nor about their lingering impact.

The day after these events, the Druze community began to reconsider their longstanding relationship with the State of Israel and the IDF. Jamal’s brother-in-law, who was a career officer, handed in his uniform. Jamal instructed his three sons not to enlist – and, in fact, his oldest son went to prison for 37 days as a result. As an example of this shift, Jamal explained that while his own graduating class of 1981 all served proudly in the IDF, in last year’s class, only three people served. These events created a complete turnaround in their thinking.

Whereas before 2007, the Druze community believed that Israel would protect the Druze community’s religion and land, the moment that the police began shooting into the Khalwa, that belief disappeared.

The contract between the Druze and their hosts was broken. Violently.

The Druze community’s sense of pain and betrayal was further exacerbated in 2018 when the government passed the Nation State law, effectively turning Arabic-speakers into second-class citizens. That was a massive shock for the Druze community, who still have not recovered from it.

In fact, the largest segment of Peki’in voters – 37% — voted in this past election for Avigdor Liberman’s party for two reasons. One is that he was the only one to have a Druze candidate on his list, and the second is that he was the only candidate to run on the platform of reversing the Nation State Law. For Jamal, those were the most important words he wanted to hear from a candidate.

Liberman’s candidate made it into the Knesset — by 200 votes. That’s the good news for Jamal. But with the likes of Smotrich and Ben Gvir rising, Jamal is fearful for the future.

“I’m not against Israel,” Jamal said. “I’m just against the radicals. But right now, they are taking over the government. And that’s going to be a catastrophe for all of us.”

In our group discussion the morning after our tour with Jamal, we were all affected. We had just taken a walk through someone else’s trauma, and it felt like we were reliving it.

For me, the biggest tragedy was the destruction of a 2000-year-old relationship between Jews and Druze in this space. The vivid descriptions of shared society – a vision that is painfully missing from most of Israel today – was a rare glimmer of hope in this blood-drenched land. And all of that was done in by a group of Jewish religious radicals intent on dehumanizing the other. They took a beautiful, ancient community, and decided to paint it as an enemy that needed to be owned and destroyed. That is infuriating and heartbreaking beyond description. And as I have been writing recently, the knowledge that these radicals come from the same origins as me tears me apart. How did we get here? And what is going to happen now that this ideology will be governing all of us? I shudder to think about where this will lead us.

What’s more, the police were in on it. It was as if the police were waiting for the signal from Aviv Zegelman to say, “Yes, now you can come in.”

Apparently this is a popular tactic. All over Israel, where groups of right-wing settlers are taking up residence in Arab areas, they are actively trolling the police. According to Jamal, police units all over Israel collect mountains of fabricated complaints, like an Israeli version of McCarthyism, in which settlers finger their Arab neighbors as “terrorists”. For the most part, the police ignore the trolls. But then something like this happens – the burning of a chicken coop out of desperation to protect people from environmental harms – and the police pull the trigger. Five hundred officers in riot gear running through Peki’in because a guy like Zegelman says, “They’re all terrorists.”

This is a huge wake-up call about Israeli culture and rhetoric. We are all trapped in this war. Our minds are being used as pawns to get us angry about the wrong things. Someone says the word “Terrorist” and that’s the end of civil discourse. We don’t even ask who is saying it, about who, and why. Once that word is used, everything else becomes justified. And that is wrong. We need to question the narratives being thrown at us. We need to question our own knee-jerk reactions to our own media, to our leaders. We are all part of this story.

When I shared some of these thoughts in my group, I received some responses that I wasn’t expecting.

“Why do you think that the relationship between the Druze and the state of Israel was a great thing?” one of my colleagues asked.

Why? Because they are great friends, I said. It’s a 2000-year history of friendship.

“But how do you think the Palestinians feel about that?” someone else asked me.

After all, when someone asked Jamal, “Do you consider yourselves part of the Palestinian people?” he replied, “We don’t take sides.”

“What do you mean you don’t take sides,” they continued. “You put on an IDF uniform. You do the work of the State. That is taking sides.”

Jamal explained that the Druze consider themselves in between. “If the Druze would have been tasked with making peace, there would have been peace long ago,” he said.

But my colleagues were not impressed. “The Druze have been here for a long time. Historically, they were Palestinian,” they said. “But the Druze don’t want to align that way. They want to position themselves as apart. So now they suddenly discovered that even though they don’t see themselves as Palestinians, the Jewish state does. They are shocked to be treated like Palestinians. That is their trauma.”

I had never considered any of these perspectives. This particular conversation, about the roots of tensions between the Druze and Palestinian communities, was very new to me. The idea that the Druze’s loyalty to Israel could be perceived as a kind of betrayal by some Palestinians – that was something I had never thought about.

No wonder the community is undergoing a major identity crisis. They are in the midst of deciding where they belong.

What is perhaps most disturbing to me is how far removed this story is from the Israeli public discourse. If Palestinian perspectives are ignored, Druze perspectives even more so.

When I started to think about what I was hearing, and when I considered how much I didn’t know about the place where I live, I cried. I can’t really explain why. The depths of traumas, the constant dehumanization of the other, the lack of a way out, I don’t know. I was just struggling. I guess I am just struck by how much I don’t know about the people I live alongside. And I am mourning my own lack of awareness.

I also feel manipulated by my own people, by the people who raised me and educated me, by the people who create the news that I consume, by the people writing and executing laws that determine the course of our lives.

The deep-seated dehumanization of the other rests at the core of this conflict.

And now, with the new government, this dehumanization will be expanded into new laws and policies, and will get even further entrenched.

I cried in front of my colleagues, even though I couldn’t fully explain why. And I am still crying.

I want to end with some source of hope. Something. Because we all know that when there is no hope, then people stop trying. And if we stop trying, then what?

Maybe things have to get to rock-bottom before we find the wherewithal to make it all better. I don’t know. Maybe we need to fully see what the Ben Gvirs and Smotriches are planning in order to gain the strength to fight back.

I’m taking some inspiration from the recent elections in the United States. It took the overturning of Roe — the ACTUAL cancellation of women’s reproductive rights — for states to act and to create legislation to protect women. Maybe something like that has to happen in Israel, too. Maybe we have to stare this in the face and see where it leads us in order to start embarking on real change.

I’m hoping. Perhaps grasping at straws. But choosing to find sources of hope.

About the Author
Dr Elana Maryles Sztokman, two-time winner of the National Jewish Book Council Award and winner of the Gourmand Award, is a Jewish feminist author, activist, educator, researcher, indie-publisher, coach, consultant, and facilitator. She is the founder of the Jewish Feminist Academy (www.jewishfeminism.org) as well as Lioness Books and Media (www.lionessbooks.com) She writes and speaks widely about culture, society, gender, and equality. She has been involved in many causes, is one of the founders of Kol Hanashim, the new women's political party in Israel, and is Vice Chair for Media and Strategy for Democrats Abroad-Israel. Follow Elana's newsletter, The Roar, for news and updates, at https://elanasztokman.substack.com/ or contact her at elana@jewfem.com
Related Topics
Related Posts