There are approximately 100,000 Druze in Israel today. As Arabic-speaking citizens of Israel, many of whom serve in the Israel Defense Forces, they are committed to the State and its institutions. Members of the community have attained top positions in Israeli politics and public service. Yet, living largely in isolated villages, they often face limited educational opportunities. As part of JCF’s goal to promote volunteerism and leadership among disadvantaged populations in Israel, The Federation’s Neurim program aims to change this by closing academic gaps, and promoting self-empowerment through volunteer and leadership programs. Neurim serves over 700 youth in five Druze villages in the North.
During operation “Pillar of Defense”, Friends by Nature program participant David Aptaker, volunteers, and kids went to the northern Druze village of M’rar and spent time with the community there, learning about their culture and way of life. Here’s his first-hand recollection of his journey:
“Two days ago, we went to Mrar, a Druze village in the north that is very close to where we are staying here in Kibbutz Hanaton. We met with Ali, a Druze activist and member of one of the Shachaf communities under the umbrella of “Horizons of the Future” – a nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening Druze communities. Ali told us about Druze beliefs and culture and about his own life in Mrar. The Druzim are a monotheistic, small, and somewhat secretive sect that split off from Islam and believe in the prophet Muhammed as well as other prophets. Something that struck me as fascinating was the fact that they are completely loyal to the country they inhabit. A Druze living in Israel is loyal to the Israeli government. A Druze in Syria is loyal to Syria, a Jordanian Druze is committed to Jordan, and so on. Ali was in the military for 16 years as a commander, and was very proud of this. He told us that the Druzim are a small community globally, and the fact that they are loyal to the countries in which they reside makes them a fragmented community—their religious beliefs are the same, but their loyalties aren’t to one another. Two Druzim might meet one another in the battlefield while serving different armies, and according to Ali, there would be no qualms in killing one another if need be. This is because the Druzim believe in reincarnation—killing one in the battlefield just destroys the body, not the soul. Their souls might meet in the next life.
After sitting in the community center and listening to Ali speak, we left for a tour of Ali’s town. We first visited an old olive press, where Ali explained the process of making olive oil. They shake olives off the tree branches, separate the olives from the leaves, then they press the olives, put the olives in a centrifuge with water to take out impurities (the olive oil and the water separates, leaving pure olive oil), then they put it through a pipe system and walla: delicious olive oil. It was really cool to watch him explain how it worked in broken, but clear English. Not only was he interesting to witness, but the setting itself was beautiful: an old, concrete building with bricks, high ceilings, arches and the smell of dust and history.
From the olive oil factory, we wandered the windy, hilly streets of Mrar. Ali told us stories about people who lived there before, showed us the Druze place of worship, and pointed out some of the local geography of the area from a high point in the city. It was beautiful. Something interesting was the Druze place of worship was in a house—not an ornate church or synagogue-type of building. He said this was in order to keep their worship practices, and location secret from the community. They’re a fascinating group of people.
Ali, in particular, was adamant about the idea of coexistence. He repeated the fact that he believed in coexistence, respect for one another’s religious and cultural practices, and that the city of Mrar is a shining example of pluralism. I found that interesting, especially coming from a man who served in the army for so long.
Ali then took us to his family’s restaurant in the olive groves nearby. It was a beautiful scene—long tables under olive trees, a nice clear sunny day, and incredible food. We had hummus, labane, dolmas, lentils, bread with zatar, pita, limonana, tea, coffee, etc.
All of it was delicious—most of the participants on our trip said it was the best meal they’ve had in a long time (some said it was their best meal in Israel). It was definitely the best meal I had in Israel up to this point. I could tell things were home made and fresh. Nothing beats that…maybe my mom’s cooking…but this was definitely high up on the food ladder.
After stuffing ourselves with all the delicious food, we bought some of their olive oil and then headed to Ali’s familiy’s olive grove to help them harvest. Ali was telling us that some olive trees can simply be shaken and the olives will come loose and fall from the branches. The trees he owned, however, needed to be forcefully hit in order to collect the olives. We set up tarps beneath the trees, were given bamboo sticks, and began whacking the tree branches. As we worked, I had the chance to talk to some of Ali’s family. The harvesting time in the olive groves, according to them, was something they enjoyed and looked forward to every year. It lasts for a span of a few days, but the special thing about it is that it brings the family together. Most days of the year, the different family members have a variety of jobs that keep them busy, and there isn’t necessarily a time when they all sit together, so for them to have an excuse to unite and spend time with one another was special. I enjoyed having the privilege of spending time with them as well. It’s ironic and special that this conversation happened in such close proximity to the Thanksgiving holiday.
When we had spent about an hour working together, we sat for some coffee and snacks, listened to Ali speak a bit more, and made our way up to Rosh Pina for a lovely dinner at a quirky restaurant filled with puzzles, games, and good food. Our experience with the Druze, learning about their culture, their way of life, and Ali’s personal narrative was interesting, eye opening, and something I won’t forget.