In my long career as a tour guide , I have met all kinds. Just name them; Jews and Christians of every stripe, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and probably lots of others I wasn’t aware of – but never Druze.
This week I can add Druze to my list. It was a fascinating experience.
The Druze are a religious minority that lives in the mountainous areas of Israel, Lebanon and Syria. Their religion is one that broke away from Islam in the eleventh century. Because of the fatal consequences of heresy, details of their faith have remained a “secret” Until today,only the initiated,”religious” among them are privy to them.
They have their own attire and facial hair to distinguish them. The “initiated” women too have their own attire.
One may not convert into this secret faith.
A small group, they don’t have national aspirations and are happy to serve the country they happen to live in. In Israel they serve with distinction in the Israeli army as they do in the Syrian army.
They are hardy agrarian people who know how to defend their honor and rights.
I received a call from an organization called “Im Eshkachech”(If I forget). Their aim is to bring as many Israelis to Jerusalem in order to strengthen their ties to the city. This week is the one hundred eleventh anniversary of Theodore Herzl’s passing and groups were arriving from all over the country to a ceremony on Mount Herzl.
When I spoke on the phone to the one in charge of this Druze group, he made it clear to me that they definitely want to include the Har Nof neighborhood in their itinerary. They wanted to see where their fellow villager, policeman Zaidan Saif was killed by Muslim terrorists as he was called to the scene of the terror attack in the “Kehilla Benei Torah” shul.
Last November two Arabs, who had worked in the Jewish neighborhood, stormed the shul with hatchets, cleavers and pistols. Four men were butchered in their tefillin and tallit. The Druze officer was stuck down while he eliminated the terrorists.
When I heard the request from the Druze organizer, I realized there was a very personal side to this for me.
My cousin, Aryeh Kupinsky was one of the four victims.
When I shared this with him, there was silence on the other end of the phone. We both knew that was not going to be just a regular tour of Yerushalayim.
As I entered the bus and introduced myself, I realized that the women sat in the back and the men in front. Some were dressed in traditional dress and some in regular attire.
We drove straight away to the shul. I had very little time to organise any kind of reception for them but I was amazed how successful I was at enlisting a number of people who were there during the attack as medical and emergency teams.
As we drove through the neighborhood, I was asked if “Arabs still dare enter the area after the attack.” I said sure, they even work in the shul where it happened.
He had difficulty believing this. but politely said nothing.
An ambulance dedicated to the four victims and the Druze police man was brought and displayed for them.
A medic who was first on the scene addressed the group in perfect Arabic, as he was a Syrian Jew who came to Israel a few years ago.
The physician in whose arms Zaidan died, called to share her feelings with them.
The people in the shul had no problem with our unusual group walking in and being shown around as the many young men continued their Torah study. An unusual scene , perhaps a first.
One of the Druze elders (the one with the colorful big kippa and huge mustache was very surprised that there was no guard at the door after what had happened.
The Jewish hosts mumbled something about the high cost and impossibility of guarding everything all the time.
I broke the silence by observing that there are, after all, no guards in mosques. At that, both the Druze and Jews laughed,”Of course, no one threatens them”.
I broke it again by suggesting then that Kahane was right.
They responded together like a choir; “Of course Kahane was right!”
Druze farmers and Torah scholars – both get it.
After this highlight of our tour we continued with the regularly scheduled program.
I had a chance to get to know the Druze. I spoke to young and old, the “initiated” and the regular folk.
They don’t like being called Arabs ( though they are). Clearly they do not want to associate with the Arab (Muslim) enemy and the ever restive Muslim Israelis – their neighbors.
They have a long and sour history.
I asked the elder what he thought of Christians and Muslims. He said the Christians are at least gentleman and educated (though I understand that there is plenty of bad blood between them. In Israel though they are not a threat to them, unlike in Lebanon.
And Muslims? Never to be trusted; barbarians. I can not let my daughter loose among them. They fear them because of their greater numbers and growing assertiveness.
I did not ask, but I know what the answer would be to, “And the Jews”? It would be,” educated, advanced, kind, good fighters when they have to be, but totally naive!
I did not have to ask.
When Israel was born, the Druze were at the very bottom of Arab society. When they chose to ally with Israel after the victory over the Muclims, they hanged on to Israel’s coat tails. They became the envy of all other Arabs – and the object of their hate.
I I asked one of the teens, what are you? “I am a Druze in my blood!” This is a proud bunch.
They do not speak Hebrew very well, especially the girls. The men learn it well enough in the army. The women are aware of their deficiency and are somewhat shy because of it.
One teen was very proud to inform me that he studied in a Jewish school for six years and no one even suspected that he is Druze! He was proud to say that he has many Jewish friends.
I noticed that a good number of the teens were into body building. Some of the girls were wrapped in the clothes of the “religious” and others were heavily made up and wore very fashionable attire , anything but traditional clothing.
I asked the elder what is the meaning of this dichotomy?
He indeed lamented the weakening of tradition among the youth but said each Druze can choose between a secular or religious path. Apparently there are high expectations and restrictions for the religious and very little for the others. It is not easy to commit.
And do the “non religious” go to heaven?
He said the Druze believe that every one repents and becomes “religious” before death.
Simple and reassuring.
I asked him about communal prayer. They pray twice a week, that is the religious ones do.
Only the initiated enter their house of prayer. Their holy book must only be hand written and very few are allowed access to it.
I asked why their prophet of choice is Jethro, father in law of Moshe?. Either he did not know or he would not share the secret. Now I really wanted to know!
Are they the original Midianites as I have heard said ? Again I was left wondering. Did he know?
They have total respect for the community elders. Their word is law in the villages.
They had a great thirst for Jewish history and Torah concepts. Clearly they never learned the most basic Jewish concepts and history . The elder thirstily wrote down all I was saying. The women in the back of the bus were not expected to be taking part much in what was going on. They just chatted.
As we were sitting under a tree I suddenly heard the scary shouting right behind me. One of the older men went berserk on one of the bodybuilder teens. He rushed the youngster as he removed his glasses, prepared for what looked like a fight to the death. The younger one did not back down and took his glasses off as well. Both were yelling , cursing and threatening when some of the elders including a woman and another bodybuilder separated them. I am pretty sure that “honor” of some sort is what was being defended; very common in the Middle East.
I understood the elders pleading with the two, not to shame the Druze in front of the guide. They were concerned about public opinion. They knew that Jews would not be impressed with this “honor or death” display.
I was embarrassed for them.They looked at me sheepishly and I tried to keep as low a profile as possible.
Eventually the woman explained to me that the older person thought that the younger was making light of him and disrespecting him. Boy did that launch him!
Now I understand the Druze reputation . When you are a minority in the Mid East. You can’t afford to be a lamb amongst wolves.
When we came to Mount Herzl and the ceremony, the group leader made it clear to the teens that they represented the Druze and he would tolerate no misbehavior. He did not ask, he yelled, gestured and got blue in the face.
Were they such a tough group or was this normal communication? I think the latter. I see it all the time amongst the Muslims.
Indeed they were the most disciplined group waiting in line in twos and hardly spoke in deference to their no nonsense leader(who is a great guy by the way).
It was now my turn to feel embarrassed.
The entrance was not administered in perfect order. Israel is in the MidEast after all. Groups passed ours as we waited quietly. I demanded that our group be allowed in already and was met by the disinterested half threatening response of the incapable staff. My Druze counterpart was even more determined that we enter, Now!
He was right. It was a typical Israeli “balagan” – chaos.
I somehow diffused the powder keg and we entered.
Rafa my colleague and I fought “shoulder to shoulder” for our rights to enter.
I was embarrassed for MY people now.
When we parted at the end of the day, I was made to feel like one of the tribe and now have a place to stay in the Galilee.