Jewish Israelis and Druze unite at memorial event, with many calling on the Israeli government to change its controversial legislation
For the past six years, thousands of Jewish Israelis and members of the Druze community have come together to participate in a unique memorial for Druze soldiers who died while serving in the Israeli Defense Forces. But this year was different.
The event, which took place near the Horns of Hattin in the Lower Galilee, comes at a particularly sensitive time in Druze-Israeli relations.
Many in the Druze community are furious with the government over passage of the controversial Nation-State Law that declares the right to self-determination in Israel to be exclusive to the Jewish people.
Critics argue that while Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence “ensures complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex,” the Nation-State Law does not. Many in the Druze community therefore view it as discriminatory for not protecting equality for all citizens. In protest, they have launched petitions against it in the Supreme Court. Other religious minorities in the country, like Christians and Israeli Arabs, have protested against the law as well.
Established in 2012, the Druze Sons’ Trail project honors the memories of 427 Druze soldiers who lost their lives since the founding of the state through an annual race in which participants choose from consecutive events: a 25-kilometer bicycle race; 5- and 10-kilometer runs; and a 3-kilometer march along a hiking trail that passes through several Druze villages in northern Israel.
“The goal of this event is to connect the religious to the secular, Jews to the Druze, and the people of Israel overall,” Brig.-Gen. (res.) Amal Asad, Director of the Druze Sons’ Trail Association and the initiator of the race, told The Media Line.
“Through this sporting event and under the same sky, we connect to this land. We bike, run and march and enjoy the lovely views, and embrace one another. It’s a day of love,” Asad added.
The world Druze population is estimated to number roughly one million people, of which 140,000 reside in Israel and the majority live in Syria and Lebanon. The Druze revere Jethro of Midian, the father-in-law of Moses, and have their own unique monotheistic Abrahamic religion that is separate from Islam. Jethro’s believed resting place, the Tomb of Nebi Shu’eib, is located near the Horns of Hattin, the site of the memorial event.
Unlike other minorities in Israel, male members of the Druze community must enlist in the military at the age of 18, like their Jewish-Israeli peers. Asad, who served in the Israeli army for 26 years, has worked tirelessly to promote the integration of Druze youth into Israeli society. In 1998, he was promoted to brigadier-general, becoming one of the first Druze officers to reach the elite rank.
As thousands gathered to take part in the day’s events, with some wearing military fatigues and others proudly sporting their army unit’s insignia, Asad emphasized the high rate of Druze enlistment, which currently stands at around 83 percent for its men.
“Our presence in the IDF is a very significant and essential thing. It’s very important to the army and to us,” he asserted. “The recruitment rate of Druze soldiers serving in the army is among the highest in Israel—higher than the same rate in the Jewish sector.”
Bereaved families as well as those who had been injured during their service were in attendance, in addition to a wide range of army and police representatives. Faiz Ra’ed, 57, was severely wounded during a basic training session in 1981. He lost his eyesight, right arm and part of his left hand, as well as his legs after a projectile exploded.
“I am happy that the people of Israel appreciate the Druze community’s sacrifice,” Ra’ed remarked to The Media Line. “To see the nation of Israel together like this, and witness the amazing integration of the Druze people with the Jewish people—especially with all the complicated things happening in the background—is strong and nothing will change that.”
“I lost my brother recently,” Halal Bin Salman, a member of the Druze community who participated in the run, told The Media Line. “He was a fighter in the [now disbanded all-Druze] IDF Sword Battalion and was injured during his service. A month ago he passed away from his injuries.
“This race is very important in my view. It’s something that can help us keep the memory of our fallen alive,” Bin Salman added.
Though the message of unity was one repeated throughout the day—by both organizers and participants—it seemed that the Nation-State Law was never far from people’s minds. Asad himself has been an outspoken critic of the bill, writing several months ago in a highly-publicized Facebook post that the law could transform Israel into “an apartheid state.”
“We are all one nation,” Asad declared to The Media Line ahead of the first race. “We are all Israelis. It’s also important that politicians understand this and not push legislation that hurts part of the population.”
Dr. Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yom-Tov Samia, former head of the IDF Southern Command, emphasized the importance of changing the law as well.
“I lost a lot of Druze friends, one of them was like a brother to me—Colonel Nabi Merey,” Samia recounted to The Media Line. “He was killed in Gaza in 1996.
“The [Nation-State law] is a good law; I’m not against it,” he continued. “There is simply one point missing there: equality between civilians in Israel.”
During the event’s closing ceremony, Sheikh Moafaq Tarif, the spiritual leader of the Israel’s Druze community, addressed the government directly, calling on Israeli leaders to amend the law.
“We love the state of Israel and are proud of our connection to the Jewish people as a whole,” Tarif told the crowd from the stage. “We are proud to have the right to serve in the IDF and security services. The covenant between the Druze and the Jews is strong and solid.”
Meanwhile, in a filmed address to attendees, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin also attempted to assuage Druze anger over the legislation, without referring to the law directly.
“You are flesh of our flesh, an integral part of the state of Israel and there isn’t, and won’t be someone who can separate us,” Rivlin said. “Israel is the national home of the Jewish people who returned to their land after 2,000 years of exile. However, Israel will also always be the state and homeland of the Druze community.”
Druze community leaders delivered a similarly promising message to attendees, saying they remain hopeful that ties with Israel will continue to be strong, despite the ongoing political disputes over the law.
“This event will continue to exist,” Asad affirmed. “We will continue to be one nation; we will continue to serve in the IDF, and build this country and defend it. We are not against the Nation-State Law, we simply want to be included in it. We cannot be outside this law.”