The rights of minorities and their relations with majority groups in power give rise to some of the most intractable struggles around the world. In the United States, for example, the affirmative action debate, a legacy of the civil rights struggle, pivots around the principle of “blindness” to collective differences in a society whose history is replete with racist and sexist discrimination. Advocates of affirmative action argue that it compensates for past wrongs against particular “kinds” of people — notably the female and/or black kinds. Opponents argue that it violates the equal protection principle by which rights should be accorded to individual “citizens” rather than groups.

Despite such disagreements, there is a shared hope for a brighter tomorrow when race and sex will be mere incidentals in people’s abilities to participate in all facets of public life. Multiculturalism’s emphasis on the importance of difference notwithstanding, the discourse of rights in the US remains dominated by the view that, ultimately, integrationism and “blind” equality are the social goals for the common good. [1]

In Israel, the principle of equality is complicated by the legal significance of group identity. Unlike in the US, the rights of citizens and their relationship to the state are oriented explicitly by official classifications and the politicization of group identities.

The Politicization of Difference

The Israeli state has always utilized divide-and-rule strategies to govern its non-Jewish citizens, the Palestinians who remained inside the 1948 borders. They were categorized into discrete “nationalities:” “Arabs,” “Druze,” “Bedouin” and “Circassians.” Construction of these minority identities was intended both to fragment an Arab collectivity within Israel and differentiate citizens’ rights according to communal affinities.

In the case of the Druze, in the early years they were regarded as a “minority within a minority,” specifically as “non-Muslim Arabs.” In 1962, “Druze” status was transformed into a distinct nationality, thereby turning this group officially into “non-Arabs,” although the discursive power of the Arab-Jewish dichotomy as the premier idiom of difference in Israel has left that aspect of their status in a rather dubious position, as non-Arab Arabs. [2] The state and the Jewish majority tend to regard Druze citizens as the “favored minority.” This privileging is largely rhetorical, however, as evidenced by the rampant social and political discrimination that Druze share with the rest of the non-Jewish minority.

The state’s policies to foster a distinctive national identity for the Druze, largely successful inside Israel, failed when Israel tried to apply it to the Syrians of the occupied Golan Heights, the majority of whom are Druze by design of Israeli expulsion policies in 1967. A comparative examination of these two communities illustrates the fundamental flaw in the assumption acted upon by the Israeli state that identity politics could be manipulated on the basis of a shared religion.

Making Identity Policy

As early as the 1920s, Zionist leaders in Palestine thought that they could understand the meaning of “Druzeness” and use it to serve their political interests. Specifically, they assumed that the Druze would be natural allies in the project to establish, secure and maintain a Jewish state. The Orientalist assumption that the Druze were essentially different from all other Arabs derived from the perception that the various religious communities in the Middle East composed a mosaic of “peoples.” In addition, Zionist leaders believed that there was a historical basis for a “special relationship” between Jews and Druze. This was contingent on the belief that the Druze were a non-Muslim minority with an endemic animosity toward the Muslim majority, that they had a historical “love” for the Jews, and that they were a brave warlike people whose allegiances would rally to the strongest force in the land. [3]

The cultivation of a special relationship began with a Druze-Jewish paramilitary alliance in the late 1930s. This alliance belies the limited success of Zionist strategies at that stage to alienate Druze (and Christian) Palestinians from (Sunni) Muslims. While some Druze supported the Zionists, others participated in the Arab revolt (1936-1939) and fought against the Zionists in the 1948-1949 war. But in order to presage the Druzes’ favored status in post-independence Israel, accounts of this period focus on those who exhibited pro-Zionist inclinations, assessing such sentiments and activities as collective and “natural.” The alliance supported the proposition that the Druze were “good Arabs,” and that it was their “Druzeness” which explained their political support for Jews — that other “minority” in a hostile Muslim-dominated region.

After 1948, state building in Israel included the construction of a distinct Israeli Druze identity. [4] This project involved the interplay of several processes: the tactical articulation of state imperatives and scholarly assumptions; [5] the privileging of a particular vision of Druze identity over a multiplicity of possibilities; and the negating or silencing of alternatives.

Those who seek to prove that the Druze are natural allies of Zionists point to the loyalty that the majority of Druze citizens have shown to the Israeli state, and their acceptance of the state-sponsored transformation of their status from quasi Muslim sect to Druze “nation.” This transformation is presented as the historic realization of nationhood comparable to that which Zionism provided for Jews. [6] Likewise, it follows that only those individual Druze who are confused about their true identity as Druze would identify with or support Arab or Palestinian nationalism in the conflict against Israel. [7]

In addition to the change of nationality from “Arab” to “Druze,” the state implemented a variety of policies to differentiate them from other categories of non-Jews, including the creation of a new Druze educational sector in 1976 with a separate curriculum and a mandate to promote their distinctive heritage, and compulsory conscription into the army. The issue of conscription is particularly important in analyzing constructions of Druze identity within Israel, with a related effect of gendering citizenship rights within the community.

Armed and Gendered

Because of the enduring significance of the conflict to national life in Israel, the military remains the country’s most important institution. Aside from its role as a bulwark of state security, the military functions as an integrating institution, transforming Jewish immigrants into Israelis and instilling in them a commitment to the Jewish state. Military service also constitutes an important rite of passage into adulthood and a prerequisite for full membership in the Israeli polity. Institutionalized discrimination against Arab citizens is commonly justified on the grounds that priority and advantages must be given and have been earned by those who have served in the army.

Early on Druze leaders saw the issue of military service as a means to enhance their own position and to assure state support for communal needs. In 1956, government officials and 16 Druze leaders agreed upon mandatory conscription for Druze males, illustrating the deeply embedded lines of patronage running from state agencies through a narrow elite to the community as a whole. The agreement excluded all Druze females and exempted “religious” males. (Previously, Druze males were permitted to enlist but were not conscripted.)

Druze were the only non-Jews to be conscripted (aside from the tiny Circassian community), making military service the single most important factor in their relationship with the Jewish majority, and the most obvious marker distinguishing the Druze from other Israeli non-Jews. [8] Military service became central to comprehending and representing the relationship between the Druze community and the state: Druze are different from Arabs (more Israeli) because they serve; Druze deserve special treatment because they serve; discriminatory policies like land confiscation and insufficient state investment in Druze villages are unjust because they serve, and so on. [9]

Among the effects military service had on the community, new ideologies of Druze manhood were fostered as males were targeted for state-sponsored strategies to facilitate this “traditional” people’s assimilation into “modem” Israeli (i.e., Jewish) society. In the 1960s, when the government required that all teachers in Druze schools must be Druze, to compensate for the shortage of qualified personnel some males were installed as teachers in lieu of regular army service. To promote the desirability of conscription, these soldier-teachers wore army uniforms in the classroom. Summer programs for Jewish youth were expanded to include Druze males in order to prepare them for military service (e.g., use of weapons and political education) and to strengthen the ties between these two national/religious communities.

The military provided economic incentives intended to shape career and life choices. The government offered an extra stipend for Druze soldiers’ wives, thus promoting early marriage. Druze who joined the Border Patrol after their compulsory three-year service were given a bonus of two months salary. Pervasive discrimination in the labor market against non-Jews has led many Druze to pursue careers in the security services — the one area in which they can circumvent competition with Arabs, who are restricted from such fields because they do not do military service. [10]

Since 1948, radical transformations affecting the non-Jewish minority have included the debilitation of agriculture due to massive land confiscations, scarce employment opportunities due to institutionalized discrimination, and retarded economic development from lack of state investment in Arab and Druze villages. [11] Local economies of agrarian production organized around households have been displaced by the integration and capitalization of the national economy. This has fostered familial dependence upon male wage earners. As these developments affected the Druze community, the military became an important source of employment and financial security, creating new forms of female dependency within both households and the larger community. [12]

Military service also fostered new forms of Druze female dependency on a national level. Conscription provided Druze males the opportunity to integrate into the dominant culture of Hebrew-speaking Jews, giving them a cultural currency to which Druze females had limited access. This has facilitated and reinforced patterns of gender segregation. Women’s limited mobility beyond their villages might be explained in popular terms through some notion of “tradition,” but in practice it has been institutionalized by the exclusion of Druze women from public-sector institutions.

Given the importance of military service to membership status in the polity, Druze women are denied the opportunity to exercise their full rights as citizens. In this regard, the rights of Druze women are more comparable to Israeli-Arabs (male and female) than to Druze men. Citizenship rights within the Druze community are highly gendered, and men — particularly those who have served in the military — enjoy a relatively privileged relationship to the state.

Sexualizing Differences

For many Israeli Druze males, serving in the military is a rather radical contrast to other aspects of their lives. While a number of Druze soldiers whom I interviewed said that they were resentful of discrimination in Israeli society at large, they held their army experience out as an exception. [13] For them, military service fulfilled its promise as an opportunity to integrate. Many described the social atmosphere among soldiers as the most positive aspect of their service.

Army service provided an introduction to a different kind of gender relations. For many, this was a first opportunity to have relationships with adult women strangers (i.e., female soldiers), friendships as well as sexual relations. [14] Gender relations in military settings are a stark contrast to the social dynamics within the Israeli Druze community, where relations among unmarried males and females are quite restricted.

The experience of integration into Jewish Israeli society is dominated by the military experience, and only applies to males. On the other hand, policies to distinguish the Druze from all other Israelis have served to intensify the segregation of the community as a whole. Acceptable social dynamics are defined by those in positions of authority in the local context, often older males. Consequently, social relations are characterized by the maintenance of a rigid gender hierarchy, the impermissibility of male-female fraternizing and pressures on women to marry early and remain permanently within the community. The number of Israeli Druze women attending universities, for example, is extremely low. [15] So, too, is the number of women who seek employment outside their villages. The secluded lifestyles of most Israeli Druze women differ from those of most Jewish women, with the notable exception of the self-segregating ultra-Orthodox communities. Thus, when Druze males enter the army and come in contact with “liberated” Jewish women, perceptions of their own socio-cultural differences are reinforced and internalized, including the popularized view that their community is “backward” and thus inferior to Jewish society.

But contrary to popular explanations to account for the contrast between Druze and (secular) Jewish societies-that the Druze are “by nature” traditional — the differences are effects of larger social and political processes. State policies to distinguish and separate the Druze from all other communities have resulted in the entrenchment of certain patterns (e.g., the politicization of hamula relations for purposes such as bloc voting), sustained the authority of elder leaders, and provided males in general with opportunities unavailable to women.

The Limits of “Druzeness”

Yishuv-cum-Israeli assumptions that the Druze are so overwhelmingly self-identified as such, and that the meaning of “Druzeness” could be generalized from the Druze experience in Israel proved to be egregiously wrong when applied in the Golan Heights. During the 1967 war, the conquering army of Israel allowed only 6,396 Syrian residents to remain in the newly occupied area (out of a pre-war population of130,000). [16] That only Druze were permitted to remain [17] was due to the belief that these Syrian Druze would be — or at least become — loyal to Israel like their co-religionists in the Galilee. Unlike policies governing the Palestinians of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, the Syrian Druze were subject to policies aimed to integrate them into Israeli society, specifically into the Israeli Druze community. The “Druzification” process deployed on Syrians of the Golan was patterned on strategies used successfully inside Israel. [18]

The Syrian Druze of the Golan, however, did not willingly accept efforts to nationalize their sectarian identity, or see themselves politically as part of some “Druze collectivity” which would negate or override their status as Syrian citizens living under Israeli occupation. Even religiously, notions of sectarian identity in the Golan differ radically from those holding sway inside Israel; these Druze do not see their religion as an “other” to Islam, a view which, arguably, is shared by Druze in Syria and Lebanon (notwithstanding the politicization of religious identity during the civil war in Lebanon). Although religious leaders of the two communities meet to discuss religious matters and celebrate certain holidays, relations are cool. This sentiment is shared by a majority of the Golan community, as evidenced, for example, by the extremely low rates of intermarriage among members of the two communities. [19]

The differing views on religious and national identity in these two communities derive from their differing modem histories. The Druze community in Palestine was geographically and politically isolated from other Druze communities during the mandate period when the area was divided into separate French and British dominions. The isolation became more entrenched with the creation of Israel. [20] In contrast, the Druze community in the Golan faced no comparable geographic or political isolation. More importantly, Golanis were part of an independent Syria for 21 years prior to 1967, which fostered a strong sense of Syrian national identity.

Because Golanis were disconnected after 1967 from their “nation” — the multi-religious/ethnic Syrian polity — at a moment when Syrian nationalism was at its peak, their sense of their own Syrian identity is powerful, nostalgic and, arguably, utopian in the sustained allegiance that some maintain to the regime in Damascus that they can know only from a distance. Even those who do not support the Syrian regime are politically motivated by the goal to return to Syria. Regardless of these differences, the collective desire for reunion with Syria has powered an enduring opposition to all Israeli efforts to manipulate their identity and integrate them into Israeli society.

Since the 1970s, communal resistance to the Israeli occupation has united people across generational, class and gender lines. Consequently, gender identities were transformed in the context of sustained collective resistance as women and girls participated in demonstrations and other actions against the Israeli authorities. In 1982, for example, during the six-month strike protesting the Israeli annexation of the Golan and efforts to impose Israeli citizenship, it was women who confronted soldiers going house to house attempting to force people to accept new Israeli identity cards.

In the Golan, as in contexts elsewhere around the world, when communities are besieged by state forces, that paragon of female subordination, the “private sphere,” is demonstrably weakened. The state’s often violent intrusion disrupts and dislocates social boundaries. This is not to say that gendered social boundaries have been eliminated in the Golan, or that differing gendered roles and rights do not exist. Rather, the crisis of occupation and resistance to it creates conditions in which gender identities and relations have changed and adapted to existing circumstances. Women share the burdens of resistance with men because they share a national identity as Syrians living under occupation.

The contrast between the Druze communities in Israel and the Golan is particularly evident in the area of gender relations. Male-female relations are much less restricted in the Golan; every public event draws men and women. Unlike most Druze schools inside Israel, since the late 1970s, schools in the Golan are not segregated by gender, at the behest of the community. The contrast is even more dramatic when generational differences are taken into account. Today, literacy rates are identical among the younger generations of Golani males and females. [21] Also nearly identical are the total years of schooling among males and females between the ages of 15 and 30. [22] The sharpest contrast is in higher education: hundreds of Golani women have chosen and been encouraged to pursue university educations, both inside Israel and abroad.

Collective resistance to the occupation has been the most important factor in shaping contemporary gender relations in the Golan. Related to this is a growing appreciation of women and girls as active members of society and valuable human resources for common goals of development and communal wellbeing. In this regard, the occupation has reinforced the importance of group identity, through both Israeli attempts to manipulate that identity and collective struggles to sustain the status of an occupied population demanding reunification with Syria.


National and gender identities have developed differently among these two Druze communities because of different circumstances affecting and involving the populations. In analyzing identity politics, it is necessary to locate individuals and communities within the networks of power relations that enable and legitimize or prohibit and delegitimize certain kinds of identities. The focus should be on social, political and historical factors that shape relational possibilities in a given context, not on ahistorical, reified notions of religious essence or “nature.”

Several lessons can be drawn from this particular comparison that have relevance to the analysis of identity politics in general. First, socio-political relations are not explained by or reducible to sectarian particularisms. Rather, the opposite is true: particularism draws its meaning and strength from the socio-political context. Second, the politics of identity defy the reified parameters of the mosaic paradigm, despite its legacy in the spheres of national and international politics. Th make a group identity the basis of policy is to create rather than simply “realize” the importance of difference. Finally, to the extent that a state can play a significant role in fostering particular(istic) forms of identity — through legal policies, economic strategies, educational programs and so on — the relationship between people and the state is not rooted in inherent tendencies but rather proceeds from engagement with state policies. Governance is dynamic, not simply a unidirectional imposition of state power. In Israel and the territories controlled by the state, group identity remains central to the dynamics of governance. This is due in part to the continuing conflict. But even inside the Green Line there is no rhetorical space for “blindness” to difference. The emergence of a discourse of individual rights freed from group identities would require a fundamental restructuring of the Israeli state itself. If the contentiousness of “history” in the US debate over affirmative action is indicative of the difficulty in reconciling group identities with individual rights, in Israel the problem is insurmountable because the institutionalized importance of group identity is a pillar of Israeli state politics, not a debatable feature of political discourse.


[1] For an excellent analysis of the discourses of integrationism and race consciousness in the US, see Gary Peller, “Race Consciousness” in Kimberle Crenshaw et al eds., Critical Race Theory (New York: The New Press, 1995).
[2] See Jonathan Oppenheimer, “The Druze in Israel as Arabs and Non-Arabs: Manipulation of Categories of Identity in a Non-Civil State,” in Alex Weingrod, ed., Studies in Israeli Ethnicity: After the Ingathering (New York: Gordon and Breach Science Publishers, 1985).
[3] See Gabriel Ben-Dor, The Druzes in Israel: A Political Study (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1979); idem., “The Military in the Politics of Integration and Innovation: The Case of the Druze Minority in Israel,” Asian and African Studies 9/3 (1973); Walter Schwarz, The Arabs in Israel (London: Faber and Faber, 1959); Nissim Dana, ed., The Druse: A Religious Community in Transition (Jerusalem: Israel Economist, 1980).
[4] See Usama Halaby, The Druze in Israel: From Sect to Nation (Majdal Shams, Golan Heights: Golan Academic Association, 1989). [Arabic] [5] The conjugal relationship between ethnicity studies and political strategies has been elemental to the formulation of state policies. According to Jonathan Oppenheimer, “Both the scholarly analysis and the official view are products of an ideologically distorted understanding of Druze history, by which it is transformed into a charter for the administration and political separation of the Druze from the rest of the Arab population.” Oppenheimer, p. 264.
[6] Within Israel the Druze, like the Jews, are classified as a “national/religious” group.
[7] Separating the Druze of Israel from other Arabs was seen as a possible first step in eventually dividing the Druze in the region from other affiliations. The hope was that the Druze might become a trans-state pro-Israel community. The height of this rationale was the short-lived idea to establish a Druze state, paralleling ideas about a pro-Israel Maronite state in part of Lebanon.
[8] For a more detailed discussion of the politics of Druze conscription, including the organized opposition by the Druze Initiative Committee, see Lisa Hajjar, “Authority, Resistance and the Law: A Study of the Israeli Military Court System in the Occupied Territories,” Ph.D. dissertation, American University, 1995, pp. 439-455.
[9] Druze individuals commonly point to military service as a basis for demanding equality with Jews and for protesting the state’s comparable treatment of their community and Arabs. According to Zeidan Atash, “I want all those who served in the army, including Druze, to be equals in the state of Israel, and not those who served and those who did not serve in the same classification.” “Testimony of a Druze Member of the Knesset,” in Alouph Haraven, ed., Every Sixth Israeli: Relations between the Jewish Majority and the Arab Minority in Israel (Jerusalem: Van Leer Jerusalem Foundation, 1983), pp. 65-66.
[10] More than 30 percent of all employed Druze individuals at any given time work in various branches of the security services. According to Israel Shahak, “In some Druze villages the proportion of males in the 21-45 age cohort who earn their livelihood from the Israeli Security System [sic] can reach 90 percent.” “The Druze in the Israeli Army,” Shahak Report, March 21, 1995. In a recent study by Hassan Zarka of Haifa University, 38.9 percent of Druze youngsters (i.e., males) want to remain in the army after their compulsory service, as compared to 7.4 percent among Jewish youngsters. Steve Rodan and Jaoob Dallal, “Secret of Success,” Jerusalem Post Magazine, August 11, 1995.
[11] In July 1995 the government pledged to invest 1 billion shekels in the Druze sector over the next five years. This five-year plan is a promise that has been made repeatedly since the mid-1980s, but has yet to be fulfilled.
[12] This is not to say that female dependency within the community was new in some absolute sense, but rather that the culture of this dependency changed as a direct consequence of socio-economic transformations after 1948.
[13] During the course of research in Israel and the occupied territories, I interviewed a number of people in the Druze community. including 14 soldiers.
[14] This issue illustrates a contrast between Druze and Jewish experiences in the military. According to one study of Jewish male soldiers, “None of the participants saw the army as a good opportunity to meet women, in spite of the fact that women do serve on bases with men and Israelis believe that the army is the country’s greatest matchmaker. On the contrary, several men described their service away from home as causing an interruption in their former heterosexual relationships.” Amia Lieblich and Meir Perlow, “The Transition to Adulthood During Military Service,” Jerusalem Quarterly 47 (Summer 1988), p. 50.
[15] Even in the villages of Daliyat al-Karmil and ‘Isfiya. which are a few kilometers from Haifa, only a handful of women attend the university, despite that they could live at home and commute. For women from villages that are farther from cities with universities, they would have to take up residence away from home, making it even less of an acceptable option.
[16] See Lisa Haiiar, ed., Twenty-Five Years of Israeli Occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights (Jerusalem: Arab Association for Development, 1993), pp. 16-19.
[17] Actually, residents of the occupied village of Ghajar are ‘Alawi, but their presence within the occupied part of the Golan was not realized by the Israeli military until after the expulsion campaign had ended. Ghajar is geographically isolated from the four Druze villages in the Golan, and Israeli policies toward its population have been notably different. At present, there is no useful source that deals with Israeli policies toward Ghajar.
[18] For a discussion of education policies for the Druze sector, see Bashar Tarabieh, “Education, Control and Resistance in the Golan Heights,” Middle East Report 194/95 (May-August 1995).
[19] See Hassan Abu Libdeh et al, A Survey of the Syrian Population in the Occupied Golan Heights: Demography and Health (Majdal Shams, Golan Heights: Arab Association for Development, 1994), pp. 51-53.
[20] The exodus of virtually the entire Palestinian leadership and intelligentsia in 1948 compounded the isolation of those non-Jews who remained in Israel and allowed for local traditional and religious leaders to assume a preeminent position in their communities because they were targeted as liaisons to the state.
[21] See Abu Libdeh, p. 58.
[22] lbid., p. 61.

How to cite this article:

Lisa Hajjar "Israel’s Interventions Among the Druze," Middle East Report 200 (Fall 1996).

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