Stuck in the middle with Druze

Druze residents of the Golan Heights hold Syrian flags during a rally in the Druze village of Majdal Shams on Feb. 14, 2011 in protest against the 1981 Israeli annexation of the strategic plateau. Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
Manahem Kahana

MAJDAL SHAMS, Israel — Syria may be coming apart at the seams, but a few yards from its southwestern border you would be hard-pressed to believe it.

At Majdal Shams, a busy, serene town of 10,000 on the far northern point of Israel, you will find yourself deliberating among a wealth of leisure activities not usually associated with remote Druze villages.

You can enjoy a quick stop at Amoré, a chocolate emporium whose walls glisten with colorful wrappings and exotic provenances of cacao, where the cheerful Ali Safadi is happy to offer you an espresso as you take in the bounty, or go for a Mexican chicken wrap and a beer at Undefined, a classic après-ski bar overlooking well-tended verges of snow along the main drag.

Not even the hint of turmoil mars this scene. But winks abound. The perpetually crowded bar is called Undefined because since 1967, when Israel annexed the Golan Heights from Syria at the end of the Six Day War, its Druze citizens have held travel documents that read: “Citizenship: Undefined.”

Israel does not recognize their Syrian citizenship and fewer and fewer Golan Druze themselves identify as Syrian. They all carry Israeli ID cards but are mostly unwilling to take Israeli passports. So, for now, undefined it is.

“This is the best solution, given how things stand,” said Adnan Abu Saleh, an accountant and innkeeper in his 50s who, as a Druze, thinks the entire enterprise of citizenship is highly overrated. “When there is peace, I don’t care which citizenship I have. Or who the government is.”

The Druze are commonly believed to comprise less than 3 percent of the population of Syria. But with a history of military and political achievement much greater than their numbers, they have disproportionate importance.

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For many months no Druze leader spoke publicly about the uprising in Syria. But when the Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt finally came out against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad earlier this year, it was considered a watershed.

Of all the Semitic peoples of the Middle East, none is as enigmatic and enduring as the Druze. Worldwide they number about 1 million, almost all of them living in the turbulent and craggy land where Lebanon, Syria and Israel meet.

The Druze, an 11th century offshoot of Ismailism, speak Arabic. But they are neither Muslim, Jew or Christian. They reject Mohammed’s status as a prophet and hold to a secret and eclectic set of Unitarian, monotheistic beliefs.

The tenets of their faith are known only to select Druze elders — a few hundred men and women — who are entrusted with keeping liturgical texts and religious ceremony. The Druze reject both polygamy and polytheism. They, or at least the religious among them, refrain from alcohol, tobacco, pork and shellfish.

Driving south from Majdal Shams toward the wine-growing area of Katzrin, there is an old Syrian army base — later used by the Israeli army before finally being abandoned — that has been refurbished as tourist village.

“I wish they would make every army base in this entire region into a tourist base,” Abu Saleh said. “Who needs them?”

Tourism is now among the top Golan Heights industries, with an emphasis on eco-tourism. Three large groups of cyclists on sleek road bikes, painted in spandex and outfitted with bug-like eyepieces, race by Abu Saleh on the 40-minute ride.

For years, the windy, breathtaking Golan, inhabited since Upper Paleolithic times and once the site of battles between Israelites and Aramaeans, has seemed itself to reside in a sort of limbo. On the one hand the region produces some of the best apples, grapes and cherries around and is home to thriving communities. On the other hand, it is always subject to the line: “When the Golan goes back to Syria ….”

“What do you mean ‘go back’ to Syria?” asked Adam Braek, 36, the hyperactive assistant to the mayor of Majdal Shams. “I’ve never been to Syria. I grew up here, in Israel. I have nothing to say about Syria. I’m interested in getting things done.”

Braek speaks fluent, natural Hebrew, holds an accounting degree from Tel Hai College in the nearby Galilee and refers to himself as “extremely secular.”

Over late evening beers at Undefined, he gently instructs his wayward younger brother, Hnedy, 27, who is now employed as a barman at another bar, toward a more productive path in life. He invents for his sake a rhyming Hebrew Haiku: tashkia, tagia, tashpia, meaning, invest, arrive, influence.

Braek and his boss, Mayor Dolann Abu Salach, 34, have been getting a lot done, like building a massive new sports complex and a mother-child clinic. Majdal Shams’s 2,700 schoolchildren learn Arabic, Hebrew and English from the first grade and have among the highest university matriculation rates in Israel.

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There are more than 100,000 Druze citizens of Israel, most of them from the Galilee. They serve in the military and in public life at rates disproportionately higher than their number in Israel, a nation of 7 million. Five out of 120 members of Israel’s parliament are Druze, representing various parties. As in Syria and in Lebanon, there are Druze generals in Israel’s army. A Druze once served as Israel’s acting president.

In Majdal Shams it is common to see girls in tight jeans and a deep décolletage walk into a bar. Fathers speak delightedly of their doctor daughters. Women careen down the town’s steep hills in dark SUVs. Braek ascribes this relative liberality, of which he is openly proud, to “the combination of Syria, Lebanon and Israel here, or maybe it is just who we are.”

His number one task, Braek said, “is fighting for more democracy.” For years, the stateless Golan Druze were ruled by governors appointed by the Israeli military.

In the last Majdal Shams election, for the first time, nine members of the municipal council democratically chose the mayor. The council itself was chosen out of 34 candidates who presented themselves to the Israeli Interior Minister. For the next election, Braek is hoping for an Israeli-style open municipal vote.

Sheikhs used to exert the greatest political power in Majdal Shams, and about them, Braek said, “Enough! Now it is time for us to lead.”

Israelis have mixed feelings of caution and familiarity when it comes to the Golan Druze, uncertain whether to see them as a foreign element living within or as a variant on the same Druze they know from the army or from college. An incident last May on what Braek calls “the quietest border in the world, where no one has even thrown a rock in 40 years,” brought this ambivalence to the fore.

Last year on Israel’s Independence Day, known in the Arab world as Nakba, or catastrophe, a few hundred Palestinian refugees crossed the fence between Syria and Israel unimpeded, flooded into Majdal Shams’ central square and made a general ruckus. Some of the soldiers caught off guard at their posts ran scared into Majdal Shams shops. The town’s alarm system was deployed to warn residents of the infiltration, schools were closed and citizens urged to get off the streets.

Israeli media first reported that residents of Majdal Shams joined the anti-Israel chanting, then backed down. Eventually, perhaps proving their lasting relevance, the elders of Majdal Shams escorted the agitators back toward Syria. Normally, the sleepy border is only opened for the export of apples, a gesture Assad made to the Golan Druze, allowing them to sell “Syrian apples” to the homeland, or for Druze students and occasional brides to move back and forth.

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About 300 Majdal Shams students are enrolled at Israeli universities, and about 200 in Syrian institutions; these are the only people allowed to cross back and forth. When they do, UN soldiers accompany them. Syria and Israel have remained in a formal state of war since 1948. The borders between the two countries are closed.

Mayor Abu Salach’s top lobbying goal for this year is getting Majdal Shams recognized as a “border settlement,” which would give the town a significant tax break. An earlier, identical proposal about six years ago was about to pass the Knesset when it was torpedoed by an Arab member of the Communist Party who, not recognizing Israel’s rule over the Golan, pointed out that if Majdal Shams received the same rights as other border settlements, that would imply recognition of “the imaginary Golan border with Syria.”

A soft-spoken man who looks like an especially well brought up teenager, the mayor sat in a tidy office adorned with Israel’s flag and the framed pictures of Israel’s president and prime minister.

“That is bullshit,” he said, with a polite smile. “We live in the state of Israel, we enjoy all the benefits of a very democratic regime. We pay taxes. And we get excellent social benefits. So, yes, bullshit.”

He is taking Majdal Shams’s demand for recognition to the Supreme Court. “It is a privilege,” he said.

He, too, does not relish talk of Syria. “Look, the political destiny is unclear, but this Syria question is a record we’ve been hearing for a long time. You want me to compare the standard of living here and in Syria? Social services? I can’t compare.”

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His next project is a second sports center, including tennis courts. After that, he is working on funding — from the national lottery and ministries — for a major cultural center. The young mayor is a fan of opera.

Remarkably, Majdal Shams is home to five bars. Abu Salach’s personal favorite is Oud el Nana — Mint Leaf — a bohemian cafe/gallery established by an artists’ foundation, furnished with predictably low, slouchy couches near picture windows overlooking snow-covered hills, hand-made tables, jazzy Arabic music, superb coffee, fresh juices and guys in checked shirts bent over their laptops.

“I don’t agree with their politics,” the mayor said with a laugh. “But the atmosphere is very good.”

One political opponent is Rabeea Jaber, a sweet-faced 24-year-old, actually from the neighboring town of Buqata, who pretty much lives in Majdal Shams mainly because it “has life in it.”

He is an atheist and a social activist, as are many young people in Majdal Shams. He helped build a children’s library and named it after the Syrian writer Hanna Mina. He has a degree in accounting and economics from Tel Aviv University, which he attended on a full scholarship granted for excellence to students from peripheral towns. After graduating, he worked at Deloitte for a year and loved Tel Aviv, but found it was “hard to integrate if you’re from the Golan.”

He hopes to move to Toronto with his girlfriend to study for an MBA.

“It’s better to be Canadian than Israeli,” he said. In 1981, when Israel formally annexed the Golan Heights and offered all its residents citizenship, Jaber’s grandfather and father refused. He follows this tradition, though is less characterized by what he says defines a Druze. “A Druze is always here. It doesn’t matter who comes in, we’re here, living on this land.”

He is equally “against Assad and against Israel” and is hoping for the emergence of a “strong, democratic, modern Syria.” No, he doesn’t want to live there. He’s heard it is not that hard to get Canadian citizenship.

By Jaber’s estimation, not more than 20 percent of Majdal Shams residents share his political inclinations.

One who certainly does is Salman Fakradin, a researcher at Al-Marsad, the Arab Center for Human Rights in the Golan Heights. A charmer in a French beret and a red scarf, Fakradin opens an 11 a.m. interview with shots of Johnnie Walker Black Label served from a crystal decanter. On a large screen TV in his living room, an official Syrian channel downplays recent events inside the country.

He spends most of his energies protesting against “Israel’s war crimes.”

“War crimes means taking over land, destroying existing infrastructure and the geographic area,” he said. “This is an occupation regime.”

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Born in Majdal Shams in 1954, he was 14 during the Six Day War. He has been protesting against Israeli rule ever since, and has paid for it, he says, with 13 jail sentences. One term in jail was for spying for Syria, a charge he affirms.

“In 1973 I gave the Syrians updates about Israeli army concentrations on the Golan Heights on the eve of the Yom Kippur War. I am a proud Syrian. You have to oppose occupation because it is by definition the tyranny of one people over another.”

Despite this assertion, Fakhadin does not deny that the assignation of the Golan Heights to Syrian rule was another form of colonization, “decided over European dining tables.”

In 1920, French and British colonels determined the divisions of the region, with the exception of a tiny pearl-like pond, Marj el-Man, which was assigned as a drinking source equally to the cows of Syria and of Lebanon by a Bedouin arbitrator.

Fakradin does not identify as a Druze, rather as “an atheist and a human being. Take me out of this circle of definitions.”

Syria, he says, “is a tremendous mosaic of peoples and cultures, a modern civil state” he is eager to rejoin. Though “Syria today is not a country. It is a gang made up of friends and brothers and in-laws of Bashar Assad.”

“They decide how to run the country over breakfast.” Were he in Syria, he says, he’d be protesting too.

One resident of Majdal Shams, who didn't want to give his name because his family still lives in Syria, who is also Fakradin’s age, was among those who organized a six-month strike in 1981 against the Israeli authorities for trying to force Israeli citizenship on the Druze. He has a very different take.

“We were so foolish,” he said, ruefully. “We were so harsh. We should have just asked them not to impose citizenship, and left it at that — a choice.”

“If I didn’t have a brother and sister in Syria, I'd be saying everything I’m saying to you even on TV. What a mistake we made with the strike! Look, the Israelis got this land in a war. They didn’t just march in. There was a war, and they won. This has happened throughout history.”

These days, he believes the Druze have a crucial role to play.

“The Druze are the only population that has deep contacts in both Israeli and in Syrian society," he said. "We should be the peacemakers.”

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