The Olive and the Tree
The Secret Strength of the Druze
Dr. Ruth Westheimer
All religious groups have codes to guide the lives of adherents, but the Druze, Dr. Ruth tells us, are especially interesting. She has observed the Druze's special art of adjustment in all walks of life, whether religious or secular, and for all people, young and old. Their key is an ancient custom called a-takiyya.
During times of communal stress, the Druze refrain from accentuating their religious identity, thus reducing the possibilities of conflict with neighboring groups and allowing them to concentrate on internal community building.
According to Druze custom, they predate the Hebrew people in the area surrounding Palestine—particularly in Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. Thus, like many "native" peoples, they do not feel bound by the customs and religions brought into the area by later settlers. This, of course, has led to a long history of strife with their neighbors. Consequently, the Druze people have had to build an inner strength of individuals and community in order to survive as an identifiable ethnic group.
Through stories, personal encounters, and historical context, Dr. Ruth Westheimer describes with great warmth the roots of that strength, how the story of the Druze has played out over the millennia, how they influence today's situation in the Middle East, and what Westerners can learn from them and their way of life.
The Strangers among Them
PBS looks at culture of Israel’s most loyal Arabs
Jonathan Mark - Associate Editor
In the first week of the intifada, a Jewish soldier was killed while defending Joseph’s Tomb.
Or at least most Jews assumed that it was a Jewish solider, for so closely do we equate the Israel Defense Forces with the Jewish state. But this dead soldier, Madhat Yusuf, was a Druze, a mysterious sect of Israeli Arabs who live primarily in Israel’s north country. If the intifada’s first week was marked by Yusuf’s death, in the first week of this year’s war, Hezbollah rockets pounded Beit Jann, the Druze village where Yusuf lived. Our wars are their wars.
And yet, a new PBS documentary, The Olive and the Tree shows one Israeli admitting that she didn’t know very much at all about who the Druze are.
This PBS film, focusing on the humanity rather than the politics, is primarily the result of Jewish talent and philanthropic money. Its executive producers are Michael Greenspan and Dr. Ruth Westheimer. But in a twist on the Jewish obsession with our own continuity, the obsession here is with Druze continuity. The surprising conclusion is that an iron wall against accepting converts and intermarriage may be a good idea.
Asked whether Jews would be considered intolerant if they erected such a wall, Westheimer said, “Absolutely. But I would say, in the case of the Druze, intolerance is even crucial for survival.”
There are only about 700,000 Druze left, according to PBS, with 115,000 living in the Galilee, in the midst of more than 7 million Israeli Jews, Christians and Muslims.
Prof. Fadel Mansour, a Druze theologian, explains in this documentary —beautifully filmed in the ancient stone villages in the Galilee hills — that ever since the Druze were persecuted following their own version of Islamic reformation in the 11th century, they’ve become mysterious by choice. It was a reformation, however, that never diluted piety or strict observance, such as taboos on eating pork, drinking alcohol, or smoking.
Shauka A-Maasha, a baker shown near his pita oven, like many of the Druze in the film, seems to be a Druze equivalent of centrist Orthodox. He is earning a degree in psychology, but says psychology “has all the answers but our faith has more precise answers, better answers about raising children,” and more traditional answers at that.
If a mother’s loyalty is to her child, the child’s loyalty is not only to the village but to the country. It helps that they also believe in a quick reincarnation; a belief that makes dying in the IDF less terrifying.
As Beit Jann’s Sgt. Fuad Azzi tells Westheimer, “In my previous life I was called Fuad Saad. Only my last name changed. I lived here then, too. I was in the Border Police and I was killed in Lebanon in ’82.”
“You were killed, and then what?” asks Westheimer.
“Then,” says Azzi, “I was born to my mother. At the age of three it was suddenly like a dream. I began to recognize people from before. I knew names. I knew where our lands had been and our house.”
“Death is hard for us,” says the sergeant, “losing friends. But, at a certain stage you have a sense of relief to know that maybe, maybe you’ll meet him again and become friends. Maybe he’ll be born to other people and, God willing, he’ll remember who he was in the prior life and come see his friends and get to know his parents.”
Death is less problematic than modernity. Says the narrator, “For Druze parents whose kids grow up in close contact with Jews, there’s a lot to worry about… When Druze youngsters go off to the big Jewish city, the strength of their roots is on the line.”
Druze villages closer to secular Jewish communities are losing their uniqueness faster than the remote villages.
Najwa, who lives fives minutes from Dania, a Haifa neighborhood, says, “I know that in Dania the teenagers do a lot of things, let’s say, that my son wouldn’t do.”
Adds her husband Ghassan, “Because we live in a western culture with huge temptations, our disappearance, our assimilation into Israeli life and the loss of our uniqueness will happen very quickly. Compare our behavior today with 10 years ago. It’s like night and day.”
One Druze lieutenant in the IDF air force confronts the dilemma: “Why not traditional and modern? Where’s the contradiction? I can enjoy the mainstream and still retain Druze values and identity. I can enjoy Jewish friends, have fun, have a drink and meet girls, but in the end I remember my home and family… the bottom line is being Druze, marrying a Druze woman.”
After all, “If I date or marry a Jewish girl my family will abandon me. It’s as simple as that. They’ll cut me off. No Druze would give up the warm home where you grew up and the togetherness of family, where there’s always someone to count on. When you’re alone it’s difficult. To give up all that to marry a non-Druze? It’s just not worth it.”
But Najwa’s daughter, Ayal, says, “I’m not sure there will be Druze… Everyone’s going in different directions, leaving the village. There will be Druze, but not like today.”
Dusk is coming to the culture. The film notes, “Yesterday’s shepherds and farmers are today’s teachers and scientists… the olive groves are growing smaller by the year.”
PBS/Channel 13 (NYC) broadcast The Olive and the Tree: The Secret Strength of the Druze on Sept. 17 at 3 p.m. and Sept. 19 at 4 p.m.