The Druze are a small, little-known community of approximately 1.5 million, two-thirds of whom are spread out in Syria, Lebanon, and Israel, where their community numbers around 130,000 or roughly 1.4% of Israeli citizens.
The largest Druze communities outside the Middle East are in Venezuela (60,000) and in the U.S. (50,000). Their language is Arabic, and their faith is Druze.
This monotheistic religion combines elements from many different faiths. Separating from Islam in the 11th century, it drew elements from Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and other beliefs--focusing on mind, truthfulness, and simplicity.
Unlike other monotheistic religions, their holy book is a secret, known only to "the sages" in the community.
As the often-persecuted minority during the past 10 centuries, the Druze have adopted customs designed to preserve them as a people and protect them as individuals. One of their most important customs, "Taqiyya," calls for the concealment of their faith whenever necessary to avoid persecution. Another custom of self-preservation prescribes showing full loyalty to the local rulers.
It is in this context that since 1948, Israel's Druze community has been extremely loyal to the Jewish State. Unlike Israeli Muslims who were exempt from military service when the state was founded in order to avoid potential issues of dual allegiance, the Druze requested to be included in mandatory service in the Israel army. Serving in the military in large numbers they tend to opt for the toughest combat units in which many of them have reached high ranks. Proportionately to their size in the population, more Druze soldiers have been killed in action than Jewish soldiers.
Today, Druze serve as ambassadors representing Israel, as high-ranking police officers, and in the Knesset. And yet, many of them still believe that although they contributed much to their society, they are not fully equal citizens and need to constantly fight for their rights and for government budgets for their community.
During the COVID pandemic, the Druze community suffered as much as--and sometimes more than--the Jewish population. Many of them are marginalized in society, their towns and villages not always benefiting from the same level of government investment in support and infrastructure as neighboring Jewish towns. As the number of poor and at-risk families among the Druze swelled, and drawing upon existing relationships and previous collaborations, they asked JUF for support.
Thanks to a generous grant from JUF's COVID-19 Initiative Fund, Chicago Jews made a generous grant to the Druze community in Israel. The grant funds the purchase of hundreds of food packages for families in need, helping them to feed their children for a period of six months. A grassroots organization JUF works with was able to employ dozens of volunteer Druze teens to distribute the food packages to at-risk families, bringing hope where there had been despair.
Along with much-needed food security and relief, the allocation sent a powerful message to the tiny minority: We, the Jewish community of Chicago, see you as an integral part of Israeli society, as sisters and brothers and partners in the modern-day Zionist project. Although your faith and beliefs are different, you are nevertheless an essential part of the fabric that makes modern-day Israel a vibrant democracy. JUF's support of the state and its variety of communities go beyond religion, addressing the needs of all Israelis, especially those who are in dire need now.
The message was not lost on the Druze leadership. The spiritual leader of Israeli Druze, Sheikh Mowafaq Tarif, expressed his deep appreciation for the support of our Chicago community, telling us that he is especially moved by the fact that a Jewish community in the diaspora should feel compelled to help a tiny, non-Jewish minority in its time of need.
Once again, JUF has shown its forward-thinking and humanistic approach to real needs in Israel.
Ofer Bavly is the Director General of the JUF Israel Office.