Playing with Fire

The Druze community, as well as the Circassians in Israel, has for the past 50 years been living proof that you don’t have to be Jewish to be a loyal citizen of Israel or to share in the burden of defending the country.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on November 8, 2007.)

Last week’s violent clashes between the police and the Druze inhabitants of Peki’in should be a wake-up call for Israel, signaling that we face a problem that is too hot to be handled by local police officers. The dimensions of the problem − the underlying anger and rage of the villagers and the support for them in much of the Druze community in Israel − go far beyond the unruly, and possibly criminal, behavior of some of this Druze village’s inhabitants.

The real problem here was less their acts of vandalism than the fact that the decision regarding how to attempt to respond to them was made by local police instead of at the highest level of the government, which presumably would have better recognized the ramifications of allowing this local problem to spin out of control. The resulting violence, which engulfed the whole village and led to many injuries, threatens to endanger the longstanding relations between the State of Israel and its Druze population.

The Druze community, as well as the Circassians in Israel, has for the past 50 years been living proof that you don’t have to be Jewish to be a loyal citizen of Israel or to share with its Jewish citizens the burden of defending the country. The Druze, who speak Arabic and whose culture is Arab, have demonstrated that those thing need not be an obstacle to being an integral part of Israeli society. What happens among the Druze could well serve as an example to be followed in time by the other segments of Israel’s Arab minority.

But for this to happen, the Israeli government must have a comprehensive policy regarding the state’s minorities. A policy whose aim is the establishment of equality of rights and obligations among all segments of the population. A fundamental part of such a policy must obviously be a program of affirmative action for the Druze, which would serve to demonstrate the advantages that are attained by those who serve in the IDF.

It may come as a surprise to many Israelis that this has not been the policy until now. For many years in fact, it was quite the contrary. Until relatively recently, Druze soldiers in the IDF did not enjoy equality of opportunity with Jewish soldiers. Many branches of the service and the highest ranks were closed to them. It was only during my first two tenures in the Ministry of Defense that this discriminatory policy was changed, and that turned out to be a long and laborious process.

When I entered the Foreign Ministry, in 1988, not a single Druze was a member of the foreign service. A policy I instituted, calling on the foreign service to recruit Druze who had served in the IDF, in time gave Israel its first Druze consuls and ambassadors. To this day, however, other government ministries and offices have still not pursued such a policy. Nor does the Supreme Court have a single Druze judge. It is hard to understand why the ministers who preceded me in both the defense and foreign ministries did not adopt such a policy, and why the government still does not insist on such a practice in all ministries and government offices.

The recurrent talk of the need to give Israel’s minority population representation on the boards of government companies, regardless of whether they have served in the IDF; the elevation of Arab MKs to membership in the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and membership in the cabinet, may at first sight seem like the most progressive of measures, but in fact they would be counterproductive. To the Druze, these would demonstrate that serving in the army is nothing special, whereas to the rest of the minority population, it would demonstrate that equality of obligations is not one of the norms of Israeli society.

When members of the Druze community argue that Arab Israelis who do not serve in the IDF are exceeding them in advancement economically and professionally, there is an element of truth in their complaints, since those not serving in the IDF have a three-year head start on those who fulfill their obligations as citizens of Israel.

Now along comes the present government and proposes a policy of national service for those who do not serve in the IDF. What does this say to the Druze community? That there is nothing special in putting your life on the line for the defense of Israel. If that is so, why should they continue to do so? Rather than the rest of the minority population following the example of the Druze population and accepting the full obligations of citizenship, we may next find the Druze following the others and ceasing to serve in defense of their country.

The Druze community is a tipping point for relations between the State of Israel and its minorities. What happened in Peki’in was far too important to have been left to the discretion of the local police.

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