The Druze community in Israel is unique among the Palestinian Arab population for its wholehearted cooperation with the Jewish state, to the extent that it voluntarily subjects its male population to universal military conscription in the IDF. Some Bedouin Arabs also serve, along with a few Christians and the tiny non-Arab Muslim Circassian community, but the Druze alone serve as an Arabic-speaking unit. In return they have reaped all the very tangible benefits that come from military service (like bank mortgages) but have also earned the enmity of the majority Arab Muslim population. And, because they are frequently assigned to border police units, they have suffered disproportionate casualties from the beginning of this service to the Jewish state.
Dr. Parsons has provided a fine background study on how this seemingly improbable relationship developed before, and especially during, the breakdown of the British Mandate in Palestine and the ensuing Arab-Israeli wars. Her underlying thesis, stressed throughout and used to conclude her study, is that “the key to their [Druze] political behavior lay not in . . . [any] . . . religious tenet, but in pragmatic political calculations” (p. 144). Any attempts by other authors writing on the Druze to consider the possibility that earlier ties between them and the Jews might have predisposed them to a friendly relationship are summarily dismissed as “grasping for straws” (p. 4), “odd” (p. 144), and in the case of my own book, The Druze (Yale University Press, 1988), “certainly ahistorical” (p. 14).
Yet the author is quite willing to pass along the popular unsubstantiated speculation that the Junbalat family, originally from Aleppo, “converted to Druzism in the nineteenth [sic] century” (p. xiv), despite conversion being forbidden – a fact which she dismisses as “of dubious validity” (p. 146), when in fact they were firmly established as Druze in Mount Lebanon in the early eighteenth century. In footnote 6 to the Introduction she repeats this very “ahistorical” (her term) assertion, reporting as fact that “relatively late converts from Islam to Druzism include the Junblats.” But it is also a fact that a small community of Druze has existed near Aleppo since the beginning of the movement and survives in a dozen or so villages to this day. The family name “Halabi” (meaning someone from Aleppo) is very common among the Druze, and as the eminent Lebanese Druze scholar, Sami Makaram, suggested to this reviewer, there are strong grounds for supporting Junbalati origin among the Druze of this region.
The book is divided into four chapters, preceded by a preface, glossary and introductory background on the Druze, their history, religion and culture, followed by an Epilogue and Conclusion. Chapter One gives us an overview of the Druze and the Jews in Mandatory Palestine (1917-47) during which time the foundation of Druze-Zionist cooperation was laid. Chapter Two looks at “The Druze and the Jews in the Civil War, November 1947-May 1948.” Chapter Three considers “A Strengthening of Ties, May-September 1948,” and Chapter Four reviews the role of “The Druze with the New State, July October 1948.” The Epilogue takes us into the “Immediate aftermath of the War, November 1948-July 1949.” For the bulk of her study, the author is forced to rely on Zionist and Israeli sources, since, as one might imagine, Arab sources were not open to her.
Even Israeli sources proved problematic; as she points out in her preface, she was given only those documents chosen for her by the archivists and had to copy them out by hand. Still, her documentation is quite substantial and there are few major gaps in her account of the period. The lack of any documentation from the other side is unfortunate, but she cannot be faulted for this.
What emerges from her narrative is how concerned the Zionists were to seek cooperation with various Arab groups during the Mandate period, especially those like the Maronites in Lebanon and the Druze of Palestine, who distrusted Sunni Arab nationalism. A completely rural people confined to two villages in Mount Carmel and sixteen others in Galilee, they numbered just 7,000 in 1922 and were not recognized by the British as a distinct community, being lumped with the Sunnis, as they had been by the Ottomans.
One carrot the Zionists were able to hold out to them was the promise of independent communal status. Although they had their own traditional leadership, chiefly the Tarif clan of Julis, they had long looked to the Atrash family of the Jabal Druze in Syria for political guidance. Indeed, one of the most interesting facets of this book is the author’s careful accounting of that relationship, especially with the leading figure, Sultan Al-Atrash, during the Mandate period and even during the 1947-49 wars.
It was the Palestinian uprising of 1936-39 that saw the beginning of serious ties between Palestinian Druze, criticized and eventually attacked by the Sunni nationalists for their neutrality in that struggle, and the Jews. The Druze villages of Mount Carmel (Isfiyya and Daliyat al-Karmil) and the Druze of the nearby mixed Christian-MuslimDruze town of Shafa Amru were the first to declare open allegiance to the Zionist cause. As the fighting spread, the villages of Galilee came around one by one, though Yanuh and Jathth did resist the Israeli armies in circumstances that make for very interesting reading (pp. 110-21).
In the early stages of the war there was a Druze battalion from Syria under the leadership of Shaikb Wahab, a veteran of the 1925 uprising against the French, which fought with the Palestinians and fought well. But at a decisive battle in Galilee near the Jewish settlement of Ramat Yohanan in April 1948 (at which Moshe Dayan’s brother Zorik was killed), Wahab’s forces were defeated and shortly afterward dissolved. He and what was left of his battalion were forced to retreat in to Lebanon on May 22. Another Syrian-Lebanese Arab force, led by Fawzi Qawuqji, also met with stiff resistance, notably from the Druze who had joined Moshe Dayan’s Carmeli Brigade in the aftermath of Wahab’s retreat.
Strangely enough we are given no information about Qawuqji at all. Yet he is introduced on page 57 with no background (other than in the glossary: “Commander of the Arab Resistance Army”) as if he were a household name. A Sunni Muslim from Tripoli, Lebanon, he fought in the 1925 uprising and later with Rashid al-Gailani in Iraq during World War II. His ties to the Druze were strong enough that he was chosen to go to Syria in 1947 to try and recruit their support, unsuccessfully as it turned out, for the Palestinian nationalist cause. A year later, Druze Palestinians fighting with the Israelis at the battle of Yanuh defeated him and his men, forcing them to retreat to Lebanon at the end of October 1948, soon to be followed by 700,000 Palestinian Muslim and 60,000 Palestinian Christian refugees. Significantly, “no Druze villagers were expelled” (p. 119).
In the aftermath of the fighting, the Druze began to consolidate their ties with the victorious Zionists. Still, their political situation remained tenuous until Ben Gurion came out in favor of their being “turned into a millet” (p. 126). As early as August 1949, the Tarif family, members of which have traditionally served, and serve today, as the Shaykh al-Aql or chief religious leader of the Palestinian Druze, began negotiating a separate Druze communal status with the Israeli Ministry of Religious Affairs (p. 137), though this was not to materialize officially until 1957. One month earlier, the Druze unit of the Israeli army marched in the Army Day Parade in Tel Aviv (a photograph of this event appears on the cover of the dust jacket).
As Parsons concludes: “The creation by Jews and Druze of a shared history is both an ingredient in and a result of their alliance during the 1947-49 Arab-Israeli War” (p. 144). Here she is echoing the title of the 1995 book by Israeli Druze parliamentarian and diplomat, Zeidan Atashi of Isfiyya (which Parsons cites in her bibliography but not in her study), “Druze and Jews in Israel: A Shared Destiny?”
Overall the author has filled a much-needed niche in the history of the Druze people in the twentieth century. Her scholarship is admirable and her narrative flows along in good, very readable style. However, the general population figures for the Druze are mainly my own, from around 1985, and now considerably out of date. A more significant fault lies in the lack of even a single map. With so many place names and battle sites reappearing throughout the text, maps would have helped the reader immeasurably and made the book even more relevant and accessible.