ISRAEL

Meet the Young Arabs Who Want to Be Israeli Citizens… Again

ISRAEL
Oct 14, 2014 at 11:09 AM ET

MAJDAL SHAMS, ISRAEL—It’s close to midnight and the bars and restaurants are packed with young men and women. Cars crowd the busy streets and kiosk vendors hustle Heinekens as electronic music floats out into the night.

This may sound like downtown Tel Aviv, but it’s actually a remote mountain village in the Golan Heights, located just a few miles from the Syrian border. And most of the revelers are Druze, a Muslim minority group commonly found in Lebanon, Syria and northern Israel.

“I want to have a nice life, to study and have a good time with my friends,” says Raami, a young man sitting at a bar along the town’s main strip. “What do I care about Shiites and Sunnis, about Sharia law and holy war?”

Raami’s feelings are increasingly common here. But like many in town, he doesn’t want to disclose his full name; his relatives, in both Israel and in Syria, wouldn’t approve of what he’s saying. “There is Syria, and here is Israel,” he continues, “and between us there’s a border.”

Culturally speaking, that border is changing. As the Syrian civil war pushes into its fourth year, a growing number of young Druze in the Golan are now privately saying they want to be part of Israel, not Syria.

It wasn’t always the case. Until the 1967 war, when Israel gained control of the Golan Heights, the area’s Druze, which now number around 30,000, were Syrian citizens, and most longed for their land to be returned to their home country, where many still had family. In a number of public ceremonies during the 1980s, village residents burned their Israeli ID cards and passports, a symbolic way of refusing Israeli citizenship, which the state offered them after officially annexing the area in 1981. Until a few years ago, Syrian flags fluttered above buildings and across the ceramic balconies here in town. And most Druze in the Golan continued to pledge their loyalty to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The Israeli government would likely welcome the change among the Druze in the Golan. Indeed, their loyalty to Assad has made them an anomaly among Israel’s roughly 100,000 Druze, most of whom are citizens and serve in the Israeli army.

A secretive offshoot of Shiite Islam, the Druze have survived in present-day Lebanon, Syria and Israel for hundreds of years, mainly through strategic alliances, despite the region’s reputation for religious intolerance. One of the reasons the Golan Druze is loyal to Assad: His government offers a free college education. Thanks to this largesse, villages such as Madjal Shams have some of the highest per capita rates of people with college degrees in Israel.

Despite the tension between the Syrian and Israeli governments, the area has remained peaceful. “There is no violence here,” says Dr. Wajdi Safadi, a local surgeon, pointing to the young men and women drinking and chatting at bars along the main strip. “There is no other place like this in the Middle East.”

For young Druze in Majdal Shams, however, the war against Assad has been a wake-up call for what could happen to their community if they continue to lean toward Syria. “It’s an event which totally transformed the reality of this community,” says an older resident who was also present at the bar. “If you ask an elder in this village, he will say, ‘I am Syrian.’ If you ask a teenager, he will say, ‘I am Druze.’ Some will say they are citizens of the world.”

Over the past two years, as the death toll has mounted in Syria and some of the regime’s most brutal tactics have come to light, many young Druze in the Golan have lost faith in what their parents told them about the Assad government. Raami and his friends, for example, have seen the effects of war firsthand. Some of them studied in Damascus until last December as part of the Syrian government’s free college program. “We were there when the war started and two years into it. First it was far away. Then a group of men with guns and machetes robbed us while we were sitting in a viewpoint overlooking the old city,” Raami says.

His friend imitates the slow movement of a blade across his throat. “It was a real shock for us,” he says. “After that, we came back to Israel.”

Now both study at Tel Aviv University, which is a welcome change in many ways. “It’s quite different,” they say with a smile. “Tel Aviv is much more fun, but we felt richer in Damascus.”

Nevertheless, tension remains. Some young Druze can’t vocalize their desire to accept Israeli citizenship, fearing it would upset their families tremendously. “It depends on which family you come from,” says Firas, a young Druze, as he takes a swig of beer. “If your father is a strong Assad supporter, it is hard to go against him.”

Another young man at the bar agreed. “I tried to explain to my father that it’s OK for us to get IDs, that it would make our life easier with work or traveling abroad,” he says. “I even showed him paragraphs from international law stating that an occupied people are entitled to these documents and do not risk their future status. He wouldn’t listen. They are very stubborn, the older generation. I told him sarcastically, ‘Thanks, Dad, for securing my future.’”

But as the war in Syria worsens and new ideas continue to take hold, few here see much benefit in siding with Assad or associating themselves with the Syrian government, whether it stands or falls. “The whole village is waiting for someone to break the taboo,” Firas says. “I would say it’s just a matter of time before we all have blue [Israeli] IDs.”