Sheik Mowafaq Tafik has been the spiritual leader of the Israeli Druze community since 1993. He comes from a line of spiritual leaders that began in 1753. The sheik studied the Druze religion in Lebanon and holds a degree in law from Haifa University. The Druze religion has one million adherents, mainly in Syria and Lebanon. There are 140,000 in Israel, most of whom live in the north. The religion was established in Egypt by Muhammed bin Ismail Nashtakin ad-Darazi and Hamza ibn ‘Ali ibn Ahmad, Ismaili mystics and scholars, around the year 1016 CE. The religion recognizes all the Abrahamic prophets. It does not consider itself as a part of Islam.
Tafik speaks with Moment about the plight of his fellow religionists in Syria, and on raising the profile of the Druze among American Jewish leaders.
What has been happening to the Druze people in Syria?
In November 2017, the extremist group Jabhat Al Nusra, associated with Al Qaeda, sent a car bomb into the Druze village Hader, located in Syria, just beyond the Golan border, and killed 17 Druze. We turned to the Israeli government to help our people and the government has committed to stopping any terrorist acts in this village, even though it is on the other side of the border. An even more difficult area is in the North in Irbil near the Turkish border, where many Druze live. There is a huge battle between Jabhat al-Nusra, who are fanatical Muslims, and the Syrian, Russian, Iranian and Turkish forces. More than 50,000 Druze live there in 17 villages. The extremists sometimes make the Druze sell their property and force them out of Idlib and into the mountains. They destroy Druze holy sites. In some case, they try to convert to Sunni Islam. The situation is very chaotic. One reason I came to the United States is to warn the free world about massacres of Druze and other minorities in Syria who are at risk. I ask for the United States to see our pain and become more involved.
What is the origin of the Druze religion and its relationship to Judaism?
The Druze and the Jews are brothers in history. The alliance began at the time of Moses, who took the Jewish people from Egypt and led them to the promised land. When Moses was young he spent time in the Sinai and met Jethro, the prophet, peace be upon him, the father of Zipporah, whom Moses married. Jethro taught Moses how to organize the Jewish people. In our tradition Jethro is the father of the Druze people. Our religion was established in the year 1016 in Egypt. We believe in and accept all the prophets. We have tolerance for others, for other religions. We are monogamists—not allowed to marry more than one woman. That is a difference between us and Islam. Also, we made sure that women were protected and have rights to divorce. In our religion there are the secular and the religious—uqqal in Arabic—which means “wise person.” Women are permitted to study the Druze religion and to become uqqal. We also believe in taqiyya, loyalty to the place where you live. We want to protect our faith. We do not persecute or discriminate against others. We do not accept converts.
What has been the relationship of the Druze community to Israel?
Even before the Second World War, the Druze community joined and was an ally and friend to the Jewish people. We decided to be with the Jewish people without any agreement, any condition or payment, except that we all had legitimate rights. And we are very proud that we serve the state. Beginning in 1956 our youth began to serve in the army. Now 85 percent serve. The Druze in Israel are fully involved in economic and social life. Many of them carry senior government positions and are partners in building the country. For many years we have been committed to building connections in Israel between minorities and the majority. We thought that the state of Israel would help us as it does for the Jewish people, but for many years this did not happen. Perhaps it was because we are such a small community. We must separate between the Jewish people and the government. The Jewish people love the Druze, and they are happy to be our neighbors. But the problem has been the government and the political parties. Only in 2014 did I meet with Netanyahu, and the government agreed on a five-year plan to put money into Druze infrastructure and education. This is helpful but not enough, and the funds are slow in coming.
How do the Druze youth maintain their religion while they are in the army?
For the four years before entering the army, every young Druze takes heritage seminars. They study our religion and traditional mentality. This could be called a Druze mechina—“preparation” for the army. We explain to the young people the dangers and the positive and the negative about the army. Sometimes we have a problem with young people who make mistakes, but we do our best. And don’t forget, every two or three weeks these youths are back with their family, which continues to educate them. Of course, there are small numbers who marry outside the community. And many have jobs in Haifa, Tel Aviv, etc.
How do the Druze do in education?
The Druze study all the fields of the life—math, English, music, everything. Some Druze high schools (Beit Jann) are among the best in the country. But especially in education, the budget given to Jewish students is greater than that for the Druze. We need scholarships to make sure that our young people go to the university after they come back from the army. After army service the families are trying to keep tradition and the mentality. Many ask their children not to leave to study and instead to get married and build a home. This creates a future problem, since they will not have a university degree. I and other Druze leaders are trying to encourage young people to study before they marry and build homes. We are asking the government to increase its budget and especially to offer scholarships for Druze youths to study in the university.
How many Druze are in the Knesset?
There are five members, one each in the Zionist Union, Kulanu, Yisrael Beitenu, Likud, and the Arab list. We listened to the experience of the Jewish people and so we did not put all the eggs in one basket. If the Druze would establish our own party, we would not get even one vote.
You just visited the Holocaust Museum. What was your personal reaction to this experience as well as its relationship to the history of the Druze people?
While there is no one who can guarantee that something like this could not happen again, I believe that the answer to the Holocaust has been to create a state of Israel that is strong enough to defend itself as well as the Druze people. One thousand years ago, when the Druze religion started, the majority around us persecuted and killed many of us. That is the reason that Druze families, the people and the community decided to live in the high mountains, to protect ourselves and save our lives, because we continue to be persecuted through these 1000 years. So, we understand the persecution of others.