Michael Totten

The Tower of the Sun

Tens of thousands of people live under Israeli occupation whom most of us never hear about. They are entirely ignored almost everywhere. Few outside the Middle East even know they exist. Their plight is not taught in schools. No activists rally on their behalf. Hardly anyone in the world demands with passion that they be liberated.

They are Arabs, but they are not Muslims.

They’re the Druze of the Golan Heights.

“We have an undefined nationality,” Faiz Safd said and sipped from a cup of thick Turkish coffee.

He agreed to meet me and my Israeli friend Hadar Sela and explain what he and the people in his community think of Israel’s occupation of the Golan. The Israelis took it from Syria during the Six Day War in 1967 after Syria, Egypt, and Jordan tried for a second time in eighteen years to obliterate Israel. The Assad regime in Damascus demands the land be returned, but Jerusalem effectively annexed it by extending Israeli law to the territory in 1981 and offering all its people citizenship—an offer most Druze felt compelled to turn down.

Faiz is in his mid-thirties and, like me, wasn’t yet born when Syria lost the Golan. Israel has been in charge of it during his entire life, but if the 1967 war had never happened—or if Israel had returned the Golan to Syria for peace in the meantime—his nationality would not be ambiguous. He would be Syrian.

“How do you travel out of the country if you have an undefined nationality?” Hadar said.

“It isn’t easy,” Faiz said. “We can’t get Syrian or Israeli passports, and Syria won’t let us visit or move there. They want us to stay here on the Golan so we can help them get it back.”

The largest Druze community on the Golan is in Majdal Shams, high on the slopes of Mount Hermon, where around 9,000 people live. “Majdal Shams” is the Arabic adaptation of the village’s Aramaic name, which in English means Tower of the Sun.

The Druze village of Majdal Shams (Tower of the Sun) on the Golan Heights

In the years between 1948 and 1967, Syrian soldiers fired from fixed positions on the ridge of the Golan at Israeli civilians below in the Galilee region. Israel, therefore, refuses to give the area back until Syria signs a peace treaty. The Druze, however, weren’t the ones shooting from that ridgeline. They had excellent relations with Jews in the area before Israel declared independence in 1948 and Syria waged its first war of destruction. Good relations were restored at once after Israel conquered the territory. None of the Israelis I met on the Golan had anything bad to say about their Druze neighbors, nor did I detect any hatred of Jews or of Israel among the Druze.

Israel never annexed the West Bank or Gaza, never extended Israeli law to those territories, and never offered citizenship to the people who live there. Israelis almost certainly never will, mostly, but not entirely, because they don’t want millions of vehemently and at times violently anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist Palestinians inside their country.

There are no Palestinians on the Golan, though, so it was safer to annex. Almost all the non-Jews who live there aren’t even Muslims.

The Druze are an unusual bunch. They’re monotheists who emerged from Islam a thousand years ago, but their religion changed so drastically it became something else. They don’t proselytize or wage wars of conversion or conquest. No one is even allowed to convert. That door closed in the year 1043. You’re either born a Druze, or you aren’t a Druze. And if you die a Druze, they say you’ll be reincarnated as one.

Their religious texts are kept secret, not only from non-Druze, but from most Druze, as well. The “uninitiated” majority aren’t required to observe any rituals. They aren’t even allowed to know much about the religion.

There are only around 800,000 of them in the entire Middle East, and they live exclusively in the Levant—the Eastern Mediterranean. The Middle East beyond Israel’s borders is often thought of as a monolithic bloc of Arabs and Muslims, but it isn’t, and it’s especially not in the Levant. This part of the region is practically defined by diversity and disunity. Druze live chockablock next to Arab Christians who live alongside Armenians. Shias live near Jews and Maronite Catholics who often don’t even think of themselves as Arabs. Alawites live among Sunnis, Shias, Christians, and Jews. Sectarian-ethnic maps look similar to those in the former Yugoslavia before it unraveled.

Druze men on the Golan Heights (photo copyright Pam Willson)

The Druze, like the Maronites, are too few to build their own state. They don’t even appear to want their own state, opting instead for caution to insure themselves against persecution. Kamal Jumblatt, the father of Lebanon’s current Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, once explained his people this way: “Ever alert, [Druze] gauge their surroundings and choose their words carefully, assessing what must be said and what can be said.”

They’re loyal to whoever is in charge of the country they live in. Syria’s Druze side with Bashar Assad and the Baath Party. Lebanon’s Druze forge alliances with the majority coalition of local political parties, or with whoever is ruling Lebanon from the outside. Israeli Druze support and defend the Zionist project.

The Druze on the Golan are no different from Israeli or Lebanese Druze in this way, but their political geography is different. Though they’re governed by Israel now, they may be governed again by Syria later. So even though Israel offers them citizenship, most haven’t taken it. They’re afraid of the consequences if Syrian rule ever returns.

The Sea of Galilee from a Syrian bunker on the Golan Heights

If the Assad regime is still in charge when it happens, they would almost certainly be denounced as traitors for joining the “Zionist Entity” if they accepted the offer of citizenship. Any number of bad things might happen. They could be imprisoned. They might even be killed. They could be thrown off the Golan and permanently exiled to Israel. As far as I know, the Syrian government never once threatened anything of the sort, but it doesn’t have to. The Druze may be more finely attuned to their political environment than anyone in the Middle East, and they understand the nature of the government in Damascus precisely.

What distinguishes totalitarian regimes like Syria’s from garden variety authoritarians like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak is their ability to prevent citizens from even thinking like free individuals. When I visited the Balkans a couple of years ago I heard about a particularly chilling example from the communist era. “Under the regime of Enver Hoxha,” an Albanian human rights official told me, “people were afraid to look at churches and mosques. A friend told me she was too scared to even think about God because Hoxha would know and would throw her in prison.”

Syria’s Bashar Assad isn’t as bad as some of his peers, though his late father Hafez at his worst came awfully close.

A billboard in Syria depicting the late Hafez Assad

The younger Assad still has a powerful effect on the minds of the people who live under his rule. He can even affect the minds of Druze on the Golan who were born after 1967. They effectively live in Israel and have never known anything else. They’ve never met a single Syrian police or intelligence officer. All they need to know is that someday they might.

“Why,” I said to Faiz, “don’t you just take Israeli citizenship?”

“We can’t think about these things,” he said. “We can’t take risks. There are only 20,000 of us.”

I asked him what he thought might happen to him if he did take out citizenship and was later handed over to Syria. He didn’t know. All he knew was that the notion was dangerous.

Israeli journalist and political analyst Jonathan Spyer noticed a similar phenomenon when he traveled from Israel to Lebanon after the war against Hezbollah in 2006. “People have an acute sense of this unseen power which is both nowhere and everywhere,” he told me.

Beirut is a decadent freewheeling Riviera on the Mediterranean. It has more in common with Tel Aviv than with any Arab capital, but much of South Lebanon is ruled by Iran’s proxy militia Hezbollah. Whenever Spyer mentioned to Beirutis that he had a mind to drive to the south, they strongly advised him against it.

“I’d be hanging out in these lovely bars and restaurants,” he said, “with lively people enjoying these nice airy evenings, and as soon as I’d mention that I was going down there, they’d suddenly become serious and say, ‘Don’t do it.’ And I’d say, ‘Why not? Tell me why I shouldn’t go down there.’ They’d just say, ‘You shouldn’t do that.’ To me, that’s power. It’s real unseen power. Any force that can put that kind of fear into people is something we need to look at.”

That’s the kind of power Assad has over the Golan even though his soldiers and his police cannot set foot there.

“What do you think of Assad and his government?” I asked Faiz.

I could tell by the look on his face that he wished I hadn’t said that.

“I’m not allowed to tell you if the Syrian government is good or bad,” he said. “I can say, though, that we want democracy. The last ten years in Syria were better than the ten years before. We hope it keeps getting better. Syria is a young country, like Israel.”

The feeling of powerlessness coming off him was palpable. His community is tiny and weak. They have no control over what happens to the Golan. No one in the “international community” asks them if they’d rather live in Israel or in Syria. Some individuals have taken out Israeli citizenship and moved to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem where Damascus can’t reach them, but those who want to remain in their home village live in the Assad family’s shadow.

“I feel Syrian,” he said. “The Israeli government is not our government. I don’t hate Israel or Jewish people, but my family comes from Syria. My land ownership document is Syrian.”

Majdal Shams, Golan Heights

Yet he has never visited Syria, at least not the part of Syria controlled by the Syrians. The only country he has ever traveled around and lived in is Israel. And he’s at odds enough with the government in Damascus that he says he wants democracy even if he won’t say anything bad about the Assads.

He studied Economics at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “It’s a great city,” he said. “Most of our professionals work in Tel Aviv and Haifa because there’s not enough of an economy on the Golan. We have to rely on ourselves. No one will help us, so we work hard—more than eight hours a day, believe me.”

His Druze community, he told me, produces more professionals per capita than Israel’s Jewish society does. I don’t know if that’s really true or if it isn’t, but he seems to think so.

I’m reasonably sure that an independent Druze state would differ markedly from most other Arab states in the region if one existed. It would be prosperous. It would not start aggressive wars with its neighbors. It would not be a theocracy like Iran or Gaza—not when even most Druze aren’t allowed to know the details of their religion. The “uninitiated” majority live entirely secular lives.

Druze village near a small lake, Golan Heights

“Any impulse for a Druze state?” my Israeli companion Hadar asked Faiz.

“No,” he said. “We are not a nationality. We are a religion.”

“And you’re Arabs,” I said.

“Of course,” he said. “We speak Arabic. And we feel Arab.”

Yet I can’t help but wonder if they would still feel like Arabs if they did have their own state. Maybe they would.

The border between the Golan Heights and Syria proper is strange. People and goods can cross, but only once and only one way. The Druze can export agricultural products to Syria, but Israelis can’t export or import anything. The Druze also can’t import goods from the Syrian side because there’s a chance they would end up in Israel.

Jars in a Druze market (photo copyright Pam Willson)

If a Golani Druze woman marries a Syrian Druze—and it happens sometimes—she can cross the border to join him, but it’s a one-way trip. She will never be allowed to return. She’ll get a Syrian identity card on arrival, and that will be that. Israeli filmmaker Eran Riklis brought all this to life in his 2006 film The Syrian Bride.

I asked Faiz to explain his religion to me, though I knew the Druze aren’t allowed to say much about their religion to people like me. Faiz laughed when I asked him, probably because he suspected I knew that.

“You don’t need to know,” he said. “But if you want to know, you can find out a few things on Google.”

If I understand the Druze correctly—and I’m pretty sure that I do—the Druze of the Golan would become completely loyal to Israel if Syria were to relinquish its claim and the rest of the world recognized the Golan Heights as Israeli.

The Druze, Israeli, and American flags in an Israeli Druze village

They’d do it for the same reason the Druze of the Galilee are loyal to Israel and the Zionists. I wanted Faiz to admit this to me, but I knew he couldn’t. I was curious, though, what he would say if I put the question to him directly.

“What if Syria says Israel can keep the Golan?” I said. “Would you take Israeli citizenship then?”

“It’s not going to happen,” he said and laughed.

We both laughed. He knew what I was trying to get him to say, and he knew that I knew that he knew. In a way he was being evasive, but his answer was also on point. My question was so hypothetical there was no sense in him even considering it, as if I’d asked a man who lives in Nebraska what he’d think if Omaha were annexed to Canada.

I thought he handled my questions well, but he got increasingly fidgety and uncomfortable as I kept at it. He wasn’t frightened, as was a Syrian I once met in Beirut who was terrified that the mukhabarat—the secret police—would overhear our conversation and send him to prison, but Faiz seemed a little unsure of himself. My questions were more direct than he was used to. Druze politics is subtle. Meaning is often found in the things left unsaid.

After a while he called a friend on his cell phone and asked for some backup.

Faiz’s English is pretty good, but his friend, Dr. Taiser Maray from the Golan for Development organization, speaks it perfectly. He was all handshakes and smiles when he showed up. “What is it you’d like to know?” he said.

“Well,” I said, “I’ve spent the last two days talking to Israeli Jews about the Golan Heights, but you live here, too.”

“And you don’t want only one side of the story,” he said.

“Exactly,” I said. “You know how this works. So tell me about the Golan Heights from your point of view.”

“I’m not sure what our Israeli neighbors really think,” Faiz interjected, “so if they tell you, please let us know.”

Hadar was stunned when she heard that, but she didn’t say anything in front of Faiz or Taiser. She waited until we were back in the car.

“Like it or not,” Taiser said, “the Golan is Syrian land. That’s just a fact. It has nothing to do with politics. There were Syrian farms and villages here. I’m not talking about whether Syria is a free country.”

I didn’t ask him about the dearth of Syrian freedom. He suggested right up front that he did not want to talk about it, but saying even that much was significant. We both know Syria isn’t free, and his bringing it up even in the neutral way that he did told me he was thinking about it, he wanted me to think about it, and he wanted me to know that he was thinking about it. He obviously wouldn’t have said that if Israel had a land dispute with, say, Denmark.

Like Faiz, he perfectly and precisely split his politics down the middle.

“I care about Israel,” he said, “much more than I can about, for example, Egypt. Israel is my neighbor. And I’m not just saying this to be nice. I want the best for my neighbors. If Israel needs to occupy the Golan Heights for security reasons, okay, but Israelis shouldn’t build settlements here.”

A minefield on the Golan Heights

He and Faiz knew my companion Hadar lives on a Golan Heights settlement. She and her significant other Reuven live in a house on kibbutz Kfar Haruv along the ridge above the Galilee. They raised their children in that house.

She didn’t take offense to what Taiser said, though. She and Reuven let me spend a few nights in their spare bedroom while I traveled around the Golan, and that room was built entirely by Druze construction workers from Majdal Shams. She used to jokingly tell the contractor he was doing such a good job because he hoped to move in after Israel withdraws from the territory, but he once told her seriously that if that ever happens he’ll take citizenship and relocate to Israel.

“The settlements are against international law, actually,” Taiser said, “and should be evacuated during a handover. But I also think Jews should be able to live here, along with Christians and Muslims.”

Few Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza say Jews should be able to live in their future state. And no Syrian citizen who lives under the control of Bashar Assad would dare even suggest to an American journalist that Israel has the right to hold onto the Golan for security reasons. Yet Taiser lives as a Syrian Druze under Israeli law and takes the “centrist” position.

Tourists look into Syria from the Golan Heights

He gets along perfectly well with Israeli Jews, but unlike Israeli Druze, he hasn’t signed on to Zionism. One reason is perfectly obvious—he must remain loyal to Syria, even if not per se to Assad. Perhaps another reason, though, is because Druze everywhere eschew religion-based nationalism. They don’t yearn to have their own state, and they may have a hard time relating to others who do.

Taiser thinks—or at least he says—that the safety of Middle Eastern Jews doesn’t require Jewish sovereignty.

“We tried that already,” Hadar said. “It didn’t work.”

“But Jews were treated far worse in Europe than they ever have been in the Middle East,” Taiser said. “I’m not making excuses for anti-Semitism in the Middle East, I’m just saying it’s not forever impossible for Jews to live here with others. We Druze—like the Shias and Christians and Alawites—also have problems with the Sunni majority because we left Islam. But most of the time we are okay. We should be able to live together in the same state—whether it’s in Israel or in Syria—on the basis of civil rights and equality.”

Druze woman

Of course it’s impossible for Jews to live in Syria on the basis of civil rights and equality under the current regime. Nobody can, and Jews perhaps least of all. And it might not be much easier under the next government either, especially if the Muslim Brotherhood takes over.

“If I were a good Zionist,” he said, “I’d say trade peace for the Golan and the security situation would be resolved.”

“But Assad won’t exchange peace for the Golan,” I said.

“Of course he will,” he said.

“I don’t think so,” I said. “Last year when I visited Lebanon, Walid Jumblatt said something very interesting when I met him for lunch at his house.”

Taiser’s eyes widened. Faiz’s eyes widened even more. They had no idea I know Walid Jumblatt, the famous leader of Lebanon’s Druze. I wasn’t trying to drop names or impress him. I just wanted to know what how he’d react when I held up his quintessentially Druze-like analysis next to somebody else’s different but equally Druze-like analysis.

“Assad doesn’t care about the Golan,” Jumblatt told me. “Suppose we go ultimately to the so-called peace. Then later on, what is the purpose of the Syrian regime? What is he going to tell his people? Especially, mind you, he is a member of the Alawite minority. This minority could be accused of treason. It’s not like Egypt or Jordan whereby the government has some legitimacy. Here you get accused of treason by the masses, by the Sunnis. So using classic slogans like ‘Palestine will liberate the Golan with Hezbollah’ is a must for him to stay in power.”

Lebanon's Druze leader Walid Jumblatt at his home in Mukhtara, Chouf mountains

“I had a friend at the time—he is still my friend—when I was in Syria,” Jumblatt continued. “He was the chief of staff of the Syrian army and is now living in Los Angeles. He was quite an important guy and honest with the media. He was a Sunni from a big family in Aleppo. And when Hafez Assad was about to fix up the so-called settlement through Bill Clinton, and before they met him in Geneva, a prominent Alawite officer in the Syrian army came to Assad and said, ‘What are you doing? We will be lost if you make peace. We will be accused of treason.'”

Taiser and Faiz didn’t know what to say when I brought that up. Perhaps they knew it was true, but couldn’t say so in public. Maybe they didn’t want to contradict Walid Jumblatt even if they think he’s wrong. Whatever the explanation, they neither agreed nor disagreed with Jumblatt’s analysis.

Bashar Assad and his Alawite community have some things in common with Druze. They, too, are religious minorities who emerged long ago from Islam and became something else. They, too, have to be sensitive to the majority where they live. If Syria’s Alawite rulers made peace with Israel, they may well face a Sunni insurgency as Jumblatt suggested—and it would not be the first time.

Years ago I visited an Alawite village in Lebanon with a Shia woman named Leena from the south. She took me down to her home region from Beirut to show me around. One place we both wanted to go was a village called Ghajar, a pinpoint on the map where three nations converge and form the strangest of knots. The northern half of the village is in Lebanon. The southern half is controlled by Israel. All of it once belonged to Syria.

The Alawite village of Ghajar seen from Lebanon with the Golan Heights in the background

After Israel captured the Golan in 1967, Ghajar was stranded in a no-man’s land between Lebanon and Israeli-occupied Syria. The residents couldn’t live suspended in limbo between the two countries forever, so they petitioned the State of Israel and asked to be annexed. They were Syrians—Arabs—not Jews or Israelis, but they would rather live in “Syria” under Israeli occupation than in Lebanon.

The Lebanese-Syrian border, though, wasn’t marked. Over time, Ghajar expanded northward, without anyone even knowing it, into Lebanon. And in the year 2000, when Israel withdrew its soldiers from the “security zone” in South Lebanon, the village was thrown into turmoil. The United Nations wouldn’t certify the Israeli withdrawal unless the northern half of the village was ceded to Lebanon—which, in the real world, meant to Hezbollah.

Ghajar’s residents had been living under Israeli jurisdiction since 1967, and—unlike the Druze of the Golan—most took Israeli citizenship in 1981. So when Leena and I arrived in 2005, the northern half of Ghajar was populated with Syrians in Lebanon with Israeli ID cards.

That’s where Leena intended to take me, but in hindsight I believe she mistakenly took me to a different village right next to Ghajar called Arab al-Luweiza.

The Israeli half of Ghajar, seen from Lebanon

Ghajar had been under Israeli control for decades, but the place Leena showed me was utterly destitute, and in worse shape by far than anything else in the area, whether Jewish, Druze, Christian, or Shia. Some houses were crumbling boxes made out of cinderblocks. Others were shanties with tin roofs and walls. Barren ground was strewn with rubble and rocks.

A handful of barefoot children dressed in dirty clothes and playing in filthy streets ran up to us when we stepped out of the car. Somehow they managed to smile.

“What is wrong with this place?” I said to Leena. The conditions were worse than in the Hezbollah areas. “Who lives here? Are these people Shias?”

Leena wasn’t sure, so she asked one of the boys.

“Alawi!” he said.

The Alawi, or Alawite, sect is a peculiar religious community that makes up around ten percent of Syria’s population and a tiny percentage of Lebanon’s. Most Alawites live along the Mediterranean coast in Syria and Northern Lebanon, but a few live as far south as the Golan Heights area. They are descendants of the followers of Muhammad ibn Nusayr, who took them out of mainstream Twelver Shia Islam in the 10th century. Their religion has as much in common with Christianity and Gnosticism as it does with Islam, and both Sunnis and Shias have long considered them “infidels.”

The strangest thing about the Alawites is that they have made themselves rulers of Syria. It’s as unlikely as the Druze lording it over Lebanon, or the Kurds seizing control of Iraq, or Coptic Christians mounting a successful coup against Mubarak in Egypt, but it happened. As the Assad clan is Alawite, most of the elites in the Baath Party, the bureaucracy, and the military are Alawites, too.

Imam Musa Sadr, founder of the Shia movement Amal in Lebanon, struck a deal with Hafez Assad in 1974 and issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, somewhat implausibly declaring Alawites part of the Shia community.

Yet the Alawites are not Shias. They’re Alawites. The two communities need religious cover for their political alliance, however, and Sadr’s fatwa gives it to them. The relationship between Hezbollah and Damascus’ Alawite regime, though, is strictly one of convenience. The two feel little or no warmth for each other.

Castle ruins on the Golan Heights

While Hezbollah and Amal are politically aligned with the Alawite government, the Sunnis are not, and Sunnis make up around 70 percent of Syria’s population. The fundamentalists among them have long detested Assad’s Baath Party regime, not only because it is secular and oppressive, but because its leaders are “heretics.”

So the Assad family ended up supporting terrorist groups in Syria’s war against Israel for some of the same reasons the Khomeinists do in Iran. As minorities in the region, neither can be rulers of or hegemons over Sunnis without street cred.

In 1982, the same year Israel invaded Lebanon and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps founded the prototype of Hezbollah, Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood took up arms against Hafez Assad’s government in the Syrian city of Hama. Assad dispatched the Alawite-dominated military and destroyed most of the old city with air strikes, tanks, and artillery. Rifaat Assad, the former president’s younger brother, boasted that the regime killed 38,000 people in a single day. Not once since then have the Muslim Brothers tried to rise up again.

In his book From Beirut to Jerusalem, Thomas Friedman dubbed the senior Assad’s rules of engagement “Hama Rules.” They are the Syrian stick. The carrot is Assad’s steadfast “resistance” against Israel. No Arab government in the world is as stridently anti-Israel, in both action and rhetoric, as his. There is no better way for a detested minority regime to curry favor with Sunnis in Syria and the larger Arab world than by adopting the anti-Zionist cause as its own.

As “infidels,” Syria’s Alawites don’t feel they have the legitimacy to force Sunnis to make peace with Israel. That’s a risky business even for Sunni leaders, as the assassination of Egypt’s Anwar Sadat showed after he signed a treaty with Israel’s Menachem Begin.

Because most of Syria’s Alawites live along the Mediterranean coast and away from the Sunni heartland, they could, at least theoretically, be separated from Syria into their own Alawite nation. The Middle East would probably be a safer place if they had their own state. Unlike the Druze, they once aspired to one. They did have their own semi-autonomous government under the French Mandate between 1930 and 1937, and again from 1939 to 1944.

Syria during the French Mandate

“The Alawites refuse to be annexed to Muslim Syria,” Suleiman Assad, grandfather of President Bashar Assad, wrote in a petition to France during the second period in 1943. “In Syria, the official religion of the state is Islam, and according to Islam, the Alawites are considered infidels…The spirit of hatred and fanaticism imbedded in the hearts of the Arab Muslims against everything that is non-Muslim has been perpetually nurtured by the Islamic religion. There is no hope that the situation will ever change. Therefore, the abolition of the mandate will expose the minorities in Syria to the dangers of death and annihilation.”

The flag of the now-defunct semi-independent Alawite State

The Alawites’ semi-autonomous government was dissolved back into French Mandate Syria in 1944 and their Latakia region has been an integral part of the country ever since. Had they declared and received independence, they might even have been natural allies of Israel for the same reasons the Middle East’s Christians and Kurds are. After all, when the Alawites of Ghajar were given a choice to live under a Lebanese or Israeli government, they chose Israel’s. And they made that choice when Lebanon was considered the “Switzerland” of the Middle East, years before it descended into chaos and horror and war. Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights freed them from tyrannical Syrian rule, and it freed them from the Sunni demand to resist the Zionists.

After Hadar and I said goodbye to Faiz and Taiser and thanked them for talking with us, I dropped her off back at her house before returning to Tel Aviv. We took the long way round, though, so she could show me a couple of things.

“There’s a destroyed Alawite village ahead,” she said before directing me to turn off the highway. The road to the ruins clearly has not been maintained since the 60s. It is, like the village, in a state of advanced deterioration.

Ruins of an Alawite village, Golan Heights

“It must have been lovely here once,” Hadar said. “They had this amazing view in a moderate climate and with all these trees above northern Israel. It’s a shame, really. We would have gotten along fine with them had they stayed.”

She was most likely right about that. The Israelis get along fine with the Golani Druze. And they get along even better with the Alawites living in Ghajar.

“I should have asked our Druze friends why they stayed when the Alawites fled,” she said.

Syrian civilians fleeing the Golan Heights during the Six Day War in June, 1967

“That’s a good question,” I said. Why did the Druze stay when the Alawites fled? “I don’t know why, but I can guess.”

“Why?” she said.

“Perhaps,” I said, “because they knew already that the Druze in Israel were treated well by the Israeli people and government. They knew there weren’t in any danger, but the Alawites had no idea what to expect. There was no precedent for Israelis and Alawites getting along. They would have been fine had they stayed, but they didn’t know that. So they left. But that’s just a guess.”

Ruins in the destroyed Alawite village, Golan Heights

“I found something Faiz said very disturbing,” she said.

“What’s that?” I said.

“When he told you he wasn’t sure what his Israeli neighbors really think,” she said. “We’ve been telling them exactly what we think now for decades. We want them to join us and take citizenship. It’s not a trick. That’s exactly what we want and hope for, and we’ve never told them anything else.”

Faiz, like all the other Druze on the Golan, surely hears this message from the Israelis, but it seems he isn’t prepared to accept it at face value. Perhaps he suffers from cognitive egocentrism, what Professor Richard Landes calls the tendency to project one’s own mentality on others.

“My guess is that he was projecting,” I said. “He doesn’t necessarily tell you what he really believes, for political reasons beyond his control, so maybe he thinks Israelis do the same thing. It’s completely normal behavior from his point of view. In his experience, everyone does it.”

“We’ve perfectly integrated Israeli Druze into our society,” she said, “and he knows that, so why doesn’t he think we could do the same with the Druze of the Golan?”

Israel has done a good job integrating even non-Middle Eastern minorities. “We accepted Vietnamese boat people as refugees in the 1970s,” she said. “They’re Israeli citizens, and their children are Israeli citizens. They aren’t Jewish, but they fit in very well. They speak Hebrew, and they serve in the army.”

She was a little bit bothered by our entire conversation with Faiz and Taiser. They told me more or less what I thought they would say, but she was uncomfortable with the differences between their point of view and that of her Israeli Druze friends.

“I just wish they would meet us halfway,” she said.

“They are,” I said, “compared with the Syrian Druze. If they lived under the authority of Bashar Assad and took their opinions from him, they wouldn’t say they’re more concerned with your welfare than the welfare of Egyptians. They wouldn’t say Israel has the right to occupy the Golan for security reasons as long as Israel doesn’t build settlements. They’d champion the ‘resistance’ and say you have no right to exist in this region at all.”

An Israeli house on the Golan Heights near the Druze village of Majdal Shams

“That’s true,” she said. “I once saw them in Majdal Shams carrying placards demanding Israel leave the Golan. Only a tiny number of people showed up at the rally, and they looked terribly bored. It doesn’t cost them anything to protest against Israel, but they don’t dare protest the Syrian government even though they live here.”

She later sent me an email after thinking about our conversation some more.

“It’s no good from their point of view,” she said, “our being nice neighbors and offering them full citizenship if we don’t come out once and for all and make it very clear that we have no intention of ever giving up the Golan. As long as Israel does this silly peace dance with the Assads of any generation once every few years, Faiz and the rest of the Druze will still be in that impossible position. I can see entirely where he’s coming from and how unfair it is to them—all we’re offering them is something they can’t take. They need us to operate on the ‘strong horse’ principle, but it’s against our nature.”

Much of the world supports the Palestinian cause, partly because they’ve been stateless for decades, but also because Palestinian leaders, both religious and secular, have waged relentless campaigns of terrorism. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, as they say. Few would take an interest in the Palestinians if they acted like Druze.

Hardly anyone yearns to return the Druze of the Golan to Syria. Even they themselves come across as only half-interested. If they were passionate, though, and if they mass-murdered Israelis, their cause may well get traction on university campuses, in activist circles, and perhaps even in the White House. Terrorism works, at least up to a point. If the Druze adhered more closely to the regional mainstream instead of their own local mainstream, they might resort to terrorism themselves, but they don’t.

The Assad family

The Alawites are a little bit different. Most who live in the Golan Heights village of Ghajar enthusiastically took Israeli citizenship as soon as it was offered. They seem to think it makes them safer. Those who live in Syria enthusiastically embrace the Sunni cause of “resistance,” and they do it for the same reason. It’s safer that way.

The war between Syria and Israel will last a long time, for the rest of Assad’s life, more likely than not.


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