Jewish soldiers refuse to share Seder table with Druze comrades

Druze soldiers used to think their uniform will exempt them from the racism prevalent in Jewish Israeli society. They ought to seriously rethink this assumption. 

During Seder night last week, a group of Jewish soldiers refused to share the same table with Druze soldiers in training base Camp 80. An officer ordered the soldiers to eat at the same table, and one of the Jewish soldiers said he has no intention of dining with Arabs. Instead handcuffing the fanatic and throwing him into the brig until his court-martial, the other officers gave in to the Jewish fanatic, ordering the Druze soldiers to move to a dirty side-table (Hebrew).

I spent most of my own conscripted military service in the heart of the Gaza Strip, in the Civil Administration Unit in Dir El Balah. Don’t let the name mislead you – we were all in uniform. Since our job demanded daily contact with the Palestinian population, the unit contained a high percentage of Druze soldiers and officers, whose mother tongue was Arabic. Relations between the Jewish and Druze soldiers were good: I remember than one Saturday night, since the secular Jews couldn’t (and I wouldn’t) Samir, the Special Duties Officer, recited the Kiddush by popular demand.

I remember a long conversations with one of the Druze soldiers. He insisted on supporting Meir Martin Kahane, and I tried explaining to him that Kahane is an equal-opportunity Jewish supremacist who hates all non-Jews equally, and that he will deprive them of their rights – particularly of the right to command Jewish troops. The conversation turned to Druze service, and I asked him why so many Druze take up a military career. He said bitterly that as long as they are in uniform, it’s “grab some food soldier, here, have a discount,” but that as soon as they are discharged, it’s “You want a job? But you’re an Arab!”

He divided Israeli society into four classes: on top were the ultra-Orthodox, who did not serve in the IDF but enjoyed all the benefits of government largesse; below them were regular Jews, who did serve and enjoyed said benefits; below them, Palestinian Israelis, who did not serve and did not get any benefits; and at the bottom were the Druze, who served long and hard and got no benefit at all. And yet, he said, the Druze get something out of wearing the uniform – from the public if not from the government.

In other words, under the IDF green they can’t see you’re an Arab.

That was a long time ago, and much has changed. The Druze citizens started understanding, already then, that the State of Israel wants them as soldiers, but would not grant them real equality. The 1990s were the years of yearly demonstrations by Druze leaders in front of the Knesset, which yielded them little.

The Druze are not stupid. We keep hearing, in the last few years, of a decline in the number of Druze who wish to serve, and a poll conducted a few years back by Haifa University found (Hebrew) that only 36 percent of them wanted the forced draft to go on, with 47 percent saying the service should become voluntary and 17 percent thinking it should be fully abolished. That is, a majority of the Druze understood that the only thing they are likely to get out of the glorified “Blood Alliance” between Jews and Druze is blood, and they would like to bow out.

When I had that conversation in early 1990, this was just a hypothetical debate. Kahane himself would be surgically removed a few months later. But four years later, following the Goldstein massacre in Hebron, we found out that Goldstein refused, as a military doctor, to treat Druze soldiers – because, as non-Jews, he was forbidden to treat them even for payment. This was hushed. A few years later, Druze soldiers began complaining of being singled out by settlers for special abuse, particularly because of their non-Jewishness.

Kahane used to say that inside every Jew lives a small Kahane. That little Kahane emerged during that Seder night. The problem is not the racist soldiers, at least not the heart of it; the problem are the officers who folded before strident racism. That’s how it goes: when the State is defined as Jewish, and its army is becoming more and more “Jewish,” this is what happens to non-Jews. After all, as far as most of the Jews living in Israel are concerned, their Jewishness is their only claim to pride, and they consider it to be racial, hereditary, that this is what it means to be part of the Jewish people. The official ideology of the state says it is Jewish first and democratic later. So, how come they have to share a meal with non-Jews? What do you take them for, Israelis?

That’s what happens when the government is making a long-time effort to erode the civil conscience of its residents and replace it with ethnic pride. There is no space devoid of this lingering disease. If someone thought it would not reach the army, he was deluding himself.

The IDF now has just one way out of this mine field: Avoiding the error it made when he caved in to the voices demanding the sidelining of women. He has to find the officers responsible, and screw them up so thoroughly no one will ever even think about doing it again. This requires a public ceremony of demotion for harming the IDF’s value of comradeship, and serving a few months in jail for allowing racial discrimination against their soldiers.

But, of course, if this happens, the senior brass will be blamed for preferring non-Jewish soldiers over Jews, who were merely trying to maintain their racial purity. The idea of an army with republican values is ludicrous when the country turned its back on it a long time ago.

If the brass do their duty, they will take fire from the Hesder rabbis. But if they don’t, then the army can – should – say goodbye to its Druze soldiers. I doubt there is any better reason, as far as the Druze are concerned, to dismantle the one-sided alliance forced on them by the State of Israel, than a semi-official acknowledgement by the IDF they are second class soldiers.

And when that happens, Israel will find itself facing a bitter minority, which knows that despite having given the state everything it could, it is discriminated against in all spheres of life; and that it has pledged its loyalty to an ethnocracy too racist even to accept the possibility of granting equality to former soldiers. Unlike the Palestinians, this minority knows how to fight – it has been trained by the IDF for decades and in fact the Druze were conscripted much because of their martial reputation. And when the spark comes which will ignite this keg of powder, Jewish Israel will hold its hands together and say in a broken voice: “And after everything that we did for them!”