Israeli Druze leader talks Syria, persecution

Sheikh Moafaq Tarif is the spiritual leader of the Israeli Druze community, which numbers about 150,000. (Photo by Hannah Monicken)

The spiritual leader of the Druze community in Israel, worried for his brethren in war-torn Syria, traveled to Washington last week to make a case for more international humanitarian aid.

The situation in Syria is very complicated, Sheikh Moafaq Tarif said through an interpreter on Jan. 19 at The Fairmont hotel in Washington. During his trip, which included a stop in New York, he warned United States and United Nations officials that the Druze in Syria’s Idlib province face genocide as the Assad regime fights to take back the last district under rebel control.

He said the Islamist group Jabhat al-Nusr destroyed Druze holy sites have and coerced families into converting to Islam. They are also forced to sell their property, Tarif said. Anyone not Muslim is made to leave.

Tarif said his request that the international community to step up its commitment to humanitarian aid met positive responses from national security and State Department officials. Late last year, Israel’s Druze community secured a commitment from the Israeli government to protect a Druze village in Syria near the border.

“It’s not enough, what they [other nations] are doing,” Tarif said. “The international community needs to work very hard and not deal directly with the [Syrian] government [but] support the communities directly.”

The Druze are an Arabic-speaking ethnic community and religion largely split between Israel, Syria and Lebanon. The 150,000 Israeli Druze live primarily in the north. Tarif lives in Julis in the Galilee region. Some 600,000 Druze live in Syria, and 200,000 in Lebanon.

While the Druze pledge loyalty to whichever country they live in, their religion is closed to outsiders.

“They are a very secretive community,” said Salman Elbedour, a professor of psychology at Howard University who studies communities in Israel. “As an outsider, we are not supposed to know a lot [about the religion]. They have strict boundaries.”

Many serve in the Israeli armed forces and there are a handful of Druze members in the Knesset. During the founding of Israel, the Druze opted either for neutrality or supporting the Jewish fighters, according the Jewish Virtual Library.

“We built a country with our friends and other communities and we are very [happy] to be a part of this country,” Tarif said. “We do everything we can to serve this country. Our number is very small, but our impact is very large.”

The Syrian civil war has complicated the Syrian Druze community’s relationship with the ruling Assad regime, he said.
“The Druze soldiers in the Syrian Army rejected being part of the civil war and [killing] other people,” he said. “They left the Syrian Army and came to their homes to protect their families and villages.”

With the Druze in Syria caught in the country’s civil war, the Druze community in Israel has tried to help. Jordan and Lebanon help transfer aid from Israeli Druze to their brethren in Syria, he said.

“As Druze, we took initiative and started to collect money to buy humanitarian aid and to give money for the villages to build a factory or bakery because they have no bread,” he said. “And also to give money for families to buy oil and energy and open a supermarket. All this activity came from Israeli Druze.”

And for the U.S. Jewish community, he also had a message:

“I hope the Jewish organizations would think about the Druze community and try to support them. We are part of the state of Israel.”

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