As a proud AFS Exchange Student from Israel, introductions have been a consistently weird experience for me. When I meet an American Jew, and state that I am Israeli, they get enthusiastic.
I ask them, “Why is it exciting that I’m Israeli?” They respond, “Oh me too!”
“Me too what?” I say. “I’m Jewish too!” they reply.
I continue to wonder why Americans assume that every proud Israeli is a Jew. I grew up in Israel even though I am not Jewish. When the U.S. State Department sponsored me as a YES Program high school exchange student this year, I didn’t understand that Americans would consider Israel as a country only for Jews. It is surprisingly hard for them to recognize that 30 percent of Israel’s population is not Jewish. We call ourselves the Arab community and this means that our first language is Arabic, and usually the second is Hebrew.
The Arab community in Israel is Christian, Muslim, Bedouin and my religion, Druze.
The Druze community is small and very secretive, even to me because I am not religious. About 1 million Druze live worldwide, mainly in Syria, which has the biggest population; Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and also in small groups in many other countries around the globe. My village in Israel is called Daliat El Carmel located on Mount Carmel; it has about 10,000 citizens, most of whom are Druze. We live in houses that we custom-build, unlike in the big cities. Most people will spend their entire life in this town, so the people I went to pre-school with will be the ones that I grow old with.
The Druze religion is special because it doesn’t permit conversion, either away from or into it, and it forbids intermarriage. To define a Druze: If someone’s mother and father are both Druze, he or she is a Druze the moment they are born. This means that no one can become Druze other than by birth. Druze people are not allowed to marry someone outside the religion and stay Druze, which supports the idea of being a secret religion as well as tending not to spread the religion. If a Druze decides to leave the religion by getting married to someone who is not Druze, he or she wouldn’t be able to become Druze again. So, I may be growing up with my future husband or he might be from another Druze community.
In this religion, we believe in one God and only one God, but we have our own prophets. We have five main prophets, but since we believe in reincarnation of the prophets, there are 164. Our main prophet, Shu’ayb, was buried in Tiberias, Israel.
In the Druze religion, there are six religious books, called the Epistles of Wisdom. We are not allowed to read any of them unless we want to follow the religion and have been approved by the religious elders as loyal, honest and committed to the religion. Religious people go to worship on Sundays and Thursdays in the Khalwa, our house of prayer, but some also pray at home. They wear traditional clothes, which for women means a long black or blue dress with a white head covering; men wear baggy pants that are tight around the ankles and cover their heads with a white turban.
Druze celebrate only one main holiday, the Eid or Eid al-Adha that follows the lunar calendar. People get together with friends and family for a big meal. We give something to others even if it is simple, like a piece of chocolate or a small gift. Some people donate money to the poor or to our holy places. Eid al-Adha means “Feast of the Sacrifice” in Arabic and commemorates the prophet Ibrahim offering to sacrifice his son to God and God suggesting the prophet sacrifice a sheep instead. So every year some people slaughter a sheep in honor of the prophet.
Druze serve in the armies in every country we live in, thus showing our loyalty. I am proud that every man in my family has served in the Israeli army. My father, a chief warrant officer and mechanical engineer, spent 26 years of his life fighting for our country alongside Jews until he retired at the age of 45.
He is still an active reserve soldier in the Israeli Defense Forces. My brother joined the army after graduating from a Hebrew school in Haifa and is currently a soldier in the IDF.
Although most of my neighbors attend Druze schools, I attend a private Christian school called Sisters of Nazareth School in Haifa where the majority of the students are Christians. I am always proud of being an Israeli Druze. No matter where I am, I don’t forget that God is always with me even if I am far away from my community. My values that my culture and religion taught me remain strong, such as respecting others and behaving the right way.
So far, I have been really enjoying the fact that the U.S. State Department has tasked me to explain my religion to Americans, because it is special and different. Each introduction reminds me that I can acquaint people with the Arab community that defends Israel.
Osnat Basis is an AFS YES high school exchange student sponsored by the U.S. State Department. She lives with an American family and attends high school in Rockville. If you would like to host a student, go to AFSUSA.org.