HAIFA – One day three years ago, Feras Anteer and Rabaa Swaid met on the campus of the University of Haifa. He had been visiting the university to explore its Master’s programs and overheard her talking to some students about needing young Druze people to take a survey for her class research project. He offered to take a handful of questionnaires back to Maghar, the Arab village of about 20,000 where he grew up, which has a predominantly Druze population. She accepted. Her own Druze village, Peki’in, about 40 minutes away from his, has a population of only about 5,000 people.
Anteer and Swaid are members of the Druze minority in Israel. According to the nation’s Central Bureau of Statistics, there are just over 125,000 Druze in Israel, mainly populating villages around the northern city of Haifa. Because their religion prohibits exogamy, they marry within their own community. Both Anteer and Swaid grew up knowing they must marry other Druze. Little did they know that fateful day in 2011 would lead to them falling in love with each other.
The story of their relationship tells a lot about the place of the Druze in Israeli society. Unlike Palestinian Arabs, Druze men like Anteer serve in the military and often rise to the diplomatic ranks. But they do not have the full advantages of Jewish Israelis. English is a third language for both Anteer and Feras. With their families, they speak Arabic. In school, they speak Hebrew. They are a people who embody within their own identity the divide between Arabs and Israelis in the Holy Land.
Soon after their meeting, Anteer took a job at the Israeli consulate in New York. But he was determined to stay in touch with Swaid. Now, he is back in Israel and they are planning a future together. One day this spring they discussed their future at the Baha’i Gardens in Haifa, not far from the university where they met.
“We didn’t tell our parents because we weren’t sure if it was going to work or not,” 23-year-old Swaid explained. “So we waited like two years… I waited two years.”
“For me,” interjected 28-year-old Anteer, who was sitting beside her.
“Thank you,” he said to her with a loving smile.
For two years, Anteer had been living in small studio apartment in the middle of Times Square after taking an unexpected job offer to work at the Israeli Consulate in New York City. Meanwhile, Swaid was completing her undergraduate education at the University of Haifa, studying psychology and English.
The Druze are perhaps the most intriguing and misunderstood of the world’s minority Arab religious communities, largely because of their reputation for secrecy. In the Druze faith, which was founded nearly 1,000 years ago, only a particular, initiated portion of the population may partake in the acts of prayer and studying the holy texts called Kitab al Hikma (in English, Epistles of Wisdom). These acts take place in the hilwah, or prayer house, which non-initiated Druze may visit, but not worship in.
The initiated and uninitiated live side by side in Druze villages throughout Northern Israel: parallel lives of the religiously devoted and secular masses. In some cases, some members of the family are religious while others are not. The religious class runs the affairs of the village; they perform marriage ceremonies, handle civic duties and mediate conflict. They are also available to teach religion and history to the secular Druze, but to a limited degree.
Though not initiated themselves, Anteer and Swaid grew up living in adherence to a strict set of cultural traditions, which they learned in school and from their families.
“We have a lot of big rules,” explained Anteer. “You have to marry a Druze girl. You cannot kill people. We also have small rules. You cannot eat pork. You cannot smoke. You cannot drink.”
The day they met, Swaid had been working on a research project about the Druze identity in Israel, which is extremely complex. The largest Druze populations in the world are found in neighboring Syria and Lebanon. She explained that because the Druze are a minority in Israel and so little is known of their mysterious religion, professors will often ask Druze students to research their own community for class projects.
So she created a survey questionnaire about whether Druze consider themselves to be Arab or Israeli.
“We are between,” she explained, with a sigh of exasperation. “We are not Arab. We are not Israeli. It’s so confusing.”
While the Israeli government officially recognizes the Druze as non-Arabs, every Druze you ask about their own identity will likely give you a different answer. Even Feras and Rabaa don’t agree.
“I am Israeli Druze,” said Anteer, “and I have Arab culture. I have to say Arab, because I look Arab, speak Arabic, eat Arabic? food and live with Arab people.”
“Every time someone asks me this, I have to think about it,” said Swaid. “I haven’t decided yet. I am Druze, first of all. And I think I’m Arab,” she said with hesitation.
Though the Druze are historicized as an offshoot of Ismailism, which is a branch of Shia Islam, affiliation with Islam is something some Druze vehemently deny, because of the persecution by Muslims that they have faced since their founding. Since the early years of the Israeli state, Druze with Israeli citizenship were given a status as distinct from other Palestinians, which ended up resulting in them being subjected to compulsory service in the Israeli army since 1956. And because they have Israeli passports, they cannot travel to Syria or Lebanon. Instead, they’ve been embattled against their own brethren on account of the draft.
Anteer served in the IDF for 3 years and the majority of men from his village continue work for the government or army. If he stays in Israel, he will likely do the same.
“Because we are a minority, it’s better for us to stay next to the government in the place we live,” explained Swaid. “Not with the other side.”
“The government loves and helps the Druze if they are in the army,” Anteer added.
“But in daily life, I think they look at us like we are Arabs,” said Swaid.
“It’s difficult,” explained Anteer, pausing to think. “The Arabs look at us go to the army and say we cannot be Arabs because we are with the Jews.”
“They kind of hate us.”
“But then there are Israelis who say you look like Arabs, you speak like Arabs, you are Arabs.”
“We are stuck in the middle,” Swaid said with a look of frustration on her face.
“I say it’s good,” Anteer posited, looking at her. “You can say what you want.”
“But you’re not honest,” she argued.
“It’s okay, don’t be honest. It’s the Middle East, not America,” he said. “You can say what the people want to hear. It makes it easier.”
“Make benefits from everything. That’s what he means,” she clarified.
The conclusion of her research was that the Druze is something of a national religion, like Judaism. “It doesn’t matter where in the world they are,” she explained. “They consider themselves Jews. We are the same. If we are in America or anywhere else, we are Druze.”
While Anteer was in New York, the two kept in touch on the phone. When he went home to Israel to visit his family, he would see her. Though long-distance was difficult, he knew he wanted to eventually marry her.
“There are few Druze girls in America. I knew I had to marry from my country,” he said. “And I liked her, she’s a beautiful girl, a nice girl.”
“And smart, that’s the most important,” she interjected.
“Yes. I loved her and I kept in touch with her and I decided I will come back and I will marry her.”
In the Druze tradition, if a man and woman are interested in each other, they must make their intentions known to their family, and then enter a formal dating period, which is something of a pre-engagement. So Anteer is now back in Israel, doing just that. The two are soon-to-be engaged.
Swaid is quiet and answers most questions shyly, the way Druze girls are taught to be, but it’s clear she has strong opinions under the surface.
The most difficult thing about being Druze, she said, is being a girl. “There are many limitations on girls, not like guys. He decided to go to New York and nobody said don’t do it. If I decided to go to New York, I need either my parents or my husband. It’s not possible alone.”
“It’s because we are so few,” interjected Anteer. “We have to keep our girls close, to keep us from other people.”
“Primitive,” said Swaid.
The Druze in Israel are known for being the most conservative of their Middle Eastern counterparts. Perhaps because of their precarious place in Israeli society.
“It is changing,” she added. “Ten years ago, maybe it wasn’t possible to study and live outside the house in university dorms… but we are influenced by the Jews. We need to keep up with the times.”
After they get engaged, which is a simple meeting of the parents, after which couples will often wear a necklace with their spouse-to-be’s name on it, they’ll have a wedding in which a Sheikh will draw up a marriage contract, and Swaid will be taken by her new in-laws to their joint-family home. Her relatives will come too, and they’ll have a big meal. Beyond music and food, there are no special rituals to be performed.
For now, as she prepares to graduate from college, she yearns to build a meaningful career for herself in Israel. Anteer really wants to return to New York City.
“He is confusing me. He is saying come with me. But I want to do my M.A.”
“I said do it there!” he said to her.
“When I went to New York, people said you will never come back and I said, ‘Oh, I don’t know about this place,’” Anteer explained. Then when I went to Times Square, I said, ‘Okay, this is my place.’”
“You have to go just to check it,” he said smilingly to Swaid. “If you go to Columbia? To learn there? It’s the best!”
She paused and sighed. “Okay,” she sais, laughing at him, “I’m gonna think about it.”