Israel travels

Israel’s Druze honor the prophet Jethro in annual pilgrimage to ancient tomb

Holiday gives visitors a glimpse of secretive religion, and community’s ‘living bond’ with Israeli Jews

Druze men from the Golan Heights in traditional garb (Doron Horowitz/Flash90)
Druze men from the Golan Heights in traditional garb (Doron Horowitz/Flash90)

While the Hebrews were hanging out in the desert after fleeing from slavery in Egypt, they brought all of their problems to their leader Moses. But when his father-in-law Jethro came to visit with Moses’ wife and children, he saw that his son-in-law was ready to collapse under the onus of so much work. That’s when Jethro, a Midianite priest who honored the Lord, decided to put in his two cents’ worth.

Although he agreed that Moses should continue to explain God’s laws and teachings to the people, he had great advice for lightening his load – suggestions so fundamental, in fact, that his ideas are still being put into effect today. For he instructed Moses to choose capable judges and leaders who would respect God and could never be bribed, and to have them act as officials over “thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. . .” Always willing to learn, Moses listened to his father-in-law and did everything that he said.” (Exodus 18:21-24).

Known in Arabic as Shu’eib, Jethro is highly revered by the Druze as a prophet. Tradition holds that he lies at rest in the Galilee at the Tomb of Nebi Shu’eib, located near Tiberias and Mount Arbel.

Druze pilgrimages to the tomb have been common for centuries, but there was never an official date for paying homage to the prophet. However, after the State of Israel was established in 1948, the days between April 24 and April 28 were declared an official Druze holiday. During this period Nebi Shu’eib overflows with visitors, from worshipers to celebrants roasting sheep at barbecues, and shoppers roaming the complex bazaars in search of bargains.

A market in the Druze village of Daliyat al-Karmel. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

There are about 130,000 Druze in Israel, with about a fifth residing in the Golan Heights and most of the rest on Mount Carmel and in the Galilee. A unique ethnic minority, their religion is an offshoot of Islam that differs markedly from Islam in its beliefs. It was established in 1017 by Egyptian ruler Caliph El Hakem bi-amer Allah (El-Hakem by the command of Allah).

For the next 26 years people were welcomed into the ranks. After that time, however, the religion was closed to outsiders. Converts are not accepted, and the Druze are forbidden to intermarry. Druze are either religious or nonreligious and only the religious group is allowed to read the holy books and learn its doctrines.

Elderly Israeli Druze men attend the celebrations of Nabi Shu’eib at the tomb of the Prophet Jethro, near the site of the destroyed village of Hittin. (Gili Yaari /FLASH 90)

If they had their druthers, Druze would rather be called “al-muwahdoon” (Believers in the One God). In fact, they loathe the name bestowed upon them by a Christian historian in the 11th century. He called them Druze after one of the missionaries, Nashtakin Darzi. But although Darzi later turned his back on his Druze brothers and is considered a traitor, the name has persisted.

The Druze holy site of Nebi Shu’eib in the Galilee. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

One belief held by the Druze concerns the mystery of Caliph El-Hakem bi-amer Allah’s disappearance four years after founding the new religion. It was the caliph’s daily custom to mount a donkey and ride to the mountains outside of Cairo to meditate and pray. One day in 1021 he didn’t return. Although his clothes were found, all buttoned up and standing tall, there was no one inside! Some say he was murdered, but many Druze believe he is only hiding, watching his faithful and waiting to return on the Day of Judgment.

Unable to accept the fact that followers of Islam would willingly accept another faith, Muslims in the Middle East have been persecuting the Druze since the very beginning. As a result, thousands left their homes in Egypt and elsewhere and today live mainly in Lebanon, Syria, Israel and Jordan.

Until the 13th or 14th century, Druze families in this country lived in scattered, makeshift colonies near sources of water and in strategically protective hills. One day, however, two hunters looking for rabbits stumbled upon a cave that led to an ancient cistern filled with water. That seemed like a good site for a permanent settlement, and area Druze flocked to what would become Beit Jann, a major Druze village in Israel located on the ridges of Mount Meron.

The Druze village Beit Jann on Mount Meron. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Indeed, all the Druze villages to follow were built high in the hills, for reasons of security. In earlier times, when danger approached, the Druze would light torches and send a message from mountaintop to mountaintop – exactly like the ancient Israelites who used this method to announce the beginning of the new month to their brothers and sisters in the Diaspora.

Visitors of all faiths are welcome at the Tomb of Nebe Shu’eib, where one of the main attractions is a large footprint that many believe was made by Jethro. Above the prophet’s tomb hang pretty necklaces and decorative rugs, embroidered or woven by Druze women fulfilling a vow.

Second in importance to Nebi Shu’eib is the tomb of the prophet Sabalan, also open to visitors and located above the Druze village of Hurfeish. Tradition holds that while fleeing from Muslim persecutors Sabalan crossed the wadi below the site. A dam immediately descended from the heavens, filling the wadi with water.

A religious Druze at the Nebi Sabalan religious site. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Sabalan’s life was saved when he hid in a cave above the wadi – a cave that is the center of the complex today. Here, according to tradition, Sabalan died and was buried. An ancient mulberry tree adds a dash of color to the complex, which offers a stunning look at the village below.

Druze men and women dress in two vastly different styles. Those clothed in headdresses or scarves, baggy pants or long skirts have been initiated into the mysteries of religious doctrine. Bareheaded people in pants or jeans and shirts are the secular Druze. Comprising the vast majority of the Druze population, they are not permitted to read Druze holy books or to learn religious secrets. Yet they tenaciously follow Druze tradition and customs.

An elderly community member in the Druze village of Beit Jann. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Never having had a country (or a language) of their own, the Druze are steadfastly loyal to their adopted nations. Thus with the exception of the Druze living in the Golan Heights, Israel’s Druze have been citizens of the modern state of Israel since its inception, and the men are required to serve in the Israeli army.

Indeed Druze are high-ranking officers in the Israel Defense Forces, while others are members of parliament and government ministers. Sadly, nearly 500 Druze soldiers have lost their lives in Israel’s wars and in terrorist attacks over the years.

A memorial to fallen Druze soldiers in the village of Daliyat al-Karmel. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Israel’s Druze men and women are highly educated and can be found in all walks of life, from medicine, law and agriculture to high-tech and industry. Representatives of the Druze community are often asked to light a torch “for the Glory of the State of Israel” at the official Independence Day ceremonies on Mount Herzl.

Among them in past years were Gamila Hir, aka “Savta (grandma) Jamila,” from the village of Pekiin for her initiatives in the field of natural cosmetics, and Dr. Anan Falah of Acre, a dentist who advocates for the empowerment of Druze women.

The interior of the cave at the Nebi Sabalan religious site. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

This year Sheikh Muwaffak Tariff, the current Druze spiritual leader, was chosen for his tireless efforts to build a bridge between the different religions and cultures in Israel. In his speech on Independence Eve a few days ago, he noted that he was lighting this torch in honor of the “living bond” that exists between the Jewish and Druze peoples, in honor of his brother and sister Druze in all parts of the world – especially those living in Syria during these dark days – and of Israel’s courageous Druze soldiers. He was lighting the torch, he continued, in honor of peace between all the peoples of the Middle East, the belief in God that unites us all and the glory of the State of Israel.

Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel. Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.

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