The Bedouin, Druze, and Bahai: Non-Jewish Minority Communities in Israel

January 1st, 2013

The Bedouin

The word Bedouin is derived from the Arabic, “badawi,” a generic term for “one who lives in the desert.” It is the name generally given to nomadic Arabic pastoralist groups in Middle Eastern desert areas. Bedouins traditionally lived according to a tribal structure, organized along several levels. Migration patterns would follow water and plant resources, as needed for their own and their flocks’ sustenance. Royal tribes typically herded camels, while other tribes herded sheep and goats.(1) Starting in the 1950s and 1960s, as grazing areas for flocks have diminished and been developed, many Bedouin have relinquished their nomadic lifestyles for settlement in the cities and towns of the Middle East.

Bedouin in Israel

Since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the Bedouin population in Israel has increased tenfold.(2) It currently comprises approximately 10 percent of Israel’s Arab population, making them a minority within a minority. According to Dr. Alean al-Krenawi, Director of the Centre for Bedouin Studies and Development at Ben Gurion University in Israel, there are close to 30 Bedouin tribes altogether, including those that live in areas under Palestinian control. The vast majority of Bedouin in Israel – around 125,000 – live in the Negev (southern dessert), but roughly 60,000 live in the North, and about 10,000 live in central areas of the country, as well.(3) Most of the Bedouins in the Negev originate from the Hejaz, a region in the north of the Arabian Peninsula.

Most of the Bedouins in the North originate from the Syrian Desert, and most of the Bedouins in the Central region migrated from the Negev during the drought of 1957 or in search of work.

Challenges of Integration

The process of integrating Bedouins into Israeli society has been fraught with difficulty, despite official governmental and civil society initiatives. Bedouin communities face considerable discrimination on the part of the State, in addition to significant challenges regarding land ownership, livelihood, and the transition from traditional to modern lifestyles, which is often the result of a lack of relevant education, skills, and resources.

The State of Israel emphasizes the importance of education as a means of integration for the Bedouin into more mainstream Israeli society. Under the Compulsory Education Law, every Bedouin child is entitled to twelve years of free education. In addition, many of the Bedouin schools are located in or around the Bedouin towns in each respective region. Within one generation, the illiteracy rate among Bedouins has decreased from 95 % to 25 %; the majority of those still illiterate are above the age of 55. Because Bedouin society does not encourage females to study, girls comprise only about 10 % of all Bedouin high school students.(4)

Socio-economic status

Though each respective Bedouin town is different, on average, Bedouin income is approximately one quarter of the national Israeli average.(5) According to a report submitted by the State of Israel to the UN Human Rights Commission in April 1998, “The Bedouin population in Israel, particularly in the Negev Desert area, is perhaps the most disadvantaged single community in Israel in terms of per capita income, unemployment, and the level of infrastructure and services in their communities.”

Land Ownership

There has been controversy over Bedouin land ownership since before the founding of the State of Israel. Before 1948, Bedouin-settled land was not registered in the official Land Registry. In most Middle Eastern countries where Bedouins reside, they have no land rights. After Israel was founded, the State carried out a series of confiscations of lands that had been settled and cultivated by the Bedouin. In addition, lands over which the Bedouins claimed ownership were defined as “Mawat,” an Ottoman ownership category that referred to uncultivated land a certain distance from a settlement. Under contemporary Israeli Law, a person who has not registered his/her land in the Land Registry cannot claim ownership; as an exception to this rule, in the 1970s, Israel allowed the Bedouins of the Negev to register their land claims and thereby claim rights of possession. For various reasons, however, some of this land has since been confiscated by the State. Officially, all individuals who are asked to move off their land are to be compensated, but for some families this has not been the case.

For more information about the situation of Bedouin in Israel:

The Bedouins of the Negev confront a modern society

Center for Bedouin Studies and Development at Ben Gurion University in the Negev

Negev Coexistence Forum

The Druze

There are approximately one million Druze worldwide, with the majority living in Lebanon and Syria, and about 104,000 living in Israel. The Druze community in Israel is officially recognized as a separate religious entity with its own courts and spiritual leadership, and has special standing as a minority group; members of the community have attained high level political positions, and Druze in Israel serve in the Israeli army. Nonetheless, some Druze have also faced discrimination similar to other minority groups.(6)

Druze in Israel

The first Druze settled in what is now southern Lebanon and northern Israel. Until the end of Ottoman rule (1918), the Druze were governed by emirs, as a semi-autonomous community. In 1921, the French tried to set up a Druze state under the French Mandate, but the attempt failed. The Druze in the Galilee and on Mount Carmel have always kept in contact with the other branches of the community, especially with those of Mt. Hermon and Lebanon. Today there are Druze villages throughout the North of Israel, as far south as slightly below Haifa.

The largest and most southern Druze town in Israel is Daliyat el-Carmel, located on Mount Carmel in the heart of the Carmel National Park, southeast of Haifa. Established some 400 years ago, Daliyat el-Carmel has a population of 13,000 Druze residents, who trace their ancestry to the hill country near Aleppo (Halab) in northern Syria. This lineage can be attested to by the strong Aleppo accent and the name of the largest family in the village - Halabi. The large market in the center of the town that boasts traditional Druze and Arab products draws tourists from Israel and abroad, as does a memorial center for fallen Druze IDF soldiers.

Northeast of Haifa is the village of Shfar’am, a settlement with ancient roots. Shfar’am is mentioned in the Talmud, and in the second century, it was the seat of the Sanhedrin (the supreme Jewish religious and judicial body). The Jewish community in Shfar’am, which dates from the end of the Middle Ages, slowly dwindled during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, Some 27,000 Druze, Christians and Muslims live in Shfar’am, and the village has a number of holy sites and prayer houses for all three communities.

Further north, overlooking Lake Kinneret, is Maghar, believed to be the site of the city of Ma’ariya, where a priestly family lived in Talmudic times. Historical sources mention the many olive trees that surrounded the village, and continue to thrive there today. In 2002, it was determined that some 17,000 people live in Maghar today - 60% Druze, 20% Muslim and 20% Christian.

On the peak of Mt. Meron, the highest point in Israel (940 meters above sea level), the all-Druze village of Beit Jan is situated. It has a population of some 9,000.

For information about other Druze villages:

The Druze Faith

The Druze religion has its roots in Ismailism, a religio-philosophical movement that founded the Fatimid Caliphate in Egypt in the tenth century. The Druze faith came into being during the reign of al-Hakim (996 - 1021), blending Islamic monotheism with Greek philosophy and Hindu influences. Active proselytizing of the new creed was brief—since about 1050, the community has been closed to outsiders.

The Druze consider their faith to be a new interpretation of the three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. For them, the traditional story of the Creation is a parable, which describes Adam not as the first human being, but rather, as the first person to believe in a single god. Since then, the idea of monotheism has been disseminated by “emissaries,” or prophets, who were guided by “mentors” who embody the spirit of monotheism. The mentors and prophets come from all three religions, and include Jethro and Moses, John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth, and Salman the Persian and Mohammed - all reincarnations of the same monotheistic idea according to the Druze. In addition, the Druze hold others - regardless of their religion - in great esteem, as advocates of justice and belief in one god.

Although the Druze recognize all three monotheistic religions, they believe that their rituals and ceremonies have caused Jews, Christians, and Muslims to turn away from “pure faith.” They argue that individuals who believe that God will forgive them if they fast and pray will commit transgressions in the expectation of being forgiven - and then repeat their sins. The Druze thus eliminated all elements of ritual and ceremony; there is no fixed daily liturgy, no defined holy days, and no pilgrimage obligations. The Druze perform their spiritual reckoning with God at all times, and consequently, need no special days of fasting or atonement.

The main tenets that obligate all Druze are:

  • Speaking the truth (instead of prayer)
  • Supporting your brethren (instead of charity)
  • Abandoning the old creeds (instead of fasting)
  • Purification from heresy (instead of pilgrimage)
  • Accepting the unity of God
  • Submitting to the will of God (instead of holy war)

It is also known that the Druze believe in five cosmic principles, represented by the five-colored Druze star: intelligence/reason (green), soul (red), word (yellow), precedent (blue) and immanence (white). These virtues take the shape of five different spirits which, until recently, have been continuously reincarnated on Earth as prophets and philosophers including Adam, Pythagoras, Akhenaten, and many others. The Druze believe that, in every time period, these five principles are personified in five different people who come down together to Earth to teach humans the true path to God and nirvana. With them, however, come five other individuals who lead people away from the right path into “darkness.”(7)

The Druze religion is secret and closed to converts. From a theological perspective, the secrecy derives from the tenet that the gates of the religion were open to new believers for the span of a generation, when it was first revealed and everyone was invited to join. In the Druze belief, everyone alive today is the reincarnation of someone who lived at that time, and so, they believe that there is no reason to allow new believers to join them today. Therefore, the Druze refrain from missionizing, and no member of another religion can become Druze.

The Druze are divided into two groups. The outer group, called al-Juhhāl (لا هج), “the Ignorant,” are not granted access to the secret Druze holy literature. They form the Druze political and military leadership, and generally distance themselves from religious issues. They comprise about 90% of the Druze. The inner group is called al-Uqqāl (لاقع), “the Knowledgeable Initiates.” Women are considered especially suitable to become Uqqāl; they are even regarded to be spiritually superior to men, a belief that greatly contrasts with the surrounding Christian and Muslim communities. As such, women’s religious rights are almost identical to those of men; female Uqqal take part in the religious assemblies in the hilwah (prayer house), but sit separately from the men.

There are a number of sites around Israel that are of historical or religious significance to the Druze. Among others, they include:

Jethro’s Tomb

One of the most important Druze gathering sites is the tomb of Nebi Shu’eib - the prophet Jethro - at the Horns of Hittin, overlooking Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). According to Druze tradition, Saladin had a dream on the eve of his battle against the Crusaders at this site, in which an angel promised him victory on the condition that after the battle he gallop westward on his horse. Where the stallion would pull up, the angel promised, he would find the burial site of Nebi Shu’eib. When the dream came true, the Druze built a tomb at the site, next to which, is a rock that bears a footprint, which is believed to be that of Nebi Shu’eib himself. Each year, on April 25, the Druze gather at the site to discuss community affairs.

Sabalan’s Tomb

Sabalan was a Druze prophet, believed to be either Zebulun, the sixth son of the Patriarch Jacob, or one of the emissaries who propagated the Druze religion in the eleventh century. Sabalan’s tomb is located above the Druze village of Hurfeish. It is the site of an annual festive pilgrimage and is visited throughout the year by those who have taken a vow to do so.

Nabi al-Khadr

Al-Khadr means “green” in Arabic. It is also the name given to the Prophet Elijah in Muslim tradition. His tomb is to be found in Kafr Yasif, near Akko. Members of the Druze community gather at his tomb on January 25th.

For more information about Druze in Israel:

“The Druze Minority in the State of Israel in the 1990’s”, by Gabriel Ben-Dor

“The Druze,” U.S. Country Studies

The Bahai

The Bahai faith is an independent monotheistic religion with a worldwide population of roughly 5 million that is comprised of individuals from a wide variety of racial, tribal, and ethnic groups. It is considered the youngest of the world’s independent religions, founded in 1863 by the Baha’u’llah (“the Glory of God”). The Bahai World Centre is located in Haifa, Israel, and has served as both the spiritual and administrative center of the Bahai Faith since the Baha’ullah was exiled from Iran to Acre – then part of the Ottoman Empire – in 1868.

Foundations of Bahai Faith

The Bahai Faith originated in Iran in 1844 and has its own sacred scriptures, laws, calendar, and holy days. In reaction to messianic fervor in nineteenth century Iran, Sayid Ali-Muhhammad, now known as the “Bab,” declared himself to be a Messenger of God on May 23, 1844 and founded a distinct religion: the Babi Faith. The Bab called for the spiritual and moral reformation of Persian society, insisting that the position of women and the poor be improved, and that education and science be promoted. His Teachings expressed that there was to be an imminent appearance of another Messenger from God, who would be even greater than himself, and would bring about the age of peace and justice that is promised in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Bab’s writings were disseminated widely, and he quickly gained a significant following. However, many of his followers were harshly persecuted by Iranian authorities who were threatened by this new faith. The Bab himself was imprisoned and executed in July 1850.(8)

Thirteen years later, in 1863, Mirza Husayn-Ali adopted the title Baha’u’llah and declared himself to be the Messenger of God that the Bab had foretold in his initial Teachings.  The majority of the Babi followers accepted his declaration, and the Bahai community began to form. The key messages of the Baha’u’llah’s teachings emphasized global unity and justice. He taught that there is only one God who has revealed his will through divine teachers such as Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, Krishna, Buddha, and Zoroaster. Acknowledging that the teachings of each of the religions that these individuals represents differ, the Baha’u’llah taught that the spiritual essence of each is the same. The Bahai Faith is meant to help individuals accept these religions’ oneness, and assist in the process of universal unification. The Bahai community follows the basic principles of the Babi Faith, that men and women should be treated equally, poverty should be abolished, that and education must be promoted.

Throughout the forty years of his exile, the Baha’u’llah revealed a number of divinely inspired writings, ethical and social teachings, and laws. In 1868, the Baha’u’llah was sent to his final place of exile: the then Ottoman penal colony of Acre, in what is now Israel. The Baha’u’llah died there in 1892, at which point his eldest son began his position as the successor to the Head of the Bahai Faith and sole interpreter of Baha’u’llah’s writings. To this day the Bahai Faith has no clergy; communities are governed by elected councils at the local, national, and international levels.

The Bahai Faith in Israel

Thousands of Bahai visit Israel each year, on pilgrimage to the cities of Haifa and Acre, which respectively host the two sites most holy to the Bahai Faith. There are many Bahai who come to Israel as religious volunteers, as well, to work for the Bahai World Center and tend to the holy sites. Every five years, the elected representatives of the national Bahai communities gather in Haifa to elect the members of the Universal House of Justice, the international body that administers the international affairs of the Bahai Faith from its headquarters on Mount Carmel, in Haifa.(9)

The burial sites of both Baha’u’llah and the Bab are in the region, and constitute the two holiest sites for the Bahai. The Shrine of the Bab sits amidst beautiful gardens on Mount Carmel, in Haifa, and the Shrine of the Baha’u’llah is located just across the bay, outside Acre.

The fifteen impressive terraces of the Bahai Gardens, which surround the Shrine of the Bab, descend from the top of Mount Carmel in a single row almost down to the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. There is a breathtaking view of Haifa and the Mediterranean from the top of the Gardens, and entrance to some terraces is free and open to the public. Completed only in 1998, the Gardens have become a popular destination for tourists from around the globe and have been described as the eighth wonder of the world.

  1. Wikipedia, “Bedouin,”
  2. Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Focus on Israel: The Bedouin in Israel,” July 1999.
  3. BBC on Bedouins in Israel –
  4. Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Focus on Israel: The Bedouin in Israel,” July 1999.
  6. Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, /Focus%20on%20Israel-%20The%20Druze%20in%20Israel
  8. “The Baha’is”,
  9. “The Bahai World Centre: Focal Point for a Global Community,”