Israeli-Druze Visit Los Angeles in Honor of Yom HaZikaron
Devorah Talia Gordon
On July 14, 2017, policeman Kamil Shanan went to his assigned station in Jerusalem’s Temple Mount compound. After completing their prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, three Arab-Israeli terrorists, from the village of Umm-el-Fahm, shot and killed Shanan and fellow police officer Ha’il Satawi.
“My life has changed since 14 July, when my lovely son was killed on the Temple Mount,” began Shakib Shanan, Israeli politician and father of Kamil, who visited Los Angeles last week with Mendi Safadi. The younger Shanan served as a combat soldier in the Israeli Defense Force for three years and joined the Israeli Police seven months prior to his murder. “They came from inside the mosque, and nobody thought something like this could happen. How could you finish praying and go to kill? From that moment to now, our life is changed. We have an empty room and are all the time looking for a way to keep his memory alive.”
Shakib Shanan continued, “Today is Yom Hazikaron. Everyone in my country will stop to give respect to the fallen soldiers, and it is very difficult to be here (in L.A.) and not there. All the time I feel very sad, but I decided to come here to respect those who respect all who fell in the army and the police.”
While Shanan’s story is, sadly, not exceptional for soldiers defending Israel, one facet is unique: Kamil Shanan was among the whopping 93% of Israeli Druze who serve in the IDF. (Only 64% of Jews serve.)
Druze are a small, Arabic-speaking religious group, numbering only six million worldwide, primarily in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel, where there are about 140,000 Druze. About 50,000 live in the United States. They form close-knit, cohesive communities, while simultaneously being quite patriotic. Although a tiny minority in Israel, thousands of Israeli Druze belong to “Druze Zionist” movements. While monotheistic, Druze consider Jethro (Yisro, Moshe’s father-in-law) to be the ancestor of all Druze, their spiritual founder and chief prophet.
In addition to their prominence in the IDF, with a disproportionate number in elite combat units and becoming officers, they are highly active in Israeli politics.
Shakib Shanan was born in the Hurfeish village in Israel’s Upper Galilee and has become one of Israel’s more prominent leaders in the Druze community. After serving in the IDF for three years, he graduated from Tel Aviv University and went on to serve in various prominent positions within the Israeli government. He was elected twice to the Israeli Knesset between 2008 and 2012, first in the Labor party, and the second time with Ehud Barak in Atzmaut. Shanan also served as senior advisor to the Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and frequently lectures in Israel and abroad on relations between Druze and Jewish communities, Hasbara diplomacy, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He is currently senior news analyst for i24NEWS Arabic station.
Knowing his political and personal background, it makes sense that Shanan would feel compelled to travel all the way to Los Angeles with Mendi Safadi, head of the Safadi Center, an organization committed to international diplomacy, research, human rights, and public relations. The two came at the invitation of MATI Center in Tarzana, the leading cultural Israeli center in Los Angeles. “I came to keep the relationship strong between the Jewish people in the Diaspora and the Druze in Israel,” Shanan said.
Mendi Safadi, also Druze, was born in the Golan Heights and is a lecturer and expert in Islamic affairs, terrorism, Syria, and the Middle East. Safadi has published numerous articles and served as a political advisor about the Arab Spring and the Syrian revolution. The Safadi Center, based in Israel, advocates for Druze but supports minorities in other countries as well, including challenging the denial of ethnic cleansing of Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians in Bangladesh.
Among his various activities, Safadi and his team attend conferences in Europe and visit college campuses, especially “campuses that don’t like Israel.” There, young people on his team explain how they live as a minority in Israel yet receive all the rights as the majority.
Safadi said that when the non-Jewish Israeli citizens come to talk positively about Israel, it is not received like the Jewish speakers. “When I speak in Arabic, first they are shocked [that] someone is speaking in Arabic about Israel. Then they listen. On many campuses when Jewish people come to talk, it was very hard for them. But when I come as a Druze who speaks Arabic and understands their mentality, they start to ask questions.” And when Shakib Shanan comes to talk about his relationship to the county as a former Knesset member, and a bereaved father, it begins to change people’s minds. “They start to ask about how we live. They don’t know,” said Safadi. “They have all the information of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement, which says [incorrectly that] we have no rights.”
Regarding BDS, Safadi informs the students that “85% of people who work in factories in Judea and Samaria are Palestinian, who receive $1200 monthly from Israel. Those who work in Palestinian factories get $250. If they boycott and Israeli factories close, it hurts the Palestinians the most.” For example, Safadi explained, if the Soda Stream factory closes, 1000 people will lose their jobs. When the factory moved from center to the periphery, the government gives you tax breaks. The factory doesn’t lose, only the workers lose…which means BDS is not [truly] against Israel. They work against Israel only because they are anti-Semitic.”
In honor of Yom HaZikaron, the MATI Center in Tarzana invited Shanan and Safadi to Los Angeles. Orna Eilon, co-founder, president and CFO, explained that MATI is a non-profit, established ten years ago and run by volunteers. MATI’s goal is to strengthen the relationship between Israelis and the Jewish community through cultural events, classes and various programming.
One important program is “Journey to Adulthood,” designed for pre-bar and -bat mitzvah children, up to age 13, targeting Israelis who had not planned on having bar or bat mitzvahs.
Throughout the year, MATI hosts many events in cooperation with schools in the Valley and the City—Temple Sinai, Valley Beth Shalom—and organizations such as Bait Israeli, Shevet Harel, the Holocaust Museum, and the IAC. However, the Yom HaZikaron memorial service is the main event.
“Every year we dedicate the memorial service to a different subject,” Eilon said. “This year, the theme in Israel is Unity, so MATI picked up on that theme. We wanted to honor the Druze, we wanted them to talk to us. It’s important that the Israeli and Jewish community are aware of the Druze contribution to the Israeli army. And not just in the army, the Druze are in the very elite units.” To date, 435 Druze soldiers have fallen in the line of duty. According to Eilon, even in Israel the contribution and devotion of the Druze to the country and to the Israeli Army is not fully known or appreciated.
In this vain, Shanan and Safadi were the guests of honor at the Yom HaZikaron memorial service on Sunday, May 6, held at Valley Beth Shalom in Sherman Oaks, where the space is graciously donated each year for the event. “We do it for the children,” Eilon explained. “For kids to get connected. Very few adults are on stage, just a speaker from VBS and the cantor.” In the audience are families with children ages seven and up. The Yom HaZikaron service used to get 90 attendees, it’s now up to 500, with 30% being children.
Even after the tragic death of his son, Shakib Shanan believes Israel is the “best place to be Jewish and to be Druze.” He loves his country and appreciates that MATI offers such respect for the Israeli Druze killed in the line of duty.