Circassians in Israel
Today, despite being a small community of less than 3,000 people, Circassians in Israel manage to maintain their language (as well as cultural and ethnic identity) to a remarkable degree, even compared to the 100,000-strong Circassian community in the neighboring Jordan, where Circassians enjoy high status but many younger people no longer speak Circassian at all. But Circassians in Israel speak Adyge at home, and children continue to acquire the language from their parents. Primary education in the village schools is conducted in Adyge, and the National Circassian Alphabet of Caucasus (developed by the Soviets) is used in teaching. Curiously, much of the primary education in Adyge in Israel was based on the Soviet models; in 1982, the Israeli Ministry of Education published its own Circassian primer based on a Soviet model, complete with such non-Israeli themes as Young Pioneers with their red ties, sledding and snow balls. Hebrew, Arabic and English are also learned at the elementary level in Israeli Circassian schools.
The village of Kfar Kama has its own middle school (Reyhaniye is too small to have its own secondary school, so its pupils go to both Jewish and Arab schools in neighboring settlements). This middle school in Kfar Kama is a veritable melting pot of different languages, as most classes are conducted in whatever language the teacher speaks or whatever language is appropriate for the subject matter. A 2005 article in the Israeli Hebrew-language daily newspaper Haaretz describes the school like this (translation mine):
“Art classes, whose teacher is Jewish, are conducted in Hebrew; classes on the religion of Islam – in Arabic; English classes – in English with explanation in Hebrew, while students speak among themselves in Circassian [i.e. Adyghe]; and the science classes – according to the teachers’ choice. [One of the science teachers] tries to conduct his science classes in Circassian so that the children won’t forget the language. When he is lacking words for scientific concepts, he completes in Hebrew.”
However, maintaining the Adyghe language and culture is becoming increasingly difficult as more and more younger people integrate into the Israeli society through secondary and tertiary schooling, serving in the army (like Jewish Israelis and Israeli Druze, Israeli Circassian men must complete mandatory military service upon reaching the age of majority) and finding jobs outside the community. Some Circassians are even contemplating returning to the Caucasus despite all the ethnic and political problems there.
Another set of problems peculiar to the Circassian community in Israel stems from the fact that they are Muslims. However, they share neither the Arab origin nor the cultural background of the larger Islamic community in the region. For example, the mosques in Circassian villages (see picture on the left) are built in the style of Circassian mosques in the Caucasus, and substantially differ from Arab mosques; the villages themselves are also built in the traditional Circassian style. In such “walled village”, houses are built next to one another to form a protective wall around the settlement. Moreover, since the beginning the Circassians “were not on the best terms with their local Arab neighbors” (according to Hourani 1947, p. 58), largely because of their language, loyalty to the Ottomans, and customs, such as following their traditional law, the Adyge-Habze, to resolve disputes among themselves.
In contrast, Circassian relations with the Jewish community have generally been good since the beginning of the Jewish settlement in Israel. The use of a common language helped; many of the First Aliyah immigrants to the Galilee spoke Russian, as did most of the Circassians in the region. The Circassian community, moreover, fought on the Israeli side during the War of Independence. Since 1948, at the request of the community’s leaders, Circassians must serve in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). Today, many Circassians are employed in the Israeli security forces, including not only the IDF but also the Israeli Police, the Israeli Border Police, and the Israeli Prison Service. In fact, the percentage of the army recruits among the Circassian community in Israel is relatively high. Yet, despite their loyalty to the State of Israel, many people – including many Jewish Israelis – are barely aware of their existence, let alone of their unique ethnic and cultural heritage. As a result, Circassians have become subject to discrimination and general anti-Muslim sentiment. For example, Jalal Nafso, the head of City Council in Kfar Kama is quoted in the Haaretz as saying:
“[young people] see soldiers and officers who have been discharged, and what is waiting for them? Do they get appointed to government jobs? No. Why? Because their names are Jalal.”
But despite all the problems, Israeli Circassians are a great example of successfully solving the problem facing many minority groups world-wide: how to balance their national and ethnic identities. Overall, Israeli Circassians manage to maintain a distinct ethnic identity (as can be seen in this YouTube video, which features an interview with an Israeli Circassian imam, Sheikh Farok Zinadin, as well as traditional dances performed by Circassian youth); yet, they also participate in Israel’s economic and national affairs without assimilating fully either into Jewish society or into the Arab Muslim community. Most certainly, other minority groups including Circassian diasporic communities, have much to learn from Israeli Circassians.
Hourani, A. H. (1947) Minorities in the Arab World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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