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August 31, 2015 | 16th Elul 5775


Galilee Diary #341, June 10, 2007

Marc J. Rosenstein


At that time Abimelech and Phicol, chief of his troops, said to Abraham, “God is with you in everything that you do. Therefore swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me or with my kith and kin, but will deal with me and with the land in which you have sojourned as loyally as I have dealt with you.” And Abraham said, “I swear it.”
      -Genesis 21:22-24

At the last session of the Interfaith Coordinating Council of Israel study group for imams (Moslem religious leaders) from communities around the Galilee, we met at the Conservative synagogue in Karmiel. At dinner, afterwards, at a restaurant in the nearby village of Majd El Kurum, I sat at dinner with the imam of the village of Reichaniya, a village of 1,000 inhabitants located about 45 minutes northeast of here. And I learned a lot.

Reichaniya is one of two Circassian villages in Israel (the other is Kfar Kama, in the lower Galilee, with 3,000 residents). Circassia (also known as Adiga) is an area in the northern Causasus region (northeast of the Black Sea - in the area that was ruled by the Khazars in the middle ages). After a century of war, the area, which had belonged to the Ottoman Empire, was finally conquered by Russia on May 21, 1864, after which the Russians expelled all of the local residents to Ottoman territory. Thus two to three million refugees made their way south and west, to Turkey and the Balkan territories of Turkey, with thousands dying in the process. The Circassians label this the first genocide of the modern period - antedating the Turkish massacre of the Armenians by half a century. In their places of exile around the world, they observe May 21 as a memorial day for this traumatic episode in their history. Many of the refugees who stopped in the Balkans continued to migrate in the coming decades, and many of these made their way to the Middle Eastern territories of the Ottoman Empire, where they settled in what is now Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Israel. Thus, the Moslem, non-Arab village of Reichaniya was settled in the early 1880s, just at the time of the first wave of Zionist immigration to Palestine (the First Aliya). The local Arabs saw them as interlopers, as “settlers,” and made their lives miserable. However, they persevered, and though they never assimilated into Palestinian Arab society, they have become a permanent part of the human landscape of Israel, and share their village with a small Bedouin population.

Circassian children attend elementary school in their village, where they learn four languages: Circassian, Hebrew, Arabic, and English. For high school, the vast majority commute to Jewish high schools in a nearby kibbutz or in Safed. They don’t feel comfortable in Arab high schools. The imam himself, a man in his sixties, attended the religious Jewish high school in Safed (needless to say he knows a lot more than his colleagues about Judaism). Both his Arabic and his Hebrew are unaccented – he fits in easily in the group of imams, and for the first several meetings I had no idea he wasn’t an Arab. On the other hand, when he speaks Hebrew, there is no way to know he is not Jewish.

While the region in which Reichaniya is located is largely agricultural – most of the Jewish communities are moshavim making their living (barely) from fruit orchards, chicken coops, and cattle – the imam told me that most of the men of Reichaniya are employed in the defense establishment – in the police, border police, or career army. He complained about the lack of motivation and drive in the community – many of the men, upon retirement from the army (which can be at a relatively young age – 40s), simply live off their pensions, and show no interest in a second career. He also complains about the lack of interest in religion among the younger generation.

One of the satisfactions and challenges in living here, for me, is the constant discovery of how much I don’t know about my immediate surroundings. Every day a new surprise.

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