Circassians, Descendants of Russian Muslims, Fight for Identity in Israel

The Washington Post

A small community of Circassians, descendants of Russian Muslims of the Caucasus who were brought here by the Ottoman Turks in the 19th Century to help rule Palestine, is struggling in this picturesque Galilee village to retain its cultural identity in the face of natural pressures of assimilation into Jewish society.

One of the more unusual minorities in Israel, the Circassians have nothing in common with their Arab neighbors except their religion, and little with which to identify with Israel except their fluency in Hebrew and their staunch support of the Jewish state, which traditionally militaristic Circassian men have defended for more than 100 years.

Among themselves, the 2,100 Circassians of this village and 600 more in nearby Rehaniya speak exclusively in their native language, and because they marry almost exclusively within their own community, their appearance is decidedly Caucasian.


However, retaining the fierce warrior characteristics of their ancestors that so impressed the rulers of the Ottoman Empire, the Circassians have fought for Israel in every war since the struggle for independence.

Many of them now serve in the tough Border Police unit that maintains security in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip and in front-line units of the Israeli Army.

“We feel completely a part of Israel, but you will find no Circassian Zionists,” said Adam Jarhad, the principal of the local elementary school who has been in the forefront of efforts to deter any trend toward assimilation. “By wanting to be part of this state we can’t be Jewish Circassians. We want to keep our language and our customs, even if we can’t have our homeland.”

Having won a key battle in 1976 to remove themselves from the jurisdiction of the Israeli government’s Department of Arab Affairs and tailor their education system more to their own culture, the Circassians say they are confident they will never be absorbed into either the Jewish or the Arab society of Israel.

“The moment we started teaching Circassian in school, we guaranteed the future of our own identify. When a Circassian is born, he is taught how to be a Circassian in the cradle,” said Yahya Napso, head of the village’s local council.

The Circassians, originally a polytheistic nation of warriors who traditionally defended the strategic Caucasus between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, were forcibly converted to Christianity in the 3rd Century and then, on their own initiative, converted to Islam in the 17th Century when the czarist Russians tried to occupy the Caucasus.

In 1858-59, when the Russian campaign finally succeeded, 600,000 Circassians left the Caucasus at the urging of the Ottoman Turks, who considered themselves responsible for the Muslim world, and wound their way through Romania and Bulgaria, many of them ending up in Syria, Lebanon and what are now Jordan and Israel.

In 1869, Circassian immigrants arrived in Rehaniya, and seven years later 35 families settled in this village, having won land grants from the Turks in exchange for promises of helping the empire’s rulers in Istanbul keep order in occasionally restive Palestine, Jarhad said.

The original immigrants, reflecting their militaristic nature and apparently expecting the same climate as the Caucasus, built sturdy walls around their houses, made of the black volcanic rock common to the Galilee, and steeply pitched their red-tile roofs--characteristics that remain today in the oldest parts of the village.

In World War I, Jarhad said, many of the men from Kfar Kama fought on the side of the Turks in Iraq and the Balkans, and then later, during the British Mandatory Palestine era, served in the British Army.

The Circassians, he said, maintained good relations with the Jewish immigrants who were building kibbutzim in the Galilee, and often served as guards at the settlements. During the Arab revolts of the 1930s, the Circassians defended the Jews, and in 1947 they fought alongside the Hagana to defeat the Arabs in the Galilee.

After Israel won independence, the Circassians formed a cavalry unit that became the nucleus of the Israeli Border Police, said Jarhad, whose father served in the unit. Later, the tiny community won numerous privileges from a grateful Israeli government, and Kfar Kama was one of the first villages in the area to get water, electricity and telephone connections.

But because they were Muslims, the Circassians occasionally found themselves the object of bureaucratic discrimination, Jarhad said.

Military jurisdiction over them was not rescinded until 1958, and Circassian members of the Army and Border Police often were required to obtain passes from the military governor to travel even to their own units.

It was not until 1976 that the Circassians were removed from the jurisdiction of the government’s Arab Affairs Department, along with the Druze, who also served in elite Israeli military units.

With that decision came a revamping of the community’s educational system, and Circassian children are now taught their ancestral language in the Cyrillic Alphabet from the fifth grade, along with Hebrew, Arabic and English--the three languages taught in all Israeli public schools.

Most Circassians are proficient in Arabic because it is the language of the Koran, and in Hebrew because it is needed to communicate in day-to-day life in Israel. Stores and public buildings here usually have signs in Circassian, Hebrew and Arabic.

In many other ways, Jarhad said, the community is seeking to retain its own culture, even though most working residents are employed in Jewish-owned businesses in the area and on kibbutzim .

He said that in the last 100 years there have been only 12 intermarriages, and that the village now has only three mixed families.

Unlike in the Arab Muslim community, arranged marriages are not common, Jarhad said, and the Circassians’ practice of Islam generally is much more progressive than that of their Arab neighbors.

A local dance team, dressed in colorful costumes reminiscent of rural Russia, dances to traditional Circassian music on special occasions. “A Circassian who doesn’t dance is not a Circassian,” Jarhad said.

Foods native to the Caucasus are still popular here, including chicken fried in a spicy sauce and served steaming hot, and a Circassian cheese rolled in pastry.