Circassians in Israel by Asya Pereltsvaig

Asya Pereltsvaig is a lecturer in the Department of Linguistics at Stanford University.

While Israel serves as a gathering place for the world-wide Jewish diaspora, it too hosts smaller diasporic communities of its own. One such community, which most Israelis know little about, is that of Circassians. Members of this community live in two villages: Kfar-Kama in the lower Galilee (population 2,900) and Reyhaniye further north, on the border with Syria (population 1,000). The roots of this community go back to the expulsion of Circassians by Czarist Russia from their homeland in the North Caucasus. Most of the Circassians who survived the expulsion and the massacres ended up in the Ottoman lands, as the Ottoman Sultan saw them as experienced fighters and thus allowed them to settle in sparsely populated areas of the Empire, including the Galilee. The two Circassian villages in what is now northern Israel – Rehaniya and Kfar Kama – were established in 1873 and 1876, respectively. They are home to two different Circassian groups, speaking different dialects of Adyghe: Abadzakh Circassians in Reyhaniye and Shapsug Circassians in Kfar-Kama.

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. The 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, so much so that 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, or sledding and snow balls. Hebrew, Arabic and English are also learned at the elementary school level.

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 getting more and more 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 has to do with the fact that they are Muslims. However, they share neither the Arab origin nor the cultural background of the larger Islamic community. 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 different from Arab mosques; the villages themselves are built in the tradition Circassian style, which has its roots in the Caucasus, and is called “walled village”: the houses are built next to one another and form a protective wall around the village. 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, customs, and loyalty to the Ottomans.

In contrast, their relations with the Jewish community have been quite good since the beginning of the Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel, thanks in no small measure to the fact that, like many of the First Aliyah immigrants from Russia who settled in the Galilee, Circassians continued to speak Russian, which they had picked up in their Caucasian homeland (some Israeli Circassians still speak Russian). Moreover, the Circassian community in Israel fought on the Israeli side of the War of Independence. Since 1948, at the community leaders’ request, Circassians must serve in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). Today, many Circassians in Israel 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 compared to some other groups. Yet, despite their loyalty to the State of Israel and the fact that they are non-fanatical Sunni Muslims (of the Hanafi school who tend to be non-fanatical and among whom the Adat or custom law – the Adyge-Habze – has remained extremely strong), many people – including many Jewish Israelis – are barely aware of their existence or of their unique ethnic and cultural heritage. As a result, Circassians 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 proud of their identity, both as Circassians and as Israelis (as can be seen in this YouTube video, also featuring traditional Circassian dances). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r-vXD84Pv0I 

While maintaining a distinct ethnic identity, they participate in Israel’s economic and national affairs without assimilating either into Jewish society or into the Muslim community.

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Hourani, A. H. (1947) Minorities in the Arab World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Source: Languages of the World