Circassians Are Israel’s Other Muslims

Refugee Community Has Own Memories of Exile and Genocide

Beneath the Green Hills of Galilee: Traditionally-dressed Circassian musicians perform in the village of Kfar Kama.
Ron Almog
Beneath the Green Hills of Galilee: Traditionally-dressed Circassian musicians perform in the village of Kfar Kama.

By Oren Kessler

Published August 20, 2012, issue of August 24, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Israel was born as a sanctuary for a people banished from their homeland, harassed in exile and ultimately subjected to mass murder. But there is more than one population here that meets this description. For, the Jewish state is home to another dispersed, insular and tradition-bound nation that has suffered through the trauma of exile and one of the most devastating genocides of modern times.

Some 1.5 million Circassians were killed in the Caucasian War of the mid-to-late 19th century, and another million — fully 90% of the population — were deported from their land in the Caucasus Mountains. Today, roughly 4,000 Circassians live in Israel, where they constitute the country’s only Sunni Muslim community that sends each of its sons to the military.

Read post on Arty Semite blog about Israeli museums’ spotlight on Circassians.

“We’ve traditionally been friends with both Jews and Arabs, even when they were fighting among themselves,” said Zoher Thawcho, the 39-year-old co-founder of the Circassian Heritage Center in Kfar Kama. “We don’t see everything Israel does as holy, nor what the Arab states or Palestinians do…. It’s not as if we say, ‘From now on we’re with you, so we’re enemies of the other.’”

Most Circassians (sur-CASH-ins) took refuge in the lands of the Ottoman Empire. Today, 2 million of the world’s 7 million Circassians live in Turkey, with another 120,000 in Syria and 100,000 in Jordan. Circassians were Christian for 1,000 years, but from the 16th to the 19th century became Islamized under the influence of Crimean Tatars and Ottoman Turks.

In Israel, the community is spread across two villages in the green hills of the Galilee: Kfar Kama — 13 miles southwest of Tiberias, population 3,000; and Rehaniya — nine miles north of Safed, population 1,000. In the 16th century, the Circassians also founded Abu Ghosh, now a famous restaurant town located west of Jerusalem, but their progeny long ago adopted the Arabic language and culture of their surroundings.

“Circassians are like a prism that shows just how polarized Israeli society is,” said Chen Bram, an anthropologist who is currently working as a professor at the University of Florida. “It’s as if someone who doesn’t fit into the category of either Jew or Arab is from another planet. They’re neither here nor there.

“In terms of their day-to-day lives, both politically and ideologically, they’re closer to Jewish society. But in recent years, on the margins, there has also been more identification with their Islamic identity. I attribute that to a reaction to various racist remarks that have been thrown their way.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "What I didn’t realize before my trip was that I would leave Uganda with a powerful mandate on my shoulders — almost as if I had personally left Egypt."
  • Is it better to have a young, fresh rabbi, or a rabbi who stays with the same congregation for a long time? What do you think?
  • Why does the leader of Israel's social protest movement now work in a beauty parlor instead of the Knesset?
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.