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.
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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.”


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