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In 2009, Circassians and Druze (an Arabic-speaking people who follow an arcane offshoot of Islam) staged a joint month-long protest against what they described as government discrimination, alleging that the two communities received less state funding than their Arab or ultra-Orthodox counterparts. After protracted negotiations, the government last year allotted NIS 680 million ($170 million) to shore up education, employment, housing and tourism for both populations.
The modern histories of Jews and Circassians in the Holy Land are intimately intertwined. Circassians first settled in Kfar Kama in 1876, Rehaniya in 1878. Four years later (and just 10 miles away), Zionist immigrants established Rosh Pina, the first Jewish agricultural settlement in the Galilee.
Circassians helped Jewish immigrants — many of them illegal — reach the Promised Land. “There was no Ministry of Immigrant Absorption back then. It was the Circassians who took in those immigrants,” said Khoon Shawki, proprietor of Rehaniya’s Circassian Museum and Sausruka restaurant.
“The major division in the Galilee at the time wasn’t between Arabs and Jews, but between sedentary people and Bedouin nomads. The nomads demanded protection money from all the sedentary communities,” Bram said. “The Circassians, who were sedentary and themselves had come from outside, easily made ties with the Jewish settlers. Later, when the national conflict between Jews and Arabs began in the British Mandate period, the Circassians generally took neutral or pro-Jewish stances.”
The Circassians identified with the Jews’ history of exile and dispersion, and cordial relations were also aided by the fact that many Jews and Circassians understood Russian.
Israel’s Circassians generally no longer speak Russian, but they continue to be remarkable polyglots: Most of their children are fluent in Hebrew and Arabic, learn English at school and their Circassian mother tongue at home. The language (also known as Adyghe) is written in Cyrillic script and is one of the world’s oldest and most difficult to learn.
Circassians have a reputation as a warrior people who, until succumbing to imperial Russia, had defended their strategically located homeland against invaders from Persians to Huns and Mongols. In the decades after Israel’s creation, male members of the community flocked to the defense establishment, particularly the border police. But they can be a laconic lot, too, and Thawcho says that over the years, that reserve has kept some of them from getting their due rewards.