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Stuck in the middle with Druze

Syria may be coming apart at the seams, but a few yards from its southwestern border you would be hard-pressed to believe it.

MAJDAL SHAMS, Israel — Syria may be coming apart at the seams, but a few yards from its southwestern border you would be hard-pressed to believe it.

At Majdal Shams, a busy, serene town of 10,000 on the far northern point of Israel, you will find yourself deliberating among a wealth of leisure activities not usually associated with remote Druze villages.

You can enjoy a quick stop at Amoré, a chocolate emporium whose walls glisten with colorful wrappings and exotic provenances of cacao, where the cheerful Ali Safadi is happy to offer you an espresso as you take in the bounty, or go for a Mexican chicken wrap and a beer at Undefined, a classic après-ski bar overlooking well-tended verges of snow along the main drag.

Not even the hint of turmoil mars this scene. But winks abound. The perpetually crowded bar is called Undefined because since 1967, when Israel annexed the Golan Heights from Syria at the end of the Six Day War, its Druze citizens have held travel documents that read: “Citizenship: Undefined.”

Israel does not recognize their Syrian citizenship and fewer and fewer Golan Druze themselves identify as Syrian. They all carry Israeli ID cards but are mostly unwilling to take Israeli passports. So, for now, undefined it is.

“This is the best solution, given how things stand,” said Adnan Abu Saleh, an accountant and innkeeper in his 50s who, as a Druze, thinks the entire enterprise of citizenship is highly overrated. “When there is peace, I don’t care which citizenship I have. Or who the government is.”

The Druze are commonly believed to comprise less than 3 percent of the population of Syria. But with a history of military and political achievement much greater than their numbers, they have disproportionate importance.

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For many months no Druze leader spoke publicly about the uprising in Syria. But when the Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt finally came out against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad earlier this year, it was considered a watershed.

Of all the Semitic peoples of the Middle East, none is as enigmatic and enduring as the Druze. Worldwide they number about 1 million, almost all of them living in the turbulent and craggy land where Lebanon, Syria and Israel meet.

The Druze, an 11th century offshoot of Ismailism, speak Arabic. But they are neither Muslim, Jew or Christian. They reject Mohammed’s status as a prophet and hold to a secret and eclectic set of Unitarian, monotheistic beliefs.

The tenets of their faith are known only to select Druze elders — a few hundred men and women — who are entrusted with keeping liturgical texts and religious ceremony. The Druze reject both polygamy and polytheism. They, or at least the religious among them, refrain from alcohol, tobacco, pork and shellfish.

Driving south from Majdal Shams toward the wine-growing area of Katzrin, there is an old Syrian army base — later used by the Israeli army before finally being abandoned — that has been refurbished as tourist village.

“I wish they would make every army base in this entire region into a tourist base,” Abu Saleh said. “Who needs them?”

Tourism is now among the top Golan Heights industries, with an emphasis on eco-tourism. Three large groups of cyclists on sleek road bikes, painted in spandex and outfitted with bug-like eyepieces, race by Abu Saleh on the 40-minute ride.

For years, the windy, breathtaking Golan, inhabited since Upper Paleolithic times and once the site of battles between Israelites and Aramaeans, has seemed itself to reside in a sort of limbo. On the one hand the region produces some of the best apples, grapes and cherries around and is home to thriving communities. On the other hand, it is always subject to the line: “When the Golan goes back to Syria ….”

“What do you mean ‘go back’ to Syria?” asked Adam Braek, 36, the hyperactive assistant to the mayor of Majdal Shams. “I’ve never been to Syria. I grew up here, in Israel. I have nothing to say about Syria. I’m interested in getting things done.”

Braek speaks fluent, natural Hebrew, holds an accounting degree from Tel Hai College in the nearby Galilee and refers to himself as “extremely secular.”

Over late evening beers at Undefined, he gently instructs his wayward younger brother, Hnedy, 27, who is now employed as a barman at another bar, toward a more productive path in life. He invents for his sake a rhyming Hebrew Haiku: tashkia, tagia, tashpia, meaning, invest, arrive, influence.

Braek and his boss, Mayor Dolann Abu Salach, 34, have been getting a lot done, like building a massive new sports complex and a mother-child clinic. Majdal Shams’s 2,700 schoolchildren learn Arabic, Hebrew and English from the first grade and have among the highest university matriculation rates in Israel.

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There are more than 100,000 Druze citizens of Israel, most of them from the Galilee. They serve in the military and in public life at rates disproportionately higher than their number in Israel, a nation of 7 million. Five out of 120 members of Israel’s parliament are Druze, representing various parties. As in Syria and in Lebanon, there are Druze generals in Israel’s army. A Druze once served as Israel’s acting president.