The Adyghe - Circassians in Israel

By Miri -

Historical Background

Painting of a Circassian Warrior
With a history dating back as far as 8000 BC, the Adyghe, commonly known as Circassians or Cherkess, are the oldest indigenous ethnic group of the Northern Caucasus. The original monotheistic religion of the Adyghe, who are subdivided into twelve separate groups, is known as Habze, "a philosophical and religious system of personal values and the relationship between an individual to others, to the world around him [sic], and to the Higher Mind."

In the 6th century under Georgian and Byzantine influence, many Adyghe were converted to Christianity and later, under the Ottoman occupation to Islam. However, both the influence of Christianity and Islam seem to have been limited, if not superficial. Neither religion could replace, but rather interacted with the original belief system of Habze, which is still an important feature of the Adyghe identity.

With the Russian conquest in the mid 19th century, the Adyghe lost their independence and were eventually expelled from the region. The majority fled to Turkey and other parts of the Ottoman Empire. According to the Adyghe and many historians, the Russian military campaign against the group, including their expulsion from the Caucasus, qualifies as genocide, a notion which is however not internationally recognised.

According to estimations by the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, 3,7 million Adyghe are spread across the world, with approximately 2 million living in Turkey, 700,000 in the Russian Federation, 150,000 in the Middle East and about 50,000 in Europe and the USA.

Perceptions of the Adyghe in Western Culture

Circassian Girl by Jean-Léon Gérome
A fairly extensive literary history suggests that Adyghe women were thought of as unusually beautiful and elegant and were very much sought after as concubines.
Serving as the Western ideal of feminine beauty, Adyghe/Circassian women featured in works of poetry, novels, and fine arts and the word "Circassian" started to be used in advertisements for beauty products, suggesting that the product was based on the same substances that were used by women of Circassia.

By the early nineteenth century the Caucasus region was elevated as "the source of the purest examples of the 'white race'", which was thereafter named the "Caucasian race" by Johann Friedrich Blumenbach. Blumenbach apparently thought that the Circassians were the closest to God's original model of humanity, and thus "the purest and most beautiful whites were the Circassians".

The Adyghe in Palestine/Israel

Due to their reputation as experienced fighters, a considerable number of Adyghe were sent to Palestine during the late 19th century where they performed military service for the sultan. Eventually they established and settled down in the Northern villages of Rehaniya and Kfar Kama in the Galilee.

The interaction of the Adyhe with the local groups of the region points to the complexity of their identity. Due to their distinct ethnicity and culture, the Adyghe, although being Sunni Muslims, never affiliated themselves with the Palestinian population, and especially not with the pan-Arab movement which became a significant political force during the first half of the 20th century.
To the contrary, due to the use of Russian by both many of the first Jewish immigrants to the Galilee, as well as by most Adyghe, the relationship between the latter and the Jewish community has been described as generally good since the beginning. For the same reason the Adyghe also fought on the side of Israel during the 1948 war.

Today there are more than 3,000 Adyghe people living in Israel. As a recognised minority, they receive financial support by the Ministry of Education and so far have managed to maintain their language and culture. Right after independence the Adyghe leadership requested to serve in the Israeli army, so like the Druze, young Adyghe men are being drafted for military service and the percentage of army recruits among the community is relatively high.

The mosque of Kfar Kama
The integration of the Adyghe into Israeli society remains however a superficial one. A sense of ignorance among the Israeli Jewish population concerning the community is quite widespread and Adyghe people, because of their last names and/or supposedly foreign appearance, commonly face similar forms of discrimination that other minorities in Israel are struggling with. As a consequence unemployment among the younger community members is disproportionately high. Further, according to the head of the heavily indebted City Council of Kfar Kama, Adyghe communities are systematically neglected by the state and it is not rare for the residents of the village to be cut off from water supply for long hours. This sense of being ignored by the state, together with the economic and social problems that the communities face, already led many young Adyghes to consider leaving Israel and to return to their homeland in the Northern Caucasus: at least there they would feel that it is their land, the council head concludes.


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