The Circassians of Israel

The Circassians of Israel

© David Burton 2022


     Many who have never visited Israel or studied its makeup might think that it was overwhelmingly composed of former European Jews similar to its first prime minister, David Ben Gurion. They would be very wrong. Israel is a multicultural, multiethnic, multireligious nation. Yes, it has Jews from Europe – called Ashkenazi Jews. Ashkenazi Jews are a Jewish diaspora population who coalesced in the Holy Roman Empire around the end of the first millennium. The traditional diaspora language of Ashkenazi Jews is Yiddish (a Germanic language with elements of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Slavic languages), developed after they had moved into northern Europe: beginning with Germany and France in the Middle Ages. For centuries, they used Hebrew only as a sacred language, until the revival of Hebrew as a common language in 20th century Israel. [1]

     But Jews of other backgrounds from Spain, North Africa and the Middle East – known as Sephardi Jews – also populate modern Israel as do Yemenite Jews, Black Jews from Ethiopia, and Jews from various lands like India. The traditional diaspora language of many Sephardic Jews was Ladino – very similar to Spanish. There are several other languages spoken in Israel, among them Arabic, English and Russian being the most common.

     The State of Israel has a population of nearly 10 million inhabitants. As of July 2020, some 74.24% were Jews of all backgrounds (about 6,829,000 individuals), 20.95% were Arab of any religion other than Jewish (about 1,890,000 individuals), while the remaining 4.81% (about 434,000 individuals) were defined as “others”. [2]

     While the majority of today’s Israelis are Jewish, Israel is also home to a variety of non-Jewish peoples that include Moslem and Christian Arab-Israelis, Bedouin Arabs, Druze, Samaritans, Bahai, Armenians, Assyrians, Black Hebrews (who are neither Jewish nor Hebrew), Circassians and others.

     In 2016, on one of my annual winter trips to Israel I had the opportunity to visit an unusual town in northern Israel by the name of Kfar Kama. It was founded by and today is mostly inhabited by people called Circassians who, today, are non-Arab Muslims. Kfir Kama lies just west of the southern tip of the Kinneret (Sea of Galiliee).

     Every child raised in the Israeli school system is educated and brought up on the Israeli ethos, including its days of remembrance: Holocaust Remembrance Day, Memorial Day for Israel’s Fallen Soldiers, Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Day, as well as other official days of remembrance and commemorative events. However, two high schools in Israel, Kadouri and Sasa, both in the northern Galilee region, mark yet another date: the Circassian Day of Mourning, which commemorates the Circassian genocide and the exile of the Circassian people from their homeland. The reason these schools mark this day is that they serve the residents of the Circassian villages of Kfar Kama and Rehaniya, where the vast majority of the Circassian population in Israel lives. This is one of the most unique population groups in Israel, and despite its limited size, it occupies an important place in the State of Israel’s history.
     The Circassians, or “Adyghe” as they call themselves in their language, are a people originating from the northwestern Caucasus, a region located east of the Black Sea, between Russia, Turkey and Iran. The Circassians lived in relative freedom in their homeland without establishing a “state”, and were generally divided into 12 separate tribes.
     By the end of the 18th century, these people collectively saw themselves as “Adyghe” – Circassians. The Russian Empire attempted to conquer the region with the aim of annexing the Caucasus and settling other populations there. Circassian opposition to Russian colonization lasted for about a hundred years. This opposition led the Russians to take extreme action, and in the final stages of the war (1860–1864), they burned hundreds of villages and engaged in ethnic cleansing, targeting the entire Circassian population. Most of the survivors were expelled from the Caucasus, and about a million of them found refuge in the territories of the Ottoman Empire, including the Land of Israel.
     Originally, there were three main Circassian settlements in the Land of Israel, of which two remain: Kfar Kama and Rehaniya; the third settlement, near the town of Hadera, was abandoned due to an outbreak of malaria. Throughout the 19th century, the region of the eastern Lower Galilee, where Kfar Kama was founded, was under the de facto control of Bedouin tribes. The Ottoman government tried to impose its rule over the region in various ways, settling Maghrebi migrants from Algiers there and sending Kurdish battalions to confront the Bedouin, but with little success. The arrival of the Circassians changed things and effectively paved the way for Jewish settlement in the area about twenty years later. The “Old Village” complex in Kfar Kama, founded in 1878, reflects the conditions in the Land of Israel at that time. Kfar Kama is one of the most impressive surviving examples of local construction from the late 19th century and early 20th century in the Land of Israel.
     Wherever they went, the Circassians often brought modernization along with them. They introduced advanced construction methods, metal and woodworking techniques, a mixed economy, and also incorporated European architectural styles, such as the famous “Marseille tiles” still visible in their villages. Kfar Kama became an important regional center in the late Ottoman and Mandatory periods. They built a modern mill in a central area of the Old Village which became a meeting place for all of the area’s inhabitants - Arab peasants, Bedouins, Jews and the local Circassians. In the 1948 war, the Circassians chose to fight alongside the Jews.
     The Circassians are a people and not a “sect,” as they are sometimes mistakenly referred to in Israel. They are a national minority community in Israel that maintains a robust relationship with kinfolk in Israel and abroad, as well as their desire to return to their homeland. At the same time, they are also Israeli and are completely integrated in all aspects of life in the country. While the Circassian population in Israel numbers only 5,000 people (out of several million in the Circassian diaspora), they are perhaps the most active Circassian group in terms of preserving their extensive heritage, as well as the memory of the genocide and expulsion from their homeland, which is commemorated on their Day of Mourning, May 21. Moreover, the Circassians in Israel work to preserve the Adyghe language. Adyghe, which had been a spoken language only, became a written language in the 19th century (although the Circassians also had a well-developed and unique graphic marking system, which is now preserved mainly in various family symbols). The language has no less than 64 consonants and is taught in elementary and middle schools. Every Circassian child learns Hebrew, English, Adyghe and Arabic, and some also study Russian and Turkish. The schools in Kfar Kama and Rehaniya are the only ones in the world where the students are Muslim and the language of instruction is Hebrew.
     Most Circassians are Sunni Muslims. They adopted Islam at a relatively late stage, having previously been Christians, and pagans before that. Nevertheless, whether Muslims or Christians, Circassians have a single code of conduct, called Xabze, that guides the way they live. This is a set of laws, a code, which directs their daily behavior and wields great influence on their education and values. In addition, the Adyghe have their own mythology and folktales.
     The word Adyghe means “person of virtue” and Adyghe Xabze refers to the traditional way a Circassian is expected to behave. Adherence to this way of life is very important, and those who do not respect the custom must bear the burden of hinap – “shame”. The Xabze code guides education, the rules of society and honor, marriage, ceremonies and daily conduct. Most Circassians prefer to marry among themselves in order to preserve their ethos. Besides their customs, the Circassians continue to preserve their traditional music and dance. The traditional clothing - chiefly the Circassian warrior’s coat, featuring special pockets across the breast for bullets – is worn mainly for the traditional Circassian dance.
     The Circassians have integrated into Israeli society in many ways. In the past, many continued to serve permanently in the security forces after their compulsory service. Many others work in all sectors of the economy, as researchers and scientists, educators and industrial workers. Many leave for a period to study, but most choose to return to live in their villages. The Circassians have also integrated into Israeli society in sports. The Circassian population in Israel stands out for its high percentage of higher education, and in recent years, a special curriculum has been developed specifically for Circassian schoolchildren. In Israel, an astounding 90% of Circassian children go on to higher education.
     In the early 20th century, with Jewish farms and colonies already established in the Galilee, the Jewish immigrants of the Second Aliyah came to an important realization: Jewish workers were not enough; there was also a need for Jewish guards and watchmen. However, regardless of the desire for Jewish independence in security affairs, there was a tradition that the Circassians of the Galilee held a central place in securing and protecting the Lower Galilee region. David Ben-Gurion, upon visiting the Jewish settlement of Sejera where the Bar-Giora or Jewish defense organization (later Hashomerr) was established, took note of the qualities of the neighboring Circassians from Kfar Kama, “resolute and gallant of spirit, excelling in bravery and courage,” and added the familiar Arabic saying: “Fish akhbar min cserkes” – “None are greater than the Circassian.” [3]

     Since 1958 all male Circassians - at their leader's request - must complete Israeli military service upon reaching the age of majority, while females do not. The Circassian community in Israel serves as just one more example, in a list of many, of the wide diversity of peoples residing in this country. They have shown their appreciation for living in a democracy that permits them to enjoy complete religious freedom by being among the most loyal supporters of the nation. The modern histories of Jews and Circassians in the Holy Land are intimately intertwined. Remember - Circassians first settled in Kfar Kama in 1876 and Rehaniya in 1878 while In 1882, just 10 miles away, Zionist immigrants established Rosh Pina, the first Jewish agricultural settlement in the Galilee. Circassians helped the Jewish immigrants — many of them illegal — reach the Promised Land.

     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. The Circassian and Jewish settlements in the Galilee thus had a common reason to band together to fight off their common enemy.

     When conflict between Jews and Arabs began in the British Mandate period, the Circassians usually took neutral or pro-Jewish stances. Circassians identified with the Jews’ history of exile and dispersion. Also, many Jews and Circassians understood and spoke Russian.

     After Israel’s creation, male members of the community flocked to the defense establishment, particularly the border police. In recent years, the community has been making its mark far beyond the defense arena. The Circassians have prospered in the Jewish state.

     The Circassians were originally Christian but converted to the Sunni form of the Islamic faith. Kfar Kama was originally established by a band of 400 Circassians.

     During my visit to Kfar Kama we were taken through the Circassian Heritage Museum, shown an excellent film that provided information about the Circassians, and we were told about modern Circassian life. At the museum, we were treated to a Circassian dance performance and served tea and pastry. Signs throughout Kfar Kama were printed in three languages - Cyrillic, Hebrew and Arabic. Circassian is the commonly spoken language although residents are fluent in both Hebrew and Arabic and to some degree, English.

     We learned that Sochi, in today’s Russia, where the 2014 Winter Olympics were held, lies in what was once Circassia. The Red Hills near Sochi refers to the blood of the Circassians that was spilled there during the genocide. Archaeological evidence indicates the existence of a Circassian civilization dating back some 6,000 years. There were/are 12 Circassian tribes and the Circassian flag contains 12 stars, representing these tribes.

     Physical fitness, diet consciousness, and dance play an important role in Circassian life and there are many outstanding Israeli Circassian athletes. Circassians tend to have small waists and very good posture because of their diet and exercise. Women are treated as equals, or perhaps even as superiors in their everyday life. Circassian society is sometimes considered to be matriarchal in nature. The courting/dating ritual is clearly defined, with dance playing a very important role. Although not encouraged, Circassians tolerate mixed marriages. In 2016, there were a few Circassian-Jewish and Circassian-Arab married couples living in Kfar Kama. To get married, Circassians can either get married with the approval of the women’s parents or with an “arranged kidnapping”. Both are acceptable.

     The Circassians in Israel are just one more proof that the charge of Israel being an apartheid state is an utter fabrication and an anti-Semitic falsehood! For the truth, just ask the members of the Circassian community who live in Israel!



  1. The Circassians in Israel, Shir Aharon Bram, Jewish Virtual Library, Accessed 31 January 2022.
  2. Ashkenazi Jews, Wikipedia, Accessed 31 January 2022.
  3. percentage of Israelis that are Jewish,, Accessed 31 January 2022.

  10 March 2022 {ARTICLE 518; ISRAEL_63}    
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