Israel Feature

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Israel: People, Religion, and State

“I could not conceive of a small country having so large a history,” wrote Mark Twain after his visit to the Holy Land in 1867. The rich history certainly fascinates, as does the complex political situation despite, or because of, its constant sense of urgency. But beyond that are the people, a varied population of 8 million, representing a startlingly wide array of ethnicities, nationalities, religious beliefs, and lifestyles. The diversity of Israel's population is one of the country's greatest strengths––and one of its essential challenges. It may explain, for example, why defining a national identity is still a work in progress, even after more than sixty years.

Creating a Nation

Israel's founding generation saw the country as a modern reincarnation of the ancient Jewish nation-state. Israel was the "Promised Land" of Abraham and Moses, the Israelite kingdom of David and Solomon, and the home of Jesus of Nazareth and the Jewish Talmudic sages. Although the Jewish presence in the country has been unbroken for more than three thousand years, several massive exiles—first by the Babylonians in 586 BC and then by the Romans in AD 70—created a Diaspora, a dispersion of the Jewish people throughout the world. The sense of historical roots still resonates for many, probably most, Jewish Israelis; and bringing their brethren home has been a national priority from the beginning.

The attachment to the ancient homeland, and a yearning for the restoration of "Zion and Jerusalem," weaves through the entire fabric of Jewish history and religious tradition. Over the centuries, many Jews trickled back to Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel), while others looked forward to fulfilling their dream of return in some future—many felt imminent—messianic age. Not all were prepared to wait for divine intervention, however, and in the late 19th century, a variety of Jewish nationalist organizations emerged, bent on creating a home for their people in Israel (then the district of Palestine in the vast Ottoman Empire). Zionism was created as a political movement to give structure and impetus to that idea.

Some early Zionist leaders, like founding father Theodor Herzl, believed that the urgent priority was simply a Jewish haven safe from persecution, wherever that haven might be. Argentina was suggested, and Great Britain offered Uganda. In light of Jewish historical and emotional links to the land of Israel, most Zionists rejected these "territorialist" proposals.

The establishment of the State of Israel did not, of course, meet with universal rejoicing. To the Arab world, it was anathema, an alien implant in a Muslim Middle East. Palestinian Arabs today mark Israel's independence as the Nakba, the Catastrophe, a moment in time when their own national aspirations were thwarted. For many ultra-Orthodox Jews, the founding of Israel was an arrogant preempting of God's divine plan; and to make matters worse, the new state was blatantly secular, despite its concessions to religious interests. This internal battle over the character of the Jewish state, and the implacable hostility of Israel's neighbors—which has resulted in more than six decades of unremitting conflict—have been the two main issues engaging the country since its birth.

The Israeli People

Roughly 6 million of Israel's citizens—a little more than 75%—are Jewish. Some trace their family roots back many generations on local soil; others are first- to fourth-generation olim (immigrants) from dozens of different countries. The first modern pioneers arrived from Russia in 1882, purchased land, and set about developing it with romantic zeal. A couple of decades later, inspired by the socialist ideas then current in Eastern Europe, a much larger wave founded the first kibbutzim—collective villages or communes. In time, these fiercely idealistic farmers became something of a moral elite, having little financial power but providing a greatly disproportionate percentage of the country's political leadership, military officer cadre, and intelligentsia.

The kibbutz ideology has pretty much run out of steam. A more personally ambitious younger generation has increasingly eschewed the communal lifestyle in favor of the lures of the big city. In the vast majority of the 270 or so kibbutzim across the country, modern economic realities have undermined the old socialist structure, and a high degree of privatization is the order of the day.

The State of Israel was founded in 1948, just three years after the end of World War II and the Holocaust, in which the Nazis annihilated fully two-thirds of European Jewry. In light of the urgency of providing a haven for remnants of those shattered communities, the Law of Return was passed in 1950 granting any Jew automatic right to Israeli citizenship.

Most of the immigrants before Israel's independence in 1948 were Ashkenazi Jews (of Central or Eastern European descent), but the biggest wave in the first decade of statehood came from the Arab lands of North Africa and the Middle East. Israel's Jewish population—600,000 at the time of independence—doubled within 3½ years and tripled within ten.

In the late 1980s and early ’90s, a wave of about three-quarters of a million Jews moved to Israel from the former Soviet Union. The Russian influence is felt everywhere in Israel today, not least in the fields of technology and classical music. In the early 1980s, a smaller group of Jews from the long-isolated Ethiopian community trekked across Sudan, on their odyssey to the dreamed-of “Jerusalem.” Many perished en route. Another 14,500 were airlifted into Israel over one weekend in 1991. Their challenge––and that of Israeli society––has been their integration into a modern technological society.

The vast majority of Israel's 1.6 million Arabic-speaking citizens are Muslims (among them about 200,000 Bedouin), followed by 130,000 Druze (a separate religious group), and about 125,000 Christian Arabs. Most Israeli Arabs live in the mixed Jewish-Arab towns of Jaffa, Ramla, Lod, Haifa, and Akko; a number of good-sized towns and villages on the eastern edge of the coastal plain; in Nazareth and throughout the Lower Galilee; and, in the case of the Bedouin, in the Negev Desert. The extent to which they’re integrated with Israeli Jews often depends on location. In Haifa, for example, there’s little tension between the two ethnic groups. On the other hand, Jerusalem’s quarter-million Arab residents are Palestinian not Israeli, and the situation is more fraught. All Israeli Arabs are equal under the law and vote for and serve in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament.

However, social and economic gaps between the Arab and Jewish sectors do exist, and Arab complaints of government neglect and unequal allocation of resources have sometimes spilled into angry street demonstrations and other antiestablishment activity. The Muslims in Israel are mainstream Sunnis and regarded as both politically and religiously moderate by the standards of the region. Nevertheless, in recent years there has been some radicalization of the community's youth, who identify politically with the Palestinian liberation movement and/or religiously with the Islamic revival that has swept the Middle East.

Of the Christian Arabs, most belong to the Greek Catholic, Greek Orthodox, or Roman Catholic churches; a handful of Eastern denominations and a few small Protestant groups account for the rest. The Western Christian community is minuscule, consisting mainly of clergy and temporary sojourners such as diplomats.

Israel’s Druze, though Arabic-speaking, follow a separate and secret religion that broke from Islam about one thousand years ago. Larger kindred communities exist in long-hostile Syria and Lebanon, but Israeli Druze have solidly identified with Israel, and the community's young men are routinely drafted into the Israeli army.

The Arab community itself isn’t liable for military service, partly in order to avoid the risk of battlefield confrontations with kinsmen from neighboring countries; between the lines, however, lies the fear that Israeli Arabs in uniform may experience a sense of dual loyalty.

Judaism in Israel

There’s no firm separation of religion and state in Israel. Matters of personal status—marriage, divorce, adoption, and conversion—are the preserve of the religious authorities of the community concerned. For this reason there’s no civil marriage; if one partner doesn’t convert to the faith of the other, the couple must marry abroad. Within the Jewish community, such functions fall under the supervision of the Orthodox chief rabbinate, much to the dismay of members of the tiny but growing Conservative and Reform movements and of the large number of nonobservant Jews.

Almost half of all Israeli Jews call themselves secular. The religiously observant––strict adherence to Sabbath laws and dietary laws, regular attendance at worship services, and so on––account for about 20%. At least another one-third of the Jewish population identify themselves as "traditional," meaning they observe some Jewish customs to some extent, often as a nod to Jewish heritage or out of a sense of family duty. Ultra-Orthodox (haredi in Hebrew) is the smaller of the two mainstreams that make up the Orthodox Jewish community; you can easily recognize the men by their black hats and garb. Their parallel universe embraces religion as a 24/7 lifestyle. Their independent school system, 80% government-funded, teaches only religious subjects. While some haredi men do go out to work, many have committed themselves to full-time study.

The confrontation between secular Israelis and the ultra-Orthodox has escalated over the years, as the religious community tries to impose its vision of how a Jewish state should behave. One volatile issue is the Orthodox contention that only someone who meets the Orthodox definition of a Jew (either born of a Jewish mother or converted by strict Orthodox procedures) should be eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. The real resentment, however, is reserved for the political clout and budgets that the haredim have gained as the price of coalition politics, and their almost total refusal to serve in the military on the grounds of continuing religious studies. By contrast, the modern Orthodox––in Israel they prefer to be known as “religious Zionists”––tend to be gung-ho Israeli patriots, serve in the military, and strongly identify with the hard-line settler movement in the West Bank and elsewhere. Unlike the haredim, modern Orthodox men and women are fully immersed in Israeli society. Modern Orthodox men dress in “regular” clothes, but typically wear kippot or skullcaps on their heads. Women in both religious communities dress very modestly.

Israeli Government

Israel prides itself on being the only true democracy in the Middle East, but it sometimes seems bent on tearing itself apart politically in the democratic process. This is how the system works (or doesn't): once every four years, prior to national elections, every contesting party publishes a list of its candidates for the 120-member Knesset, in a hierarchy determined by the party’s own convention. There are no constituencies or voting districts; each party that breaks the minimum threshold of 2% of the national vote gets in, winning the same percentage of Knesset seats as its proportion of nationwide votes (hence the description of the system as "proportional representation").

The good news is that the system is intensely democratic. A relatively small grouping of like-minded voters countrywide can elect MKs (Members of the Knesset) to represent their views. The largest party able to gain a parliamentary majority through a coalition with other parties forms the government, and its leader becomes the prime minister.

The bad news is that the system spawns a plethora of small parties, whose collective support the government needs in order to rule. Since no party has ever won enough seats to rule alone, Israeli governments have always been based on compromise, with small parties often exerting a degree of political influence quite out of proportion to their actual size. Attempts to change the system have been doomed, because the small parties, which stand to lose if the system is changed, are precisely those on whose support the current government depends.

The religious divide in the Jewish community carries over into the Knesset, where religion is a central plank in the platform of several parties. The other and arguably more active ideological "fault line" divides Israeli society into a dovish liberal left (currently much weakened), a hard-line right wing of ultranationalists, and a fluctuating political center that sometimes knows what it isn’t, but not too often what it is. Where you stand on the left-right spectrum reflects your views on the Israel-Palestinian issue: dovish or hawkish, yea or nay to a Palestinian state, dismantle West Bank settlements or keep building them, divide Jerusalem or keep it all. In a country where security, the Jewishness of Israel, and its democratic character have always been the main issues, these ideological-political distinctions have critical ramifications. Of late, even essential characteristics of a democratic society––the independence of the judiciary, for example––have come under attack from ultraconservatives. Liberals are concerned.

Updated: 11-2013

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