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 8.5 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 60 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 3,000 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 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 that would be 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.

Differing Views

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 newly minted state was blatantly secular, despite its many 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.

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 10.

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. Since 2013, Jews from France have moved to Israel in significant numbers: more than 7,500 arrived in 2015.

The vast majority of Israel's 1.7 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.

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