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POPULATION: 7.2 million (2007 estimate, includes approximately 350,000 settlers living in Palestinian territories of Gaza Strip and the West Bank, as well as in the Israeli-occupied territories of East Jerusalem and Golan Heights)
LANGUAGE: Hebrew; Arabic; English
RELIGION: Judaism; Islam; Christianity; Druze
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3 Palestinians; Vol. 4: Traditional Orthodox Jews


The history of the land of Israel and the Jewish people spans 35 centuries, although the state of Israel is only a few decades old. The modern state of Israel was established in 1948 as a homeland for the Jewish people, who had been living in exile for 2,000 years. Jews from all over the world have been encouraged to immigrate to Israel in what is known as the "ingathering of exiles," thus creating a very diverse society. The population of Israel more than doubled in the first four years of its existence (1948–1952) as Jews from Eastern and Western Europe flocked to a land where they would no longer be persecuted. From 1989 to 1992, some 500,000 new immigrants arrived, mostly from the former Soviet Union, plus almost the entire population of Ethiopian Jews. In terms of percentage of population, this would be the equivalent of the United States taking in 25 million more people.

Israel also has a sizable population of non-Jews to integrate into its society, most of whom are Arabs: Muslim, Druze, and Christian. The world center for the Baha'i faith is in Israel, and there is also a small but significant population of Bedouin Arabs (former nomadic herders who are now trying to make the transition to a settled life). Arabs in Israel are challenged to create and maintain a sense of identity. They are Israeli, but they have family, cultural, and religious ties to Arabs (especially to West Bank Palestinians) in other Middle East states. Yet, Arabs in other states are sometimes wary of Israeli Arabs because they are citizens of Israel, a country with which neighboring Arab states have been at war for many, many years. Muslim and Christian Arabs feel that they also have claims to the land of Israel, as it is the historical and spiritual center of their religions as well, and struggles for statehood and land rights have dominated Israeli politics through the early 21st century. These struggles have created tremendous tensions within Israeli society. Many programs are in place to try to reduce these tensions by breaking down stereotypes, encouraging cooperation among different elements of the Israeli population, and improving conditions for disadvantaged minorities.

The Holy Land, of which the present-day state of Israel is a part, has a long history of rule by different powers. A Hebrew kingdom was established from 12 tribes of Israel that left Egypt with Moses. King David ruled this kingdom some three thousand years ago. After his son Solomon's reign, the kingdom split into two states:Israel and Judah. These states were subsequently destroyed by Assyria and Babylonia. At this point, the peoples living in the area were forced to disperse. Jews returned to the Holy Land after the Persian conquest of the Middle East but suffered great persecution under Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and eventually Muslim rule until World War I.

In the 1890s, a Hungarian named Theodor Herzl founded Zionism. The ideology grew into an international movement to restore the Land of Palestine to the Jews. The British gained control of the territory after World War I when the Ottoman Empire collapsed. During World War II, as Jews suffered genocide in Germany, many immigrated to Palestine, seeking safety. Some 600,000 Arabs also resided in the territory, and when the war ended, the international community faced the task of trying to reconcile claims for statehood by the Jews with the traditional practices of Arabs living in the area. In 1947, the United Nations voted to divide the area into two states, one Arab and one Jewish. In May 1948, Israel was proclaimed an independent state. Neighboring Arab nations almost immediately declared war and attacked the new nation. Subsequent wars were fought in 1956, 1967, and 1973. Israel occupied territories conquered in the 1967 War: the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria, and the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan. A series of peace agreements have resulted in Israel giving up some of those lands. Israel returned Sinai to Egypt in 1982 surrendered much of the Gaza Strip and West Bank to Palestinians through a withdrawal process that began in 1993, and withdrew troops from southern Lebanon in 2000.

Treaties with Egypt and Lebanon have helped restore some relationships between Israel and its neighbors. However, relationships between the two groups who reside in Israel, the mostly Jewish Israelis and the mostly Muslim Palestinians, remain tense. Much of the tension stems from the establishment of the Jewish state of Israel itself. The state was created through international treaties that paid little attention to the Arab communities, who now are known as Palestinians, living in the land. Palestinians often have experienced discrimination in educational and workplace facilities in Israel and began a long, often violent movement known as intifada in 1982 to establish a permanent state. As part of that effort, U.S. President George W. Bush and other diplomatic leaders created a treaty that called for the eventual creation of a Palestinian state within Israeli territories. As part of that process, Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005, and that area, along with parts of the West Bank, has been known more recently as the Palestinian territories. However, the efforts to achieve peace between Israelis and Palestinians have been stalled through the first decade of the 21st century.

Israelis have regarded their nation-state as a place of refuge for diasporic Jews, and Israeli law allows all Jews to immigrate to Israel, provided that they can prove that they either were born into a Jewish family or have been recognized as converts to the religion. However, for the first time in 2,000 years, a generation of Jews is growing up as the majority in their homeland. Known as Sabras (native-born Israelis), this new generation is developing a very different understanding of themselves than that of their parents and grandparents. Many Sabras think of themselves not as Jews, but as Israelis. Their nationalistic identity has further fueled tensions between Jews residing in Israel and their Palestinian counterparts. That identity also has begun to make more Jews outside of Israel regard the nation as spiritually uninviting.


Israel is a small, narrow country, and its continually disputed borders are constantly subject to change. As of 2008, Israel is approximately 20,770 sq km (8,020 sq mi) in size, which makes it slightly smaller than the U.S. state of New Jersey. The tiny country shares borders with Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories of Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The area, despite its size, contains an amazing diversity of landscape, from mountains (Golan Heights) to desert (Negev) to a fertile river valley (Jordan). The lowest point on Earth is in Israel; the Dead Sea is 400 m (1,300 ft) below sea level. The waters of the Dead Sea are the saltiest and densest in the world. (It is almost impossible to sink in the Dead Sea.) Located at the junction of three continents—Europe, Asia, and Africa—and their natural life zones, Israel has a tremendous variety of plants and animals for its small size. The rainy season, from November to March, does not provide enough moisture to last through the dry season, from April to October, so lack of water is always a problem. Sophisticated irrigation and water-transportation and conservation techniques have been developed, highlighted by the National Water Carrier—a huge system of pipes, aqueducts, canals, reservoirs, dams, and so on—to carry water from the fertile north to the drier south. Through these sophisticated techniques, Israel has managed to create enough arable land to grow almost all the food needed by its people.

Approximately 7.2 million people live in Israel, the Israeli-occupied territories, and the Palestinian territories. Within the current boundaries of Israel, more than 90% of residents live in cities. The other 10% live in kibbutzim and moshavim (communal farms) or in small villages. There are about 110,000 Bedouin Arabs (former nomadic herders who now live mostly settled lives) scattered throughout the Negev desert, living in tents and cooking over open fires. The median age in Israel is about 28 years old. About 82% of the population is Jewish and 16% is Arab. The largest cities are Jerusalem, a mixture of ancient and modern; Tel Aviv–Yafo, the commercial and financial center, located on the Mediterranean coast; and Haifa, a busy Mediterranean port city.


The official languages of Israel are Hebrew and Arabic. English is widely used in commerce. Hebrew is the language of the majority, and more Arabs speak Hebrew than Jews speak Arabic. Most Israelis also speak English, particularly in business dealings.

Both Arabic and English are taught in schools, beginning in the fifth grade. The Israeli government sponsors classes for immigrants to Israel to learn Hebrew. However, proficiency in the language is no longer considered crucial for survival in Israel. Most Israelis speak at least two languages, often because they or their parents emigrated after 1948, and languages such as Russian often appear on food labels and in ads.

Modern Hebrew is a very young language, born only about 100 years ago. After the Exile of the Jews from ancient Israel, Hebrew was used only for religious writings and liturgical purposes for 2,000 years. For everyday use, Jews learned to speak the language of whatever country they ended up in. In the late 19th century, Eliezer Ben Yehuda (1858–1922) moved to the Holy Land with his family and decided that they would never speak a word in any language but Hebrew again. This forced them to coin many new words, and modern Hebrew was born. Yehuda compiled the first modern Hebrew dictionary and is considered to be the "father" of modern Hebrew. The Orthodox Jewish community of his time excommunicated Yehuda for "defiling" the holy language by bringing it into everyday use, and some ultra-Orthodox Israelis still refuse to speak modern Hebrew. Other Hebrew purists are frustrated by the Israeli people's persistence in using cognates from other languages, such as democratia, sveder ("sweater"), and breks ("brakes"). But in a language that was used for two millennia solely for religious communication, a great deal of borrowing from other languages for modern and technological terms is to be expected.

Hebrew uses a unique alphabet with no vowels. It is read from right to left, except for numerals, which are read from left to right. Some common words in Hebrew are toda, ("thank you"), ken, ("yes"), and lo ("no"). The numbers from one to ten in Hebrew are: ehad, shtayim, shalosh, arba', hamesh, shesh, sheva', shmoney, taysha', and esser. Common male names are Menahem, Avraham, Moshe, Benyamin, and Shlomo. Common female names are Esther, Hannah, Sareh, Rachel, and Galit.


Most of Israeli folklore and legend reflects their history of exile in other lands, their return to the land of their ancestors, and the modern-day battles over establishing and maintaining statehood. The traditional stories, rooted in the Jewish faith, give prominence to the Jews as God's Chosen People and to their yearning for the Promised Land.

For example, the story of Passover, or Pesach, is a reference to the deliverance of the children of Israel from over two centuries of bondage in Egypt. It refers to the Jewish exodus from Egypt more than 3,000 years ago. Exodus (chapters 1–15) recounts the story of the Israelites' oppressive servitude to the Pharaoh of Egypt and their escape with the help of Moses and his brother, Aaron. The Torah calls Passover the "season of our freedom," for it is the time when the plague that struck Egypt passed over the Israelites without destroying them.

Another important event in the history of Judaism is the zman matan Torateinu, "the season of the giving of our Torah." This commemorates the Revelation of the Ten Commandments, seven weeks after the Israelites escaped from Egypt, as they camped at the foot of Mount Sinai. The exact nature of God's communication with Moses has been subject to various opinions, but the event itself is considered to have given the Jews their unique character.

Some modern-day Israeli heroes include The odor Herzl, who convened the first Zionist Congress, held in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897, and the author of The Jewish State; Chaim Weizmann, Israel's first president; and David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, who announced the independence of Israel in 1948.


The modern state of Israel was established in 1948 as a homeland for Jews, so it is not surprising that 82% of the population is Jewish. Nevertheless, the city of Jerusalem and many other areas in Israel played an important role in the development of three of the world's major religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Jerusalem is holy to all three religions and is a source of conflict among them. Of the 18% who are non-Jews, 77% (or 13.8% of the Israeli population) are Muslim Arabs, most of them Sunni Muslims. About 130,000 Israelis (2.6% of the population) are Christian, most of them Arab, and the other 1.6% (or 80,000 people) are Druze. The Baha'i world center is also located in Israel, in the Mediterranean coastal city of Haifa. The Baha'i religion developed out of the mystical Islamic movement around AD 1850. Religious freedom is guaranteed by the state, but there is little separation between "church and state," as the Jewish faith and rabbinical law are intricately entwined with the political and public spheres. Consequently, there is constant tension between the religious and secular worlds in Israel.

Jews, Muslims, and Christians all view the land of Israel as their birthplace and the first five books of the Bible as holy scripture. Despite this common foundation, these three religions have developed in very different and often contradictory ways that bring them into almost constant conflict with each other. For example, the Muslim day of rest is on Friday, the Jewish on Saturday, and the Christian on Sunday. Muslim men and women pray separately, Jewish men and women sit separately while praying, and Christian men and women sit and pray together. Jews worship in a synagogue, where a quorum (minyan) of 10 adult males is needed to begin. All heads are covered, and prayers happen three times daily. In contrast, at a Muslim mosque, prayers occur five times a day, facing Mecca, with shoes removed. During prayer, men bare their heads, while women cover theirs. In contrast to traditional Christian services at a church, which have music and choral singing, Jewish and Muslim worship (while it similarly includes a sermon) features unaccompanied chanting. Holy days for the three religions differ, although some occur at similar times of the year (such as the Jewish Hanukkah and Christian Christmas). Because Muslim holy days follow a lunar calendar, sometimes they occur around Hanukkah and Christmas, and sometimes they do not.


Because the majority of the Israeli population is Jewish, Jewish holidays become, in effect, state holidays. During the Jewish shabbat, or Sabbath, from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday each week, almost all public and commercial enterprise stops. On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which occurs ten days after Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, the whole country comes to a standstill while observant Jews complete 25 hours of total fasting and prayer. No Jewish hotels or restaurants will serve bread or fermented foods during the week of Pesach, or Passover, which commemorates the exodus of the Jews from Egypt during Biblical times.

At kibbutzim and moshavim (communal farms), a distinctive cultural life has developed with celebrations based on traditional Jewish holidays combined with ancient earth-cycle customs, such as first fruits and harvest feasts.

Independence Day is observed on May 15.


Most Israelis observe Jewish rituals and traditions. Boys are named after eight days, at the time of circumcision. The brit milah (circumcision ritual) is both a Jewish and Muslim ritual that has been performed for 4,000 years, since the days of the prophet Abraham. The ritual Jewish circumcision, performed eight days after birth, involves prayers, is performed by a Jew, and expresses the intent of bringing the son into the covenant with God. The son is named at circumcision. Muslim circumcisions take place either at birth or during the boy's youth. They are followed by a feast in celebration. Girls are generally named three days after birth and are given their names in a synagogue.

Both boys and girls celebrate the onset of adolescence with a formal ceremony. For girls, the celebration is known as the Bat Mitzvah (literally, "daughter of the commandments") and generally takes place at age 12. For boys, a Bar Mitzvah ("son of the commandments") takes place at age 13. Bar Mitzvah also means "he who is subject to the commandments" and signifies a boy's attainment of maturity. During the service, the boy reads from the Torah and speaks on a Biblical theme from memory. Both ceremonies are festive affairs attended by many extended family members and friends. All Israeli youth, regardless of their gender, serve in the military for two to three years. Although the mandatory military service is required of Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs also are encouraged to volunteer for military service.

Dating is quite common among Israelis, but marriage is a highly religious matter. No civil marriages are permitted in Israel; all couples must be married by an authority within their religious faith. For Jews, the religious authority performing marriages is a rabbi. Muslim marriages are performed by a khadi and Christian marriages are performed by members of their clergy. A Jewish bride remains veiled until after the wedding ceremony. During the first part of the ceremony, the sanctification or kiddushin, the groom places a ring upon the bride's finger and recites, "Be sanctified to me with this ring in accordance with the law of Moses and Israel." The bride gives her consent in the presence of two witnesses and thus becomes the man's wife. At weddings, a glass is broken to symbolize the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem (AD 70) by the Romans. A wedding contract requires a husband to support his wife. Both men and women attend the ceremony, but during the feast and afterwards, the two sexes are separated by a mehitzah, or dividing wall. Muslim marriages in Israel are similar to those among the Palestinians. They consist of a religious ceremony and a wedding reception at which guests and family eat, sing, and dance.

When a Jew dies, the body must be cleansed and then dressed in white robes. Males are also wrapped in a tallit. Embalming is forbidden because blood must be buried as part of the dead individual. Burial must take place as soon as possible following death, but Jews cannot be buried on the Sabbath. The deceased is mourned during three consecutive periods. The first period, the shiva, lasts seven days. At its end comes the shloshim, a 30-day period. The avelut period of mourning then begins, and it ends after the conclusion of 12 months from the day of death. To comfort a bereaved family, Jews recall the loss of Jerusalem with the following prayer: "May the Lord comfort you, together with all who mourn for Zion and Jerusalem." A son must recite the Kaddish prayer each day for an 11-month period after a parent's death. Sons and daughters are expected to contribute to charity in memory of a deceased parent.

Muslims also bury their dead as soon as possible. Generally, only the men attend the funeral procession. There is a three-day mourning period, during which condolences are given and Quranic verses are recited. This is followed by another Quranic recitation after 40 days. Black (unsweetened) Turkish coffee is traditionally served during mourning.


Given the extremely diverse population of Israel, it is difficult to define any standard Israeli ways of relating to one another. Native-born Israelis (known as Sabras), however, tend to be very straightforward, plain-talking people, even to the point of rudeness. They detest sentimentality of any kind and love a good argument. They are fierce and articulate, friendly and hospitable, self-confident, ambitious, and proud. Sabras are high-achievers. "Creative" drivers, Sabras make their way through the seriously congested streets of Haifa and Tel Aviv–Yafo by using their horns frequently. Because Sabras love to argue and drink coffee so much, it is considered perfectly acceptable to sit at a streetside cafŽ (the center of Israeli social life) and talk for hours over just a cup of coffee and a piece of cake.

Other Israelis are known for showing respect toward each other and taking an active role in their communities. The early years of Israel's existence as a nation-state focused on the cooperative spirit of nation building through kibbutzim development. The kibbutzim are communities where land and the means of production are commonly owned. Decisions are made by a general assembly of members, meals are prepared and served in a common dining hall, and children live, eat, and study together. About 3% of Israelis live in kibbutzim today, but the community spirit lingers even in urban apartment complexes. All residents are likely to know the other inhabitants by name. Most Israelis view the family and community as more important than its individual members. Most Israelis view material possessions as less important than a strong family.

The common greeting is "Shalom," which means both "hello" and "goodbye" as well as "peace" and "good health." For the Arabs of Israel, "Salam" also means "peace and good health," and "as-salamu 'alaykum" means "peace be with you," also used as a common greeting. "Toda" means "thanks," to which the reply is usually "bevakasha" ("please") or "alo davar" ("it's nothing"). "Lehitra'ot" is "See you!"


The Israeli government oversaw construction between 1948 and 1970 as vast numbers of Jews immigrated to Israel. Most government housing was of low quality, and today, most homes are built by private companies. A typical home has solar heating panels, large windows, and a merpeset (balcony or patio) on which people often relax in the late afternoon and evening. In the crowded urban corridor between Tel Aviv and Haifa, most people own or rent apartments in low-rise buildings. Houses are generally covered with ceramic tiles or plastered and painted white or a pastel color. A law that dates back to Ottoman rule requires that the front of all buildings in Jerusalem be made of white, cream, or rose-pink limestone.

About 3% of the population lives in some 270 kibbutzim. Kibbutzim were traditionally the backbone of Israeli agriculture, but they are now branching out into some light industry as well. Another rural communal arrangement is the moshav, where about 60 individually owned family farms cooperate in purchasing, marketing, and community services. There are some 450 moshavim in Israel, totaling about 3.5% of the population. These supply much of Israel's farm produce.

Small villages in Israel are mostly inhabited by Arabs. In northern Israel, there are a few villages of Druze. Bedouin Arabs live in tent communities in the Negev desert, cooking over open fires and tending sheep and goats. Bedouins used to be nomadic but are now making the shift to a more settled lifestyle.

The quality of health care in Israel is high, with high-tech medical equipment and facilities. About 95% of the population has health insurance, and there are clinics for the disadvantaged. Health problems are basically the same as in the Western world: cancer and heart disease cause 66% of the deaths in Israel. Water pollution is a serious problem, with efforts underway to rehabilitate the waterways, but the water is drinkable. Air pollution is not a major problem because most of Israel's heavy industry was initiated after the awakening of environmental awareness. Life expectancy for Israelis is comparable to most industrialized nations, about 79 years for men and 80 years for women.

Almost all areas of Israel, even the most remote, are accessible by roadways, and most people drive wherever they want to go. Highways are very congested in the major cities, however, so many people use public transport there. Haifa has the only subway system, which is a line with only six stops that takes nine minutes to travel from one end to the other.


Religious and cultural traditions shape family relationships. There are four types of Jews in Israel: ultra-Orthodox, national religious, traditional, and nonobservant. Each of these four types follows rabbinical law to a different degree and interprets religious and cultural traditions in a different way. The ultra-Orthodox family lives in a separate neighborhood with other ultra-Orthodox families, follows religious law and tradition strictly, sends its children to a school run by ultra-Orthodox Jews, dresses in traditional clothing, and has well-defined, separate roles for men and women. National religious Jews follow rabbinical law closely as well, but they are fully active in the public life of the state (political, economic, and social), rather than living separately as the ultra-Orthodox do. The majority of Jewish Israelis are traditional Jews who follow rabbinical law to a greater or lesser extent and treat women and men as equals in all areas of life. Nonobservant Jews live an essentially liberal Western way of life with varying degrees of respect for religious ideas.

Traditional Arab families have been exposed to huge changes since the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948. New laws protecting the rights of women and prohibiting polygamy and child marriage, plus compulsory education, have ripped into the age-old cultural practices of many Arabs and created turmoil in their families. New participation in the economic and political life of the state, and the shift from an agricultural way of life to one based on employment in industry, business, and the professional sector, have also upset the former balance of Arab families. The new generation is growing up very different from the old, and this puts tremendous pressure on the family.

Generally, the family is highly important to Israeli life, and children receive much care and attention. Parents work hard to prepare and provide for a child's future, and married children often expect to care for elderly parents. Families come together on holidays, especially Passover, and for big celebrations.


Daily wear in Israel is generally informal and Western-style. Few men wear suit jackets and ties in the summer, except for important business occasions. Ultra-Orthodox Jews wear traditional clothing every day. Some Orthodox males wear their hair in sidelocks called payes. It is an Orthodox custom to give a boy his first haircut at the age of three. Married Orthodox women often wear a wig called a shietel and a scarf tied to the back. Men wear long black or gray coats over a shirt and pants and a black hat on their heads.

Muslim men and women dress similarly to Palestinians, with the kaffiyyeh (scarf-like headdress) worn by many of the more traditional and elderly men. The kaffiyyeh is folded in a triangle, laid over the head, and then secured to the head with a double-coiled rope called an I'gal. Most Muslim women in Israel no longer wear the traditional thob of the Palestinians, choosing Western attire instead.


Because of the great diversity in the Israeli population, there is no such thing as Israeli cuisine. The meeting of cultures in Israel has brought about some interesting food combinations, such as felafel (or falafel) and chips, goulash and couscous, or chicken soup and kubbe. Israelis love to eat and do it often, starting the day with a huge breakfast and continuing to eat frequently throughout the day. Because of kosher restrictions, Jewish Israelis tend to eat a main "meat" meal at midday and a lighter "dairy" meal in the evening, since meat and dairy cannot be eaten together. Eggplant is eaten in many different ways by all Israelis, and pita bread (a flat bread with an air pocket in the middle) has become a favorite. The dietary restrictions of Judaism, known as kashrut ("right" or "fit"), are considered a personal matter in modern Israel. Meat and dairy products cannot be consumed at the same meal or from the same utensils. Camels, pigs, and hares are forbidden in the Jewish diet. Animals that have cloven hoofs and chew cud are permitted, such as sheep, cattle, and deer. Similarly, lobsters, oysters, shrimp, clams, and crabs are forbidden. Only fish with both fins and scales are permitted.

By far the most widely popular food in Israel is felafel, which is deep-fried balls of ground chickpeas. All along city streets, one finds felafel stands (not unlike hot dog stands in the United States) where a large variety of things to put with felafel in pita bread are available. The best-known felafel center is Tel Aviv's Shuk Betzalel, where there is an entire street of felafel vendors, offering the largest selection of salads east of the Mediterranean. Other popular foods include pizza, open sandwiches, hamburgers, kebab (skewered meats and vegetables), and Russian borscht (beet soup). A vegetable salad, often mixed with olive oil, lemon juice, or spices, is usually eaten daily. Poultry and fish are eaten more frequently than beef. Fruits and vegetables are plentiful, and fruit juices are often part of lunch or dinner. Milk products, such as yogurt and cheese, are eaten with breakfast or dinner.


Israel is a land of the educated. Schooling is highly valued, and Israeli students are high achievers. According to 2004 estimates, 97.1% of Israelis were literate, and most complete at least 15 years of schooling prior to attending college. The government of Israel provides both religious and secular school systems, and Israelis are allowed to choose between schools where the instruction is in Hebrew and where the instruction is in Arabic. Many schools hold classes six days a week, and education is free through the 10th grade. Israel has eight colleges and universities, which enroll approximately 350,000 students. Most Israelis are over 21 when they begin college because of the compulsory military service required of them after high school.


Israel has become one of the most active music centers in the world, with a dynamic and unique folk-music scene stemming from the diverse backgrounds of its various immigrant groups. Israeli folk dance is also a unique blend of Jewish and non-Jewish folk dances from around the world. Classical "art" dance was not introduced in Israel until the 1920s, when Moscow-trained ballerina Rina Nikova moved there. Classical music did not appear as a professional activity until the 1930s, when it arrived with European immigrants fleeing Nazism. Now, it is an extremely popular pastime, with subscriptions to the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra handed down from parents to children as a coveted inheritance.

Visual artists struggle to define an Israeli style, although the content of their artwork is often based on the Israeli environment. Israeli cinema is also struggling to define itself and move beyond the local market to a more global involvement. Poetry and literature, on the other hand, are vibrant and vital expressions of the Israeli spirit, despite the fact that modern Hebrew is such a new language that only 4 to 5 million people speak it and even fewer read it. An estimated 10,000 new poems are published each year in Israel. In 1966, Shmuel Yosef Agnon (1888–1970) was the first author writing in modern Hebrew to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Amos Oz, the author of Perfect Peace, The Slopes of Lebanon, and In the Land of Israel, and other Hebrew writers have become known worldwide. A number of Arab Israeli authors have also achieved success.


Working conditions have minimum requirements established by law, such as a 47-hour maximum work week, minimum wages, overtime compensation, severance pay, and paid vacation and work leave. Laws also exist to protect working women, particularly those with children or giving birth. Women are legally entitled to equal pay as men, but in practice it does not always work out that way. Wages for everyone are determined through negotiations between the government (Israel's largest employer), the Histadrut (a federation of trade unions—Israel's largest nongovernment employer), and the Bureau of Economic Organizations (representing all other employers). At the end of 1991, the average monthly wage was NIS (New Israeli Shekels) 2,911, or about US$1,200.


Soccer and basketball are Israel's most popular sports. Training takes place mostly at sports organizations, such as Maccabi, Betar, Hapoel, and Elizur. The Tel Aviv Maccabi basketball team has won the European championship twice. Mass sporting events, such as the Jerusalem March, the swim across Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), and various marathons are also very popular. Jewish athletes from around the world compete in the Maccabiah Games (also known as the "Jewish Olympics"), which have been held in what is now Israel every four years since 1932. Israel sent its first delegation to the International Olympic Games in 1952. Twenty years later, at the 1972 Munich Games, eleven Israeli athletes were killed by PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) terrorists. Despite this tragedy, Israeli athletes continue to compete in the Olympic Games.


Many of Israel's urban centers, most notably Tel Aviv, are home to dozens of art galleries, theatrical companies, movie theaters, and concert halls. The Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv is the home of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPA). The IPA has more subscribers and supporters per capita than any other orchestra in the world. Classical music is a favorite in Israel, and Israelis take pride in their native musicians, such as violinists Yitzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman. Hebrew pop music is also popular. In it, one senses a merging of the many Israeli ethnic backgrounds, including Arabic, Latin, and North American.

One of the favorite Israeli pastimes is eating out. Outdoor vendors and sit-down restaurants offer a wide range of food choices, from Middle Eastern felafel to pizza and McDonald's. Israelis of all cultures enjoy strolling through the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, cracking the shells of sunflower seeds and watermelon seeds between their teeth.

Reflecting the diversity of the Israeli population is the diversity of sporting activities. European soccer is one of the most popular sports, and the population gets quite excited over national tournaments. Basketball has been brought to Israel by North American immigrants, and cricket arrived with Australians, English, and Indians.

Israelis are beachgoers, enjoying swimming in Eilat in southern Israel and at Tel Aviv's beach, as well as floating on the salty waters of the Dead Sea, where the concentration of salt helps even non-swimmers remain buoyant.


Not surprisingly, Israel is the world center for the production of Judaica, crafts relating to Jewish religious life. There are no design restrictions in Jewish law on these objects, so artists can exercise their own creativity. Hanukkah lamps, wine cups, candlesticks, and spice boxes for the Sabbath and other holidays, and mezuzot (parchment scrolls hung on every Jewish doorpost) cases, are found in abundance in Israeli craft and folk-art shops.

The national hobby is archaeology. With more than 3,500 archeological sites in an area the size of the state of Maryland, there is plenty of opportunity for amateur and professional archaeologists. Finds date back as far as 150,000 BC. Many Israelis are amateur archaeologists, and all have an opinion about it.


Israel's social problems stem primarily from the newness of the state (60 years old, as of 2008), the tensions between the Jewish and Palestinian residents, and the tremendous diversity of its population. The huge, ongoing influx of immigrants creates overcrowding, unemployment, and cultural confusion. Schools constantly have to accommodate more and more students who speak different languages and come from different backgrounds. Some of the immigrant groups come from illiterate, subsistence-farming communities and have a very difficult time adapting to a fast-paced technological society. Ashkenazi (European) Jews founded the modern state of Israel and so have traditionally occupied the top positions in society. When the Sephardic ("Oriental") Jews arrived in the 1950s, they were ghettoized and finally rebelled in the 1960s. Since then, programs have been put in place to improve conditions for Sephardic Jews, and they are now becoming a more integrated part of Israeli society. The Ethiopian Jews who were brought in during the 1980s are still marginalized due to their nontechnological background and the continuing debates among the rabbinical authorities as to whether or not they are "true" Jews.

The other major problem in Israel is the lack of resolution over Palestinian statehood. The human rights group Amnesty International notes that the Israeli government continues to use military force in the Palestinian territories, even as the two groups attempt to negotiate a path to peace. In 2007 alone, Amnesty International reports that Israeli forces killed more than 370 Palestinians and destroyed more than 100 Palestinian homes. A blockage on the Gaza Strip prevented 1.5 million Palestinians living in the territory from leaving, even in search of urgent medical treatment. In the West Bank territory, Israeli authorities are building a wall separating Palestinian land from Israel, despite protests that the measure violates international law. Israeli jails also held approximately 9,000 Palestinians, some who had not been charged with a crime or brought to trial for years. Despite efforts to promote Jewish-Arab friendliness, many Israeli children grow up with the same prejudices that their parents held toward Arabs. Overcoming these prejudices in all sectors of society is the biggest challenge facing Israelis in the early 21st century.


The equality of women is protected under law in Israel, but in some cases, religious and cultural traditions constrain how much power women have. The traditional kibbutzim placed a great deal of emphasis on the equality of all individuals, and cooperation among all to build a strong nation. That spirit of equality and cooperative effort continues to exist among Israeli Jews today. Women make up about 35% of the labor force. Women also are required to serve two years in the Israeli military alongside men. Although the head of the Israeli family is considered to be the father, women make many decisions on family matters.

In November 2005, an Israeli court ruled that a lesbian spouse could officially adopt a child born to her current partner by artificial insemination from an anonymous sperm donor. Although Israel has not yet sanctioned gay marriage, it does recognize same-sex marriages that have been performed elsewhere.

Judaism does allow for divorce, but a civil court divorce is not enough to dissolve a religious marriage. If one remarries without having attained a religious divorce performed by three rabbis, the new relationship is considered adulterous, and any children born of the second marriage are considered illegitimate.


Amnesty International. Amnesty International Report 2008: State of the World's Human Rights. (October 25, 2008). Country Briefings: brief (October 25, 2008).

Facts about Israel. Jerusalem: Israel Information Center, 1993.

Ganor, Avi, and Ron Maiberg. Taste of Israel: A Mediterranean Feast. New York: Rizzoli International, 1990.

Israel. Amsterdam: Time-Life Books, 1986.

Israel. CultureGrams: World Edition. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Pro-Quest LLC, 2008.

Israel Today. Jerusalem: Ahva Press, 1993.

A Letter from Israel. Jerusalem: Israel Information Center, 1991.

Melrod, George, ed. Insight Guides: Israel (including the West Bank and Gaza Strip). Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994.

Willard, Jed, ed. Let's Go: The Budget Guide to Israel and Egypt, 1996. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.

—revised by H. Gupta-Carlson.