Jews of Israel

views updated

Jews of Israel

ETHNONYMS: Yahudim (pl.), Yisraelim (pl.)


Identification. The state of Israel came into formal existence on 14 May 1948. The United States recognized the new state on the same day, and the Soviet Union followed on 18 May. On 15 May 1948 the new state was invaded by the armies of Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, along with smaller numbers of troops from other Arab countries. Hostilities continued until January 1949, when a cease-fire was negotiated. The boundaries determined by the cease-fire defined the state of Israel until the 1967 War (the "Six Day War"), when additional territories (East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and the Gaza Strip) came under Israeli control. On 11 May 1949 Israel was admitted to the United Nations as a member state.

Location. Israel is located in southwestern Asia, at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, at approximate latitude 31°30 N and longitude 35°00 E. It is bounded on the north by Lebanon, on the northeast by Syria, on the east and southeast by Jordan (the Dead Sea and the Gulf of ʿAqaba), on the southwest by Egypt (the Sinai Peninsula), and on the west by the Mediterranean Sea. Pre-1967 Israel had an area of approximately 20,700 square kilometers (about the size of the state of New Jersey). The territories captured after the 1967 War total about 7,500 square kilometers, including East Jerusalem which, along with the Golan Heights, Israel has formally annexed. Geographically, Israel is divided into four regions: the coastal plain, the central highlands, the Jordan Rift Valley, and the Negev Desert. The highest point in Israel is at Mount Meron (1,208 meters), in the Galilee (the central highlands) near the city of Safad. The lowest point is at the Dead Sea (in the Jordan Rift Valley) which, at 399 meters below sea level, is the lowest point in the world. Israel, located between a subtropical arid zone to its south and a subtropical wet zone to its north, has a Mediterranean climate with short, cool, and rainy winters and long, hot, and dry summers. About 70 percent of the rainfall occurs between November and March, but it is unevenly distributed, diminishing sharply to the south. During January and February, precipitation may take the form of snow at the higher elevations (including Jerusalem). About a third of the country (areas receiving more than 30 centimeters of rainfall a yearthe coastal plain, the Jezreel Valley, and the Galilee) is cultivable.

Demography. At the end of 1987, the total population of Israel was 4,389,600, of whom 82 percent (3,601,200) were Jews. (About 27 percent of the world's Jewish population lives in Israel.) The Jewish population in the late 1980s grew at the rate of about 1.4 percent (compared to about 3 percent for the non-Jewish population). With a median age of about 27.6 (1986), the Jewish population is relatively young, but not so compared to Muslims (whose median age in the same year was 16.8). The Jewish population is skewed in age toward the very young and the very old; a relatively small percentage is in the 35-50 age group. This skewing is because of the effects of large-scale immigration in forming the Jewish population of Israel. Between 1948 and 1960, immigration accounted for almost 70 percent of the annual average population-growth rate. Many of these immigrants were older, and those who were younger were often single people who deferred marriage and child rearing until after their settlement.

Linguistic Affiliation. Hebrew is the major official language of Israel and the predominant language of Israel's Jews. Arabic is spoken by Israel's Arab minority, most of whom are bilingual in Hebrew as well. Arabic is also an official language and may be used in courts and the parliament (Knesset). The successful revival of Hebrew as a modern, spoken, and "living" language, a major thrust of the Zionist cultural program, was one of its major accomplishments. Nevertheless, because so many in the population are immigrants, many other languages are spoken by Jews, especially older people or recent immigrants. These include Arabic (or dialects of Judeo-Arabic), Yiddish, Ladino, Persian, English, Russian, French, Spanish, and other European, African (e.g., Amharic) and Asian (e.g., Malayalam, of Cochin, India) languages.

History and Cultural Relations

The connection of the Jewish people to the land called "Palestine" by the Romans is one of the oldest religio-political claims in the world. Jews (and many Christians as well) will point to God's promise to Abraham in Genesis 15:17 and Deuteronomy 1:7 and 11:24 as proof of the sacred "birthright" of Jews to what they call the Land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael). Jewish presence in Palestine has been constant (if very small in number), even after the final Roman suppression of the Jewish revolt in 135 C.E. Throughout premodern times, pious Jews lived in Palestine, concentrated in the four "holy cities" of Jerusalem, Hebron, Safad, and Tiberias. They were supported by funds, called halukkah, collected by special emissaries sent from Palestine to Jewish diaspora communities.

The history of modern Israel, however, begins in the nineteenth century with the articulation in Europe of a program for Jewish national and cultural revival, called Zionism ("Zion" being one of the biblical names for Jerusalem). Zionism was a reaction to virulent and increasingly violent European anti-Semitism (which culminated in the terrible Holocaust of 1933-1945), but it was also a response to the nationalist movements of other, especially eastern and southern, European peoples throughout the nineteenth century. Zionism stressed the physical relocation of Jews to Palestine (in Hebrew, Aliya), and in 1882 the first wave of these "modern" immigrantspolitically and ideologically, rather than religiously, motivatedarrived. This first wave effectively doubled the Jewish population of Palestine (from about 24,000 in 1881). Immigration continued to come in waves, mostly from eastern and central Europe, until the eve of World War II. Immigration was greatly curtailed by the war and, later, by restrictive British policies (Palestine had been a British Mandate since 1919), which sought to assuage Arab fears, which were based on the fact that, by early 1948, the Jews had succeeded in establishing a society in Palestine (called the Yishuv) that was in many ways autonomous and independent of both Arab society and British colonial constraints and that had many of the institutions of a state already in place. On the day Israel declared its independence, there were about 650,000 Jews in the country. Virtually the first act of the new government was to open its borders to unrestricted Jewish immigration. There was a massive influx between 1948 and 1960 from Middle Eastern and North African countriesalmost the entire Jewish populations of Yemen, Aden, Libya, and Iraq, and large numbers from Egypt, Syria, Morocco, and Tunisia. Today these so-called "Oriental" (Afro-Asian) Jews and their children constitute the majority of the Jewish Israeli population, outnumbering Jews of European and North American origin. Nevertheless, it was not until 1975 that native-born Jewish Israelis (called "sabras") outnumbered immigrants of any kind.


The Jewish population of Israel is overwhelmingly urban (about 90 percent), concentrated along the Mediterranean coast and in the three major citiesTel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa. About twenty-seven smaller cities called "development towns" were planned by the government, starting in the mid1950s, as ways to settle large numbers of Oriental Jews, promote light industry, and disperse the population from the coastal strip. Today these areas, among the poorest Jewish areas in Israel, are sites of ethnic unrest. Of the small proportion of Jews who reside in rural areas, the majority live in collective (kibbutz) and cooperative (moshav) communities. The kibbutz, especially, is known worldwide as a distinctive Israeli institution whose members (kibbutznikim ) historically have played a significant role in Israeli society. Nevertheless, today only about 3.5 percent of Israeli Jews live on the kibbutzim and 4.5 percent on the moshavim.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Israel's economy in the past was influenced heavily by the centralized and socialist tendencies of the Labor governments that ruled the country between 1948 and 1977. Between 1977 and 1992, Likud-led governments favored privatization of enterprises and limitations on the large public sector. Labor was returned to power in 1992.

Industrial Arts. The importance of Israel's industrial sector has continued to grow (proportional to agricultural production), and by the early 1980s industrial exports accounted for close to two-thirds of total exports. Tourism remains a major source of employment and foreign exchange.

Trade. Israel's merchant marine (numbering about 100 ships) is vital both to its economy and, given hostile relations with surrounding Arab countries, its sense of security. Israel's small size, lack of natural resources (particularly petroleum and water), and heavy commitments to defense expenditures have constituted obstacles to sustaining economic growth, and the country has become increasingly dependent on foreign inflows of capital, especially foreign aid from the United States.

Division of Labor. About 40 percent of the Jewish civilian labor force is female. The other great division of labor is between Jews and Arabs, with the latter concentrated in construction and agriculture. Occupational differences are also evident between Jews of Afro-Asian origins ("Orientals") and those of Euro-American descent (called "Ashkenazim"): about 65 percent of all Ashkenazim are concentrated in white-collar professions, whereas about 55 percent of Oriental Jews are concentrated in blue-collar occupations.

Land Tenure. Most of the land in Israel is owned by the state or state-sponsored institutions and is conceived as held "in trust" on behalf of the entire Jewish people.


Kin Groups and Descent. Extended kin groups based on descent are not important among Jewish Israelis. Kinship is bilateral, and the nuclear family is its most important unit. Remnants of other patternsfor example, patronymic kin groups (hamula pl. hamulot )can be found in some moshav communities settled by North African Jews.

Kinship Terminology. Kin terms conform to Western (cognatic) systems, translated appropriately into Hebrew.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. The median age of marriage in 1986 for Jewish men was 26.4, for women 23.1. (Many men defer marriage until after their mandatory service in the Israel Defense Forces.) The age is considerably younger among ultra-Orthodox Jews, who are effectively exempted from army service, and for whom the biblical injunction to "be fruitful and multiply" is very important.

Domestic Unit. The nuclear family is the main domestic unit. The average family size is 4.7 among Jews of Oriental origin, versus 2.8 for Ashkenazim.

Inheritance. Inheritance, like all matters of personal-status law in Israel, falls for Jews under the jurisdiction of rabbinical courts that apply (sometimes controversially) rabbinic law

Socialization. Education in Israel is free and compulsory through tenth grade, tuition in high school (since reforms in 1984) has been set at about U.S.$10 monthly. Preschool is available to children between ages 3 and 6 and (given the high percentage of working women) is widely used. Education is sharply divided into three separate tracts: state-supported secular schools (about 72 percent of primary-school students), state-supported religious systems (about 22 percent), and a number of traditional, private religious schools (the yeshivas, or Talmudic academies) that cater to the ultra-Orthodox. These enroll about 6 percent of primary-school students. For the vast majority of Israel's Jews, service in the Israeli army is a crucial part of their transition to adulthood.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The key to Israeli Jewish social organization is the fact that Israel is overwhelmingly a nation of immigrants, who, despite their common identity as Jews, come from very diverse social and cultural backgrounds. The goals of Zionism included the "fusion of the Exiles" (as Diaspora Jews were called), and although great strides toward this fusion have occurredthe revival of Hebrew has been mentionedit has not, on the whole, been achieved. The immigrant groups of the 1950s and 1960s are the ethnic groups of today. The most important ethnic division is that between Jews of European and North American background, called "Ashkenazim" (after the old Hebrew name for Germany) and those of African and Asian origins, called "Sephardim" (after the old Hebrew name for Spain, and referring technically to Jews of the Mediterranean and Aegean) or "Orientals" (in modern Hebrew edot hamizrach; lit., "communities of the East"). The problem, as most Israelis see it, is not the existence of Jewish ethnic divisions per se, but the fact that they have become linked over the years to differences in class, occupation, and standard of living, with Oriental Jews concentrated in the lower strata of society.

Political Organization. Israeli is a parliamentary democracy. The whole nation acts as a single constituency to elect a 120-member parliament (the Knesset). Political parties put forth lists of candidates, and Israelis vote for the list, rather than individual candidates on it. A party's representation in the Knesset is based on the proportion of the vote it receives. Any party receiving at least 1 percent of the national vote is entitled to a seat in the Knesset. The majority party is asked by the president (the nominal head of state, chosen by the Knesset to serve a five-year term) to name a prime minister and form a government. This system entails coalition formation, and means there are many small political parties, representing all shades of political and ideological opinion, that play a disproportionate role in any government.

Social Control. There is a single national police force and an independent, paramilitary, border police. National security is considered a top priority in Israel and, within the country, is the responsibility of an organization called the Shin Bet. The Israeli army has enforced social control in the Territories, particularly after the Palestinian uprising (intifada ) of December 1987. This new role for the army has been very controversial within Israel.

Conflict. Israeli society is characterized by three deep cleavages, all of which have entailed conflict. In addition to the cleavage between Ashkenazim and Oriental Jews, and the deeper one between Jews and Arabs, there is a division in the society between secular Jews, the Orthodox, and the ultra-Orthodox. This last division cuts across Jewish ethnic lines.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Judaism is the dominant religion, although the majority (about two-thirds to three-fourths) of Israeli Jews are nonobservant. There are ritual and liturgical (and, some claim, stylistic and emotional) differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardi traditions.

Religious Practitioners. Rabbis are the predominant Jewish religious practitioners. Religious-court judges serve as state civil servants. There is a Ministry for Religious Affairs and a Chief Rabbinate, the latter divided into Ashkenazi and Sephardi offices.

Ceremonies. All of the holidays of the Jewish religious calendar are celebrated in Israel. Some ethnic festivals (e.g., the North African Mimouna) are also celebrated, and some national holidaysfor example, Israeli Independence Day (Yom Haatzma'ut) and Remembrance Dayare given a semisacred status.

Arts. Both the "high arts" (classical music, dance, theater, and literature) and folk arts (dance, especially) are highly extolled.

Medicine. Good medical care is widely available, and medical insurance (kupat holim ) covers virtually all Israelis.

Death and Afterlife. Traditional Jewish death rites are simple. At the grave site, a kaddish is said; on various occasions from then on it will be repeated by close relatives to memorialize the deceased. A seven-day full mourning period (shivah ) follows. (Lesser mourning lasts thirty days, a full year for one's parents.) The anniversary of the death (yahrzeit ) is celebrated by close relatives. The soul (nefesh ) of the deceased is thought to return to God.


Avruch, Kevin (1981). American Immigrants in Israel: Social Identities and Change, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Deshen, Shlomo, and Moshe Shokeid (1974). The Predicament of Homecoming: Cultural and Social Life of North African Immigrants in Israel. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Elazar, Daniel (1986). Israel: Building a New Society. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Spiro, Milford E. (1970). Kibbutz: Venture in Utopia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Weingrod, Alex, ed. (1985). Studies in Israeli Ethnicity. New York: Gordon & Breach.