Jews of Israel - 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 occurred—the revival of Hebrew has been mentioned—it 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.

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