POPULATION: 5 million
LANGUAGE: Hebrew; Arabic; English
RELIGION: Judaism; Islam; Christianity; Druze
The modern state of Israel was established in 1948 as a homeland for the Jewish people, who had been living in exile for two thousand years. Jews from all over the world have immigrated to Israel. This has resulted in a very diverse society. The population of Israel more than doubled in the first four years of its existence (1948–52). Jews from Eastern and Western Europe flocked there to finally be safe from persecution. From 1989 to 1992, some five hundred thousand new immigrants arrived. They were mostly from the former Soviet Union, plus almost the entire population of Ethiopian Jews.
Israel also has a sizable population of non-Jews to integrate into its society. Most are Arabs—Muslim, Druze, and Christian. The world center for the Baha'i faith is in Israel. 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).
Israel and its Arab neighbors have been at war for many, many years. Muslim and Christian Arabs feel that they also have claims to the land of Israel. It is the historical and spiritual center of their religions as well, and they continue to struggle for their perceived land rights. This puts Israeli Arabs in a difficult and confusing position and creates 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.
Perhaps the most interesting factor in Israeli society at present is that, for the first time in two thousand 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 unique self-image. Unlike their parents or grandparents, they have no experience of being a persecuted minority in the country where they live.
Israel is a small, narrow country (with continually disputed borders). Its size is comparable to the state of Maryland. Israel has an amazing diversity of landscape, including mountains, desert, and a fertile river valley. The lowest point on Earth is in Israel; the Dead Sea is 1,300 feet (400 meters) below sea level. Israel has a tremendous variety of plants and animals for its small size. The rainy season does not provide enough moisture to last through the dry season, so lack of water is always a problem. Sophisticated irrigation and water-transportation and - conservation techniques have been developed. Israel has managed to create enough arable (able to be farmed) land to grow almost all the food needed by its people.
More than 90 percent of Israelis live in cities. The other 10 percent live in kibbutzim and moshavim (communal farms) or in small villages. There are about 110,000 Bedouin Arabs scattered throughout the Negev desert. Israel's largest cities are Jerusalem, Tel Aviv–Yafo, and Haifa.
The official languages of Israel are Hebrew, Arabic, and English. Hebrew is the language of the majority. Most Israelis also speak English. Modern Hebrew is a very young language, born only about one hundred years ago. After the exile of the Jews from ancient Israel, Hebrew was used only for religious writings and services for two thousand years. For everyday use, Jews learned to speak the language of whatever country they ended up in. In the late nineteenth century, Eliezer Ben Yehuda (1858–1922) moved to the Holy Land with his family and decided that they would never-again speak a word in any language but Hebrew. This forced them to create many new words, and modern Hebrew was born.
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 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. 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 (mass departure) from Egypt more than three thousand years ago. The Torah (the holiest Jewish scriptures) calls Passover the "season of our freedom." 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.
Some modern-day Israeli heroes include Theodor Herzl (1860–1904), who convened the first Zionist Congress, held in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897, and is the author of The Jewish State ; Chaim Weizmann (1874–1952), Israel's first president; and David Ben-Gurion (1886–1973), 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. It is therefore not surprising that 82 percent of the population is Jewish. Of the 18 percent who are non-Jews, most are Muslim Arabs. There are also small numbers of Christians and 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. However, there is little separation between "church and state." The Jewish faith and rabbinical law are intricately entwined with the political and public spheres.
Because the majority of the Israeli population is Jewish, Jewish holidays are, 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 (ten days after Rosh Hashana , the Jewish New Year), the whole country comes to a standstill while observant Jews complete twenty-five hours of total fasting and prayer. No Jewish hotels or restaurants will serve bread or fermented foods during the week of Pesach , or Passover. This holiday commemorates the exodus of the Jews from Egypt during Biblical times.
At kibbutzim and moshavim (communal farms), a distinctive cultural life has developed. Celebrations are 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, as the founding of the state of Israel was first declared on May 15, 1948.
Circumcision (brit milah) of boys is both a Jewish and Muslim ritual. The Jewish circumcision is performed eight days after birth. It involves prayers and expresses the intent of bringing the son into the covenant with God. The son is named at circumcision. (A newborn daughter is given her name in the synagogue the week following her birth.) Muslim circumcisions take place either at birth or during the boy's youth. They are followed by a feast in celebration.
On his thirteenth birthday, a Jewish boy goes through the Bar Mitzvah ceremony. The ritual signifies a boy's attainment of maturity when he assumes responsibility for the observance of Jewish laws. During the service, the boy reads from the Torah and speaks from memory on a Biblical theme. A feast and dancing are part of the celebration. A girl assumes the same responsibility for the observance of Jewish laws at her twelfth birthday, during the Bat Mitzvah . There has never been a traditional ceremony to commemorate this threshold for girls, but some modern families and religious schools do hold some type of celebration.
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. Because Sabras love to argue and drink coffee so much, it is considered perfectly acceptable to sit at a streetside cafe (cafes are the center of Israeli social life) and talk for hours over a cup of coffee and a piece of cake.
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" in Hebrew to which the reply is usually "bevakasha (please) or alo davar (it's nothing). Lehitra'ot is "See you!"
More than 90 percent of Israelis are urban dwellers. They live in housing built mostly of stone, concrete block, or stucco. About 3 percent of the population live in some 270 kibbutzim. These are communes where property is commonly owned, decisions are made by all members, meals are prepared and served communally, and children live, eat, and study together in a "children's community." Kibbutzim were traditionally the backbone of Israeli agriculture. They are now branching out into light industry as well.
Another rural communal arrangement are the moshavim , where about 60 individually owned family farms cooperate in purchasing, marketing, and community services. There are some 450 moshavim in Israel. 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.
Israeli children are generally well cared for, even pampered. Most Jewish families have three children. The Arab average was eight or nine children in 1968 and has fallen continuously since then. The equality of women is protected under law in Israel. However, religious and cultural traditions often overrule the law.
Traditional Arab families have been exposed to huge changes since the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948. New laws contradict age-old Arab cultural practices. These laws include the protection of women's rights, prohibitions against polygamy (multiple spouses) and child marriage, as well as laws making education compulsory. New participation in economics and politics, and a shift away from an agricultural way of life, have also upset the former balance of Arab families. The new generation is growing up very different from the old. This puts tremendous pressure on the Arab family.
Daily wear in Israel is generally informal and Western-style. Ultra-Orthodox Jews wear traditional clothing every day. Some Orthodox males wear their hair in sidelocks called payes. Married Orthodox women often wear a wig called a shietel, and a scarf tied to the back. Orthodox 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. The kaffiyyeh (scarflike headdress) is worn by many of the more traditional and elderly men. Most Muslim women in Israel no longer wear the traditional thob (long black peasant dress) of the Palestinians, choosing Western attire instead.
Because of the great diversity in the Israeli population, there is really no such thing as Israeli cuisine. By far the most popular food in Israel, however, is felafel —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 (pocket) bread are available. Eggplant is another popular food item.
Israelis love to eat and do it often. They start the day with a huge breakfast and continue to eat frequently throughout the day. Due to 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 or from the same utensils. Camels, pigs, and rabbits are forbidden in the Jewish diet, as are lobsters, oysters, shrimp, clams, and crabs. Animals that have cloven hoofs and chew cud are permitted, such as sheep, cattle, and deer. Only fish with both fins and scales are permitted. The dietary restrictions of Judaism, known as kashrut (right or fit), are considered a personal matter in modern Israel.
Israel is a land of the educated. Schooling is highly valued, and Israeli students are high achievers. Even Arabs, who did not traditionally send their children to school, now have a relatively high attendance rate. Schooling is free and required for children ages five to sixteen. It continues to be free (although not required) until age eighteen. Programs are available for both gifted and disabled students. From fourth grade through high school, special attention is given to the Arab–Israeli conflict. Many programs are designed to eliminate stereotypes and promote cooperation, mutual respect, and tolerance.
Most Israelis are over twenty-one when they begin college because of the compulsory military service that begins after high school. Women must serve for two years and men for three.
Israel has become one of the most active music centers in the world. Both folk music and folk dance are dynamic blends of the diverse backgrounds of Israel's various immigrant groups. Classical "art" dance was introduced in Israel in the 1920s when Moscow-trained ballerina Rina Nikova moved there. Classical music, now extremely popular, arrived with European immigrants fleeing Nazism in the 1930s.
Visual art and cinema both struggle to define an Israeli style. Poetry and literature, on the other hand, are vibrant and vital expressions of the Israeli spirit. In 1966, Shmuel Yosef Agnon (1888–1970) was the first author writing in modern Hebrew to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Amos Oz 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. These include a forty-seven-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 who are expecting. Women are legally entitled to equal pay as men. However, in practice it does not always work out that way. Israel's largest employers are the government and the Histadrut, a federation of trade unions.
Soccer and basketball are Israel's most popular sports. 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. These have been held in what is now Israel every four years since 1932.
Many of Israel's urban centers, most notably Tel Aviv, are home to dozens of art galleries, theatrical companies, movie theaters, and concert halls. Classical music is a favorite in Israel. Israelis take pride in their native musicians, such as violinists Yitzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman. Hebrew pop music is also popular. It is a mixture 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 also enjoy going to the beach for recreation.
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. Items include Hanukkah lamps; wine cups, candlesticks, and spice boxes for the Sabbath and other holidays; and cases for mezuzot (parchment scrolls hung on every Jewish doorpost).
The national hobby is archaeology. The tiny country of Israel has more than 3,500 archeological sites, so there is plenty of opportunity for amateur and professional archaeologists. Archaeological finds date back as far as 150,000 BC .
Israel's social problems stem primarily from the newness of the state (less than fifty years old) and the tremendous diversity of its population (most are newcomers). The huge, ongoing arrival of immigrants creates overcrowding, unemployment, and cultural confusion. Schools are constantly having to accommodate more students who speak different languages and come from different backgrounds. Some of the immigrant groups come from very poor rural communities and have a difficult time adapting to a fast-paced technological society.
The other major problem in Israel is the Arab–Israeli conflict. Arab–Jewish tensions continue because of the long-standing war with Israel's Arab neighbors; the differences in language, religion, and customs; and the self-segregation practiced by both groups. Government, public, and private organizations now sponsor Jewish–Arab encounters. The Ministry of Education has programs in place in the schools to overcome prejudice and prevent conflicts.
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Willard, Jed, ed. Let's Go: The Budget Guide to Israel and Egypt, 1996. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.