"It was truly the best travel experience
I have ever had." – Pamela Schwab

The People of Israel

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Native-born Israelis are called “Sabras.” Like the cactus plant of the same
name, they are supposedly prickly on the outside, but sweet on the inside.

There are nearly 7.5 million Israelis, not including Palestinians living in the territories, living in Israel as of September 2009.  Although Israel is known internationally as “The Jewish State” or “The State of the Jews,” one might be surprised to learn that only 75.4% of the population is actually Jewish.  20.6 percent are Arab (mostly Muslim) with the remaining 4% classified as  “others.”

What is amazing is the amount of diversity, not just within the group we called “others,” but also among the Jewish and Arab communities themselves.  Let’s take a deeper look at Multicultural Israel…

Jewish Multiculturalism

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A religious Jewish artist from Tzfat
teaches about the kabbala.

In the Western world, Jews are often thought to be “white” or “European.” This is because the vast majority of Jews in most of these countries are of Ashkenazi descent. Ashkenaz is the medieval Hebrew word for Germany though it has come to mean non-Mediterranean European Jews. Unlike in Western countries, Ashkenazi Jews do not dominate the Jewish population of Israel. In fact, until the mass immigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union in the early 1990’s, Ashkenazi Jews were in the minority in the State of Israel. Today they and another type of Jews called “Sephardim” comprise equal portions of the Jewish population of Israel.

Sephardi is the Hebrew word for Spain. This word has often mistakenly been used to classify all non-Ashkenazi Jews, many of whom do not have Spanish heritage. Expelled from Spain in 1492, many Sephardi Jews made their way to the Ottoman Empire. Those Sephardi Jews mingled with other Jewish communities who were there, sharing their strong culture with them. These other communities are referred to as “Eidot HaMizrach” or “Eastern Jews.”

Even the Hebrew name “Eidot HaMizrach” is a misnomer because the group, but not the name, includes Jews from North Africa in addition to Turkish, Iraqi, Kurdish, Syrian, Persian and other Jews. Many Jews from Iraq and Iran (Persia) can trace their heritage to the time of the expulsion to Babylon after the destruction of the 1st Temple in Jerusalem 2600 years ago!

According to tradition, numerous Israelites left the land of Israel even earlier, during the 1st Temple times. These include Yemenite Jews, Tunisian Jews, Ethiopian Jews and the “10 Lost Tribes.”

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Israelis love their coffee… this couple took a wedding photograph
by the first kiosk in Tel Aviv

In recent years, certain communities have claimed to be descendents of those tribes including the Bnei Menashe of India, some of whom have recently moved to Israel. Other Jews left following the destruction of the Second Temple (in 70 C.E.), including Italian Jews, who trace their ancestry to the Jewish slaves taken to Rome at that time. Tradition states that Jews also arrived to Cochin, India at that time.

Another group with ancient roots is the Karites, who split from mainstream Judaism over 1000 years ago and while their numbers have dwindled over the years, they still have a few communities here in Israel.

In more modern times, Israel welcomed more than 1 million Jews from the former Soviet Union although a number of them are not technically Jewish according to Jewish tradition (including some who are practicing Christians).

Religiously speaking, there are a number of different “denominations” from the ultra-Orthodox and modern-Orthodox (who wear more modern attire) to traditional and secular. Among ultra-Orthodox Jews there are literally dozens of different groups and traditions. More liberal streams of Judaism which are common in the Western world (Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, etc.), however, are not very prevalent in Israel.

Christian Multiculturalism

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A monk at Ein Karem’s Church of the Visitation.

Christians make up about 2.5% of the total Israeli population. The majority (about 80%) are Arab Christians. The majority of them live in the north of the country with Nazareth being the main population center (although today, like Bethlehem, it is a predominantly Muslim town).

The different Christian Churches can be broken down into four main categories: Chalcedonian-Orthodox (Eastern Orthodox), Non-Chalcedonian Orthodox (Monophysites), Roman Catholic (Latin and Uniate) and Protestant. There are about 20 different Churches plus another 30 or so denominational (mainly Protestant) groups.

The Eastern Orthodox churches include the Greek Orthodox Church whose adherents make up about 40% of the overall Christian population in Israel. Also in this category are the Russian Orthodox and Romanian Orthodox who have both seen a bit of a resurgence with the influx of Russian Christians who moved to Israel as well as Romanian workers.

A number of Eastern churches who did not recognize the Council of Chalcedon (regarding the dual nature of Jesus – human and divine) are the Armenian, Coptic (Egyptian), Ethiopian and Syrian. One of the more interesting ones is the Armenians, who claim to be the first nation as a nation to convert to Christianity in 301. They control one of the four quarters of the Old City of Jerusalem.

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Like people everywhere, Israelis love to have fun.

While recognizing the Pope as their leader, many of the local Catholic groups keep the Eastern liturgical traditions. This includes the Greek Catholics (Melikites) who also make up about 40% of the Christians in Israel. The other Catholic groups with strong ties to the Eastern traditions include the Maronites, Syriac Catholics, Armenian Catholics, Coptic Catholics and Chaldean Catholics.

The Protestant communities in Israel date from the 19th century when missionaries arrived for the purpose of converting the local Jewish and Muslim population. Instead, they found their greatest success among local (eastern) Orthodox Christians. The largest community is the Anglican Church. Others include Lutherans (especially the German Lutherans), Baptists, Presbyterian Church of Scotland and Mormons.

Among the Palestinians, Christians number less than 50,000 or 2% of the population, a drop from a high of 20% in 1948. Many live in the Bethlehem area, with between two and three thousand in Gaza. The majority of Palestinian Christians are Greek Orthodox.

Islamic Multiculturalism

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A Bedouin man teaching about traditional Bedouin hospitality.

Muslims comprise about 18% of the Israeli population. Although 99.9% of them are Sunni Muslims, there are also a number of interesting minority groups within the Muslim sector.

The Bedouin in Israel have a population of about 170,000. Traditionally they maintain a nomadic lifestyle moving with their herds and living in tents, although today the vast majority of them live in permanent homes. There are 7 recognized Bedouin towns in the south of the country though many live in unrecognized ones.

The Circassians arrived in the late 19th c. as part of an Ottoman resettlement program when they populated two villages in the north of the country, Kfar Kama and Rehaniyeh. There are about 4000 Circassians – who are non-Arab Muslims – living in Israel today.

The Alawites are a people that see themselves as a sect of Shia Islam, though others (mainly Sunni fundamentalists) sometimes do not recognize them as Muslim due to a number of unorthodox beliefs which the Alawites hold. 2000 Alawites currently live in the village of Ghajar which Israel captured from Syria in the Six-Day War.

The Ahmadiyyans are a group which also sees itself as a sect of Islam though many Muslims have major issues with its theology, specifically with the notion that there can be a prophet after Muhammad. Their center in Israel is based in Haifa.

Israeli Druze

The Druze broke off from Islam 1000 years ago in Egypt and were forced to flee to the mountains of northern Israel, Lebanon and Syria for protection. 110,000 Druze currently live in the north of Israel, which does not include the Druze residents on the Golan Heights whose political situation was made famous by the 2004 Israeli movie “The Syrian Bride.”

The Bahai in Israel

The Bahai religion, which also broke off from Islam (about 150 years ago), actually has no followers living in Israel. What makes Israel special for them is that their world center is based here in Haifa. Haifa and Akko, where their main prophets are buried, are their two holy sites, and Haifa also hosts the Bahai World Center. As this is both the spiritual and administrative center of the faith, there are a number of Baha’is who come to Israel to volunteer at the sites.

Other Interesting Groups

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1/6 of Israelis moved here in the last few decades from
the former Soviet Union. This guy thinks he is still there…

The Black Hebrews are a group of African-Americans who believe themselves to be descended from the Tribe of Judah. Arriving in Israel in 1969, they did not qualify for citizenship under Israel’s Law of Return, but in 2009 the first Black Hebrew finally received citizenship. They have a community in Dimona.

The Samaritans claim to descend from the remains of the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh who remained in the land following the Assyrian invasions some 2700 years ago, though Jewish sources would claim differently. Today they number only about 700 people living in two communities, one near Nablus (Shechem) in the West Bank and the other in the Israeli city of Holon.

Israel has also taken in over the years a number of African refugees, especially from Sudan, members of the South Lebanese Army and their families who fled here after Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, and 66 Vietnamese “Boat People.” Israel has also naturalized a number of foreign workers (of which there are several hundred thousand, mainly from Thailand, the Philippines and the Balkans).

Interested in exploring cultures? Check out the Multicultural Tour of Israel.

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