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People, Language & Religion



Israel proper is made up of about 82% Jews, about 16% Arabs, and 2% Druze and others. The traditional division of the Jews into Ashkenazim (Central and East Europeans) and Sephardim (Iberian Jews and their descendants) is still given formal recognition in the choice of two chief rabbis, one for each community. A more meaningful division, however, would be that between Occidentals and Orientals (now also called Sephardim). Oriental Jews, who are in the majority, generally believe themselves to be educationally, economically, and socially disadvantaged by comparison with the Occidentals.

The growth in the Jewish population of Israel has not been uniform but, rather, occurred during four major waves of Aliya (Aliya – ascent in Hebrew – is the name used to refer to the immigration of Jews to Israel). Between the years 1948 – 1951, Israel absorbed some 700,000 immigrants, with its population doubling as a consequence. In the mid-1950s, some 170,000 immigrants arrived in Israel from North Africa and Romania. In the early 1960s, some 180,000 immigrants arrived from North Africa. In the 1990s some 900,000 immigrants arrived from the former Soviet Union and some 60,000 immigrants from Ethiopia.

Many of the immigrant groups have preserved their traditions to various degrees. At the same time, over the years the percentage of native-born Israelis (Tsabar) in the population gradually grew, and today they represent the majority of the Jewish population (65%). This process, and in particular the increased rate of intermarriage among members of the various communities and the growing influence of Western culture, have caused a gradual blurring of the differences between the Jewish communities in Israel. Alongside the division into communities, Jews in are also divided according their level of religious observance: Ultra-Orthodox (12%), religious (10%), traditional (35%), secular (43%).

The Non-Jewish Communities

The minority non-Jewish population is overwhelmingly Arabic-speaking, but Israel's minorities are divided into a number of religious groups and include several small non-Arab national groups, such as Armenians and Circassians. The government of Israel has declared its intention to strive for equality between the Arab and Jewish sectors of the population. Israel's Arab citizens do not share fully in rights granted to, and levies imposed on, Jewish citizens. The rights of citizenship do not extend to Arabs in the administered territories. The living standards of Arabs in Israel compare favourably with those of Arabs in non-oil producing Arab countries, but they are considerably below those of the Jewish majority, especially the Ashkenazim. As a consequence of repeated wars between Israel and its Arab neighbors and the development of Palestinian Arab nationalism and terrorism, tensions between Jews and Arabs are a fact of Israeli daily life, especially in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The vast majority of Israeli Arabs are Sunni Muslims, with only about one tenth being Christian (mostly members of the Greek Orthodox Church). Among the Israeli Arabs are the Bedouins, Muslim Arabs whose forefathers lived as nomads. Israeli Bedouins have moved into permanent settlements mainly in the northern Negev, but also in Galilee. The Druze, although a separate religious community, are also Arabs.

The Circassians are members of a Muslim, non-Arab people who came from the Caucasus. When their country was captured by the Russians in the 19th century, many Circassians immigrated to the Ottoman Empire, and some arrived in Israel, where they established the villages of Rikhaniya and Kafr Kama.

The Samaritans, on the other hand, are members of a national-religious community whose religion is very close to Judaism. The Samaritan community developed following the Assyrian conquest of the of Kingdom of Israel, when members of this kingdom who remained in the land, combined with members of peoples exiled by the Assyrian kings to the region. In ancient times, the community was large and strong. However, unsuccessful rebellions during the Byzantine Period along with pressure exerted by the Muslims on the Samaritans to convert to Islam gradually reduced their numbers. There are some 700 Samaritans in Israel, half of whom live in (Shkhem) and half in (Kholon.)


Due to its immigrant nature, Israel is one of the most multi-cultural and multi-linguistic societies in the world. The official languages are Hebrew and Arabic, the former being dominant. Other commonly used foreign languages are Russian, Yiddish, Romanian, Ukrainian, Amharic, French, Spanish, German, Vietnamese and Polish.

Hebrew is the language of most of the Old Testament; modern Hebrew is the biblical language as modified by absorption of elements from all historical forms of Hebrew and by development over the years. Arabic is used by Arabs in parliamentary deliberations, in pleadings before the courts, and in dealings with governmental departments, and is the language of instruction in schools for Arab children. English is taught in all secondary schools and, along with Hebrew, is commonly used in foreign business correspondence and in advertising and labelling. Coins, postage stamps, and bank notes bear inscriptions in Hebrew, Arabic and Latin characters.

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