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People of Israel


The Long Road Home

Following the expulsion of most of the Jews from the Land of Israel some 2,000 years ago, they were dispersed to other countries; mainly in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. Over the centuries, they established many large Jewish communities in lands near and far, where they experienced long periods of growth and prosperity, but were also subjected at times to harsh discrimination, brutal pogroms, and total or partial expulsions. Each wave of persecution and violence strengthened their belief in the concept of the "ingathering of the exiles" and inspired individuals and groups to return to their ancestral homeland.

The Zionist movement, founded at the end of the 19th century, transformed the concept into a way of life, and the State of Israel translated it into law, granting citizenship to every Jew wishing to settle in the country.

Formation of a New Society

The political, economic, and cultural basis of Israel's contemporary Jewish society was largely formed during the period of British rule (1917-48). Ideologically motivated by Zionism, the Jewish community in the Land of Israel developed social and political institutions which exercised authority without sovereignty, with every echelon mobilized toward consolidation and growth. Volunteerism was its political spine, egalitarianism its social glue.

The attainment of political independence and the mass immigration which followed, doubling Israel's Jewish population from 650,000 to some 1.3 million in the first four years of statehood (1948-52), changed the structure and fabric of Israeli society. The resultant social grouping was composed of two main elements: a majority comprised of the established Sephardi community, veteran Ashkenazi settlers, and Holocaust survivors; and a large minority of recent Jewish immigrants from the Islamic countries of North Africa and the Middle East.

While most of the pre-state population was committed to strong ideological convictions, a pioneering spirit, and a democratic way of life, many of the Jews who had lived for centuries in Arab lands adhered to a patriarchal social organization, and found it difficult to integrate into Israel's society and rapidly developing economy.

In the late 1950s, the two groups coexisted virtually without social and cultural interaction, with the Jews of North African and Middle Eastern backgrounds expressing their frustration and alienation in anti-government protests, which, in the 1960s and 1970s, became demands for greater political participation, compensatory allocations of resources and affirmative action to help close the gaps between them and mainstream Israelis. In addition to the tensions generated by the diversity of its population during these years, Israeli society was also called upon to struggle for economic independence and to defend itself against belligerent actions by Arabs across the border. Still, the common denominators of religion, historical memory, and national cohesion within the Jewish society proved strong enough to meet the challenges facing it.

Continued Ingathering

Over the years, Israel has continued to receive new immigrants in larger and smaller numbers, coming from the free countries of the Western world as well as from areas of distress. The most recent wave of mass immigration was comprised of members of the large Jewish community of the former Soviet Union which struggled for years for the right to emigrate to Israel. While some 100,000 managed to come in the 1970s, since 1989 over one million have settled in the country. Among them were many highly educated professionals, well-known scientists, and acclaimed artists and musicians, whose expertise and talents are contributing significantly to Israel's economic, scientific, academic, and cultural life.

The 1980s and 1990s witnessed the arrival of two massive airlifts of the ancient Jewish community of Ethiopia, popularly believed to have been there since the time of King Solomon. While the transition of these 50,000 immigrants from an agrarian African environment to an industrialized Western society will take time, the eagerness of their youth to adapt will hasten the absorption of this long-isolated Jewish community.

Religious Diversity

Since biblical times, the Jews have been a people with a monotheistic faith, Judaism, embodying both a religious and a national component. By the 18th century most of the world's Jews lived in eastern Europe, where they were confined to ghettos and had little interaction with the societies around them. Within their communities, they managed their own affairs, adhering to the body of Jewish law (Halakha) which had been developed and codified by religious scholars over many centuries.

The spirit of emancipation and nationalism which swept 19th century Europe generated the development of a more liberal approach to education, culture, philosophy, and theology. It also gave rise to several Jewish movements, some of which developed along liberal religious lines, while others espoused national and political ideologies. As a result, many Jews, and ultimately the majority, broke from Orthodoxy and its attendant way of life, with some striving to integrate completely into the society at large.

Jewish society in Israel today is made up of observant and non-observant Jews, comprising a spectrum from the ultra-Orthodox to those who regard themselves as secular. However, the differences between them are not clear-cut. If Orthodoxy is determined by the degree of adherence to Jewish religious laws and practices, then 20 percent of Israeli Jews strive to fulfill all religious precepts, 60 percent follow some combination of the laws according to personal choices and ethnic traditions, and 20 percent are essentially non-observant. But as Israel was conceived as a Jewish state, Shabbat (the Sabbath, Saturday) and all Jewish festivals and holy days have been instituted as national holidays and are celebrated by the entire Jewish population and observed by all, to a greater or lesser extent.


Basically, the majority may be characterized as secular Jews who manifest modern lifestyles, with varied degrees of respect for and practice of religious precepts. Within this majority are many who follow a modified traditional way of life, with some choosing to affiliate with one of the liberal religious streams.

Within the observant minority, both Sephardi and Ashkenazi, are many who adhere to a religious way of life, regulated by Jewish religious law, while participating in the country's national life. They regard the modern Jewish state as the first step toward the coming of the Messiah and redemption of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel.

In contrast, some of the ultra-Orthodox Jews believe that Jewish sovereignty in the Land can be reestablished only after the coming of the Messiah. Maintaining strict adherence to Jewish religious law, they reside in separate neighborhoods, run their own schools, dress in traditional clothing, maintain distinct roles for men and women, and are bound by a closely circumscribed lifestyle.

Inter-Jewish Dynamics

As there is no clear separation of religion and state, a central inter-community issue has been the extent to which Israel should manifest its Jewish religious identity. While the Orthodox establishment seeks to augment religious legislation beyond the scope of personal status, over which it has exclusive jurisdiction, the nonobservant sector regards this as religious coercion and an infringement on the democratic nature of the state. One of the ongoing issues focuses on the elements required to define a person as a Jew. The Orthodox sector advocates determining a Jew as one born of a Jewish mother or who converts in strict accordance with Jewish law, while secular Jews generally support a definition based on the civil criterion of an individual's identification with Judaism.

These conflicts of interest have given rise to a search for legal means to define the demarcation between religion and state. Until an overall solution is found, authority lies in an unwritten agreement, reached on the eve of Israel's independence and known as the status quo, which stipulates that no fundamental changes would be made in the status of religion.

Kibbutz Society

A unique social and economic framework based on egalitarian and communal principles, the kibbutz grew out of the country's pioneering society of the early 20th century and developed into a permanent rural way of life. Over the years, it established a prosperous economy, at first primarily agricultural, later augmented with industrial and service enterprises, and distinguished itself with its members' contributions to the establishment and building of the state.

In Israel's pre-state period and during the early years of statehood, the kibbutz assumed central functions in settlement, immigration and defense, but when these were transferred to the government, interaction between the kibbutz and Israel's mainstream decreased. Its centrality as a vanguard for social and institutional development diminished, and since the 1970s its political strength, which in the early days had resulted in overrepresentation, has declined. However, the kibbutzim's share in the national product has continued to be significantly greater than their proportion of the population.

In recent decades the kibbutz has become more introspective, emphasizing individual achievement and economic growth. In many kibbutzim, the 'do-it-ourselves' work ethic has become less rigid as the taboo on hired labor in the kibbutz has weakened, and greater numbers of non-member paid workers are being employed. At the same time, increasing numbers of kibbutz members are working outside the kibbutz, with their salary accruing to the kibbutz.

Today's kibbutz is the achievement of three generations. The founders, motivated by strong convictions and a definitive ideology, formed a society with a unique way of life. Their children, born into an existing social structure, worked hard to consolidate the economic, social, and administrative basis of their community. The present generation, which grew up in a well-established society, is grappling with the challenges of contemporary life. Today, much discussion focuses on the future nature of the relationship and mutual responsibility between the individual and the kibbutz community, as well as on ramifications for the society of recent developments in technology and communications.

Some fear that in adjusting to changing circumstances the kibbutz is moving dangerously far from its original principles and values; others believe that this ability to compromise and adapt is the key to its survival.

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