U.S. English Foundation Research
2. Background: Background notesIndependence was achieved on May 14, 1948 through a League of Nations mandate under British administration.
There is no formal Constitution in Israel. Many of the functions of a constitution are filled by such legislation as the Declaration of Establishment (1948), the Basic Laws of the parliament (Knesset), and the Israeli citizenship law.
The origins of the present-day struggle between Israel and Arab nations predate the creation of Israel. Throughout the early 20th century Palestine, as the birthplace of Judaism and site of the ancient Hebrew Kingdom of Israel, became a center of Jewish immigration, encouraged and organized by a movement known as Zionism. However, the Arab inhabitants of Palestine, which contained areas holy to their predominant religion of Islam, also felt entitled to the region. Jews and Arabs remained in conflict throughout the British administration of Palestine from 1918 to 1948. War between Israel and its neighbors broke out when Jews declared Israel’s independence in 1948. In this and subsequent wars Israel acquired territory beyond its original boundaries.
As a result of the Six-Day War of 1967 Israel took and later annexed the Syrian territory of the Golan Heights, a claim not recognized by most nations. Israel also occupied the West Bank (formerly of Jordan) and the Gaza Strip (formerly of Egypt), areas now partially under Arab Palestinian administration. Even Jerusalem, the city Israel claims as its capital, remains an area of dispute. Predominantly Jewish West Jerusalem has been part of Israel since independence in 1948; Israel captured the mostly Arab city of East Jerusalem in 1967. Israel has since claimed the entire city as its capital. However, the Palestinians and the United Nations do not recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
These territorial conflicts, combined with continued Jewish immigration, have caused major changes in population structure since Israel’s independence. Much of the Palestinian Arab population in the territory that became Israel fled during the 1948-1949 war and became refugees in surrounding Arab countries. Still more Palestinians fled from the areas captured by Israel in 1967 (known collectively as the Occupied Territories; often referred to in Israel as “administered territories”), and thousands of Jews have settled in these areas. Meanwhile, Jewish immigration continued. By the late 1990s Israel had absorbed 2.1 million immigrants.
Israel’s JEWISH POPULATION is composed almost entirely of immigrants and the descendants of immigrants from all over the world. In 1997 some 38% of Israel’s Jewish population was born outside of Israel.
The two main groupings of Jews are Ashkenazim and Sephardim. The Ashkenazim, whose tradition was centered in Germany in the Middle Ages, now include Jews of Central and Eastern European origin. They formed a majority at the time of Israeli independence and continue to dominate political life as well as the upper levels of employment and education. The Sephardim, whose tradition grew in Spain and Portugal in the Middle Ages, now include Jews with ancestry from the Middle East, North Africa, and the Mediterranean region. Sephardic Jews immigrated rapidly to Israel in the decades after independence Historically the groups differ in religious rite, pronunciation of Hebrew, and social customs.
Israeli Jews share many unifying influences such as Judaic tradition, the Hebrew language, the Holocaust (the murder of millions of Jews in Europe by Nazi Germany), and the socialist ideals of the early Zionist pioneers in Palestine. Furthermore, most Israeli Jews share the formative experience of compulsory military service from age 18 and subsequent years of reserve service for one or two months per year. Many of Israel’s rural Jews live in two types of cooperative communities, the kibbutz and the moshav. In a kibbutz, residents own all property collectively and contribute work in exchange for basic necessities. In a moshav, families own separate farms but cooperate in some aspects of agricultural marketing.
ARABS, those Palestinians who remained in the region after Israel’s independence and their descendants, constitute almost all of Israel’s non-Jewish population. Since Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, and Golan Heights in 1967, Arabs in Israel have had increased contact, and an increased sense of identity, with fellow Palestinians in those occupied areas. Despite legal equality and increased integration into Israel’s economy, for the most part Arabs and Jews live in separate areas, attend separate schools, speak different languages, and follow different cultural traditions.
Arab citizens of Israel include a number of different, primarily Arabic-speaking groups each with distinct characteristics.
MUSLIM ARABS, numbering some 870,000, most of whom are Sunni, constitute 75% of the non-Jewish population. They reside mainly in small towns and villages, over half of them in the north of the country.
BEDOUIN ARABS, comprising nearly 10% of the Muslim population, belong to some 30 tribes, most of them scattered over a wide area in the south. Formerly nomadic shepherds, the Bedouin are currently in transition from a tribal social framework to a permanently settled society and are gradually entering Israel’s labor force.
CHRISTIAN ARABS, who constitute Israel’s second largest minority group, some 130,000, live mainly in urban areas including Nazareth, Shfar’am and Haifa. Although many denominations are nominally represented, the majority of them are affiliated with the Greek Catholic (42%), Greek Orthodox (32%) and Roman Catholic (16%) churches.
THE DRUZE, some 100,000 Arabic-speakers living in twenty-two villages in the northern part of Israel, constitute a separate cultural, social and religious community. While the Druze religion is not accessible to outsiders, one known aspect of its philosophy is the concept of taqiyya, which calls for complete loyalty by its adherents to the government of the country in which they reside.
THE CIRCASSIANS, comprising some 3,000 people concentrated in two northern villages, are Sunni Muslims, although they share neither the Arab origin nor the cultural background of the larger Islamic community. While maintaining a distinct ethnic identity, they participate in Israel’s economic and national affairs without assimilating either into Jewish society or into the general Muslim community.