Official Name: The State of Israel
Form of Rule: Parliamentary Democracy
Area: 21,643 square kilometres
Population: 7.8 million persons
Distribution by Religion: 76.5% Jews, 16% Moslems, 2% Christians, 1.5% Druze, 4% without religious classification
Official Languages: Hebrew, Arabic
Currency: New Israeli Shekel
The State of Israel The most prominent characteristic of Israel’s the population is its high diversity. Besides the main division of the country’s inhabitants into Jews and Arabs , there are many more subdivisions. The Jews, for example, are divided into religious and secular, while the latter include various immigrant communities who preserve their culture. Likewise, the Arabs are divided into Moslems, Christians and Druze. Alongside these groups, Israel has additional small ethnic religious groups such as the Circassians and the Samaritans, and small Christian communities from Europe such as the German Beit El community in Zikhron Ya'akov.
Another major characteristic of the Israeli population is its rapid growth rate, which is atypical of developed countries. Since the establishment of the State, the population of Israel has increased almost tenfold, mainly due to the immigration of Jews from round the world. Today, Israel is a densely populated country, even though large regions are thinly populated. The population of Israel is young (the median age is 28.3 years), its infant mortality rate is low (5.8 deaths for each 1,000 births), and the life expectancy is high (78.7 years).
The Jewish Population
The State of Israel was established in 1948, at the height of the War of Independence. It expressed the culmination of a long process during which the Jewish people had started returning to their homeland – a process which continued after its establishment. Indeed, since its establishment, some 2.7 million Jews have immigrated to Israel from some 130 countries. These continuous waves of immigration have left their mark on the country’s politics and society.
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 Rumania. In the early 1960s, some 180,000 immigrants arrived from North Africa. In the 1990s some 900,000 immigrants arrived from the former USSR and some 60,000 immigrants from Ethiopia, all of whom were absorbed in Israel.
Because of the profusion of countries of origin, Israel’s Jewish population is quite varied. Since the establishment of the State, the governments of Israel have adopted a “melting pot” policy. However, 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 Israel are also divided according their level of religious observance: Ultra-Orthodox (12%), religious (10%), traditional (35%), secular (43%).
The Non-Jewish Population
The large non-Jewish minority in Israel is Arab, representing about one fifth of the country’s population. Most of Israel’s Arabs live in Arab settlements in the Galilee, on the eastern coastal plane and in the northern Negev. There are also large concentrations of Arabs in mixed cities such as Haifa, Jerusalem, Acre and Ramle.
The vast majority of Israel’s Arabs are Sunnite Moslems, with only about one tenth being Christian (mostly members of the Greek-Orthodox Church). Among Israel’s Arabs are the Bedouins, Moslem Arabs whose forefathers lived as nomads. Israel’s Bedouins have moved into permanent settlements mainly in the northern Negev, but also in the Galilee. The Druze (see below), although a separate religious community, are also Arabs.
Israel has more ethnic and religious groups. Here are the main ones:
Druze: Members of a religion that developed from Shiite Islam in the 11th century, and whose adherents are concentrated in Syria, Lebanon and Israel. Some 115,000 Druze currently live in Israel, in 17 settlements on Mount Carmel, in the Galilee and on the Golan Heights.
Circassians: Members of a Moslem, non-Arab people whose 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 the Land of Israel, where they established the villages of Rikhaniya and Kafr Kama.
Samaritans: Members of a national-religious community whose religion is very close to Judaism. The Samaritan community developed following the Assyrian conquest of the Kingdom of Israel, when members of the Kingdom of Israel 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 Moslems on the Samaritans to convert to Islam gradually reduced their numbers. There now remain some 700 Samaritans, half of whom live in Nablus (Shkhem) and half in Holon (Kholon).
Israel is a densely populated country (some 300 persons per square kilometre), most of whose inhabitants live in towns and cities. However, the population distribution is not uniform: The majority is concentrated along the coastal plane, while the Negev, which occupies over half of the country’s total area, is thinly populated.
Some 91% of the inhabitants of Israel live in urban settlements with a population of over 2,000. About a quarter live in one of the four major cities (Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Rishon le-Tsiyon). Israel’s largest city is Jerusalem, with a population of some 706,000. Only some 376,000 people live in Tel Aviv. However, over 1.6 million people live in its metropolitan area, which extends up to Herzliya (Hertsiliya) in the north and down to Rishon le-Tsiyon in the south.
The beginning of the 20th century saw the development of the kibbutz and the moshav, two types of agricultural settlement specific to Israel. The kibbutz is a community based on communal ownership of property, the means of production and consumption. The moshav (moshav ovdim) is an agricultural village combining elements of individual ownership with elements of a cooperative such as mutual aid and communal purchases and marketing. In the 1990s, following social changes in Israel and a farming crisis, many of the principles of the moshav were eroded, and most of the kibbutzim underwent massive reforms and have undergone different degrees of privatization.
Over the years, other types of settlement, with unique names, were established in Israel: The Moshava was typical of the beginning of the new Jewish settlement in Israel. Moshavot, as they are called in the plural in Hebrew, were agricultural settlements of small farmers with private means of production. During the first years of its existence, Israel established urban settlements called development towns, designed to provide a housing solution for new immigrants and to implement a policy of population dispersion. Most of the development towns were established far from Israel’s urban centers.
Israel’s official languages are Hebrew and Arabic. English is the main language for purposes of external relations. Most Israelis speak English, and most of the signposts are also in English.
The most common language in Israel is Hebrew, which is spoken by six million people. Next comes Arabic, which is spoken by over a million people. Since Israel is a land of immigration, additional languages are spoken among the various immigrant communities, the major languages being Russian (some 900,000 speakers), Jewish-Arabic (300,000 speakers) and Yiddish (200,000 speakers).