What is the Society of Judaism or none


Angelika Timm

To person

Angelika Timm, Middle East scholar and historian. Her research and publication activities focus on the history, politics and culture of Israel, the Middle East conflict, Israeli civil society and German-Israeli relations.

In addition to Jews from Europe, America, Asia and Africa, there are over a million Arabs with Israeli passports in Israel. How is society composed and what role does the Arab minority play?

Bus stop in Jerusalem. (& copy Hanna Huhtasaari)

In the declaration of independence of 1948 - not least in view of Jewish historical experience in Europe - Israel was defined as the "Jewish state in the Land of Israel" which should be "open to Jewish immigration and the gathering of Jews in exile". The Law of Return of July 5, 1950 granted every member of the Jewish people the right to immigration and citizenship. Israel then developed - after the USA - into the second largest Jewish settlement area and the center of national existence. While only six percent of the world's Jewish population lived in Israel when the state was founded, it was already 25 percent in 1980 and 41 percent in 2006.

Immigration and natural population growth have had a lasting impact on the demographic face of the country. At the end of 1948, according to the Statistical Abstract of Israel, the number of citizens was only 872,700 - 82.12 percent Jews and 17.88 percent Muslim, Christian and Druze Arabs. By December 2007 the population had increased to 7.24 million - 75 percent Jews, 20.6 percent Arabs and 4.4 percent people "without religious affiliation" (mostly new immigrants and their family members, unless they were recognized as Jews by the chief rabbinate) .

From melting pot to mosaic society

The current ethno-cultural composition of the Jewish population of Israel is primarily a consequence of historically staggered waves of immigration. For the period from 1948 to 2006, the Israel Central Statistical Office counted over three million immigrants, of which 68.2 percent came from Europe and America and 30.8 percent from Asia and Africa.

Population groups

Today in Israel - in addition to the long-established Arab minority - there are several Jewish population groups who, although they see themselves as integral parts of the Jewish-Israeli nation, differ significantly from one another in terms of their origin, culture, way of life and identity.

Ashkenazim: The Ashkenazim, predominantly from Central and Eastern Europe, formed the founding generation of Israel. Before and during the British mandate, they laid the social foundation on which a modern state could develop after 1948, and made a significant contribution to the emergence of a parliamentary-democratic system. From them and their descendants as well as the Shoah survivors who came to Israel from Poland, Romania, Hungary and other countries immediately after the establishment of the state, the political, economic, military and cultural elite were recruited over decades. However, their dominance in top positions in society is increasingly being called into question due to the changed demographic and socio-political constellation. The approximately 140,000 Jews from the Anglo-Saxon-speaking area who have immigrated since the state was founded - also predominantly Ashkenazi - have had a relatively large influence on the shaping of Israeli society. They are linked to the establishment of the Jewish reform movement and conservative Judaism in the country. It is not uncommon for Anglo-Saxons to be found as activists in the settlement movement, but also at the top of Israeli peace organizations.

Oriental Jews: The "second Israel" is formed by the oriental Jews (also called Misrachim or Sephardim). The majority of those who immigrated from Islamic countries immediately after the founding of the state differ from Jews of European descent through specific customs and independent cultural traditions. During the first decade of Israeli statehood, 485,085 migrants from Asia and Africa reached the country. For the oriental Jews, life in their new homeland began with a culture shock. They came to a largely European country and were neither familiar with its everyday language nor with the valid system of values ​​and lifestyle. Some of the new immigrants were housed in abandoned Arab villages or provisionally erected tent and barrack towns. Their collective settlement contributed to the preservation of traditional community structures and the formation of compatriots. Many oriental Jews attach great importance to religious rules in everyday life. They do not consider the European, secularly oriented model of society to be exemplary and worthy of imitation. Social inequalities and the ethnic educational gap also deepened the contrasts with the Ashkenazim. They favored the appearance and work of parties and organizations that take care of the interests of the Orientals.

Russian-speaking Jews: The migrants from the Soviet Union or its successor states form a population group of over a million people and thus make up around a fifth of Israel's Jewish citizens. As early as the 1970s, around 160,000 Jews entered the country from the Soviet Union. The Russian-speaking immigrants of those years were largely Zionist-motivated. They consciously chose the Jewish state as their new place of residence. Their integration took place relatively quickly due to their high level of education and corresponding professional qualifications. Zionist motivation or the desire to live in accordance with Jewish tradition and the rules of religion were hardly the primary motivation for immigrants in the "Russian mass Aliyah" of the 1990s. The impetus for the move was primarily rooted in the desire to reunite families, in fear of anti-Semitism, but above all in the expectation of better economic and higher social living standards. Due to their numerical strength, the Russian-speaking immigrants are not exposed to particularly strong assimilation pressures. They continue to communicate in their mother tongue both in the family and in the group, preserve the culture they have brought with them and largely maintain their way of life. School and army service, the media, compulsions and temptations to consume, everyday culture as well as the omnipresent security problems affect the younger generation in particular and cause a slow change in identity.

Ethiopian Jews: The Ethiopian "Beita Israel" were only recognized as Jews by Israeli rabbis in 1975. In the decades that followed, efforts were made by the Jerusalem government to effect their immigration to Israel. In the mid-1980s and early 1990s, "Operation Moses" and the secret operation "Solomon" flew tens of thousands of people from the eastern horn of Africa to the eastern coast of the Mediterranean. Smaller resettlements followed. In 1998 the Israeli government decided, including the Ethiopian Falaschmura, Jews who had converted to Christianity under duress, to allow immigration. The total number of Ethiopian Jews living in Israel is around a hundred thousand. 33,000 of them were already born in the country; 40 percent are children under 15 years of age. The "Ethiopians" differ from the other immigrant groups not only in their outward appearance and specific cultural tradition, but also in their lower level of education. Although the number of Ethiopian students at universities and colleges is continuously increasing, the Beita Israel are still significantly underrepresented in higher educational institutions. Their unemployment rate is also disproportionately high.

Ethnic and cultural diversity

The founding fathers of Zionism and the State of Israel assumed the existence of a fundamentally uniform Jewish nation. They explained the ethnic peculiarities of Jewish population groups in different countries and continents from the assimilation impulses on the part of the respective "host peoples". Their goal was to merge those "scattered in exile" into a largely homogeneous Jewish-Israeli nation over the course of one or two generations and to overcome the special developments in this process.

The "melting pot concept" initially seemed to be confirmed, since the immigrants came almost exclusively from Europe until the state was founded and belonged to the Ashkenazi group. The two demographic "subsequent revolutions", on the other hand - the mass immigration of oriental Jews that began during the War of Independence and the surge in immigration from the Soviet Union and its successor states after 1989 - changed the social structure. The oriental and "Russian" immigrants had their own social and political experiences or insisted on their way of life; they were only partially ready to assimilate culturally.

The plurality in the population structure is not only evident in the appearance of the cities and rural settlements. It also influences the political life and everyday culture of the country. Avraham Burg, long-time spokesman for the Knesset and chairman of the Jewish Agency, described Israeli reality as follows at the end of the 1990s: "For many years we believed in the melting pot. The recipe was simple. Take two Moroccans, two Russians, two Ethiopians, you shake them well - and then, lo and behold, we have a new Israeli prototype where everything looks 'Israeli.' But after a few years you realize that everyone wants to keep their own identity. Israel is changing Today we are moving from a melting pot society to a mosaic society. Today we are convinced that we can only live together harmoniously if every piece of the mosaic can realize its identity within the whole. "

The ethnic and cultural diversity of Israel is increasingly being increased by non-Jewish workers from Southeast Asia, Romania, Poland and other regions or states. It is not uncommon for them to stay in the country after their visa has expired; some seek access to Judaism. Its existence not only requires solutions to everyday problems such as social security, taxation, housing and education for children, it also shakes the concept of the "Jewish state". The presence of foreign workers and numerous non-Jewish family members of the Russian immigrants sparked wide public debates about a revision of family law, which is based solely on religious principles.

Arab minority

Arab Quarter in Jerusalem. (& copy Hanna Huhtasaari)
The national minority of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel differs from the Jewish population through religion and history, language and culture, family ties and way of life. With 1.45 million people (2007) it represents an important demographic, economic, social and political factor for the development of the country.

The Arab population of Palestine was never a homogeneous group either. The differences on the religious-cultural level - in 2006 81.5 percent of Israeli Palestinians (predominantly Sunni) were Muslim, 10.3 percent Christian and 8.2 percent Druze - are also put into perspective by social stratifications, generation lines and settlement conditions. The common bracket for the majority of Arab citizens of Israel is their national affiliation with the Palestinian people and the awareness of living as a minority in a Jewish-dominated state.

Obstacles to development and positive trends

Although young Arabs often resemble their Jewish peers in dress and demeanor or love the same music and film, the gap based on different historical roots remains. It is exacerbated by economic and social upheavals. For example, despite continued population growth, Arab land ownership has decreased significantly since 1948. Until the 1970s, the state carried out extensive expropriations of Arab land; the acquisition of Israeli land by Arab citizens, on the other hand, is almost impossible. The result is a decline in the Arab labor force employed in agriculture. Their share sank from 28 percent (1972) to 3.1 percent in 2006. The state legalized spatial constriction has a serious effect on the housing situation. Trade and services, culture, sport and education suffer from limited spatial development opportunities.

The negative factors are offset by positive development trends. The waves of modernization taking place in Israeli society did not leave the Arab population unaffected. They promoted growing social mobility and contributed to the dissolution of traditional family structures. The birth rate decreased and the number of working women increased. The level of education also increased dramatically: in 1985 only 8.5 percent of Arab citizens had a school education of more than twelve years, in 2001 it was 17.2 percent and in 2006 19.2 percent. While 4.8 percent of Arab Israelis (based on citizens over 15 years of age) had completed an academic education in 1985, the figure was around 12.3 percent in 2006; Last but not least, the progression concerned the number of female graduates. The increase in educational standards is impressive, but remains relatively low compared to the Jewish population - 46.2 percent of Jewish citizens attended school for more than twelve years in 2006, and 29.5 percent have an academic degree. After successfully completing a university or college degree, Arab graduates are also faced with the problem of finding an adequate field of activity and of dealing with the competitive pressure of Jewish-Israeli citizens. Job opportunities can be found in the education system, in the administration of justice or in medicine, but far less often in high-tech companies or in the middle and higher civil service.

Double identity

The social and cultural changes also affect the question of national self-image. The majority of Israeli citizens of Palestinian nationality see themselves as having a dual identity - politically and legally as citizens of Israel, nationally and culturally as Palestinians. The process of "Israelization" has been put into perspective - especially since 1967 - by the renewed trend of "Palestinization". Since the late 1970s, the influence of Islamic fundamentalism has also increased among the Israeli Arabs, combined with the general increase in religious identity.

Arab citizens have great hopes for the government of Yitzchak Rabin, which was elected in 1992, and for the peace process. The budget for Arab towns increased temporarily, and Nazareth, the largest Arab city in Israel, was given the status of a government-sponsored tourist area. In the education system, attempts have been made to overcome the under-equipping of Arab schools. Arab families with many children were given equal support to Jewish families.

The end of the peace efforts in Oslo, the beginning of the Al-Aqsa Intifada in autumn 2000 and the rise of Likud to become the leading force in the governing coalition put an end to efforts for internal Israeli cooperation between Jews and Arabs. There is much to suggest that the Jewish-Arab contradiction will intensify and influence the social and political state of Israel in the long term.

Extract from: Information on Political Education (Issue 278) Israel, revised new edition 2008.