By: Jonathan Kaplan

Israeli society is made up of many different groups, and before we can begin to examine any of the major issues or developments in Israel, we must first get a general picture of the various components which together form the country's social fabric. In this class, we shall try to briefly describe these groups or sectors.

Already in ancient times, Jewish communities were formed outside of the Land of Israel. In the middle ages, important Jewish centers were to be found in Babylonia, Spain (Sepharad in Hebrew) and Franco-Germany (Ashkenaz in Hebrew). As members of a social and religious minority exposed to the cultural influences of the majority population, Jews took on certain elements of the local culture. They also created social patterns that suited the reality in which they lived. As a matter of course, Jews residing in different lands and living under different social, cultural and religious conditions, developed different customs, manners and cultural expressions. These Jewish "ethnic sub-groups" are referred to in Israel as "Edot". They are characterized by a particular place of origin (for example Yemen) and a distinct culture which can include dress, cuisine, song, dance, crafts, religious traditions, language and even Hebrew pronunciation. (We shall be examining the social importance of these "Edot" in class 4). Generally, "Edot" are classified into one of the following categories.

These Jews are the descendants of the medieval Jewish communities in Franco-Germany. During the latter part of the middle ages, many Jews from this area moved eastward into Poland and other eastern European territories. Groups of orthodox Ashkenazi Jews came to the Land of Israel in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to form communities of Torah scholars in the holy cities of Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed and Tiberias. Large numbers of Russian Jews left for safer and more promising shores after the beginning of a period of pogroms in the early 1880s. While most of these immigrated to the United States, Canada, Argentina and other diaspora countries, a small stream of ideologically motivated pioneers chose to live in Turkish, or after 1917, British ruled Palestine. Here, they became the majority of the Jewish population, comprising some 80% of the Jewish settlement in 1948.

As the name implies, these Jews trace their ancestry back to the Jewish population of medieval Spain. Following the persecution of Spanish Jews in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and their expulsion from the kingdom in 1492, these Jews settled in major ports and economic centers in Europe, the Middle East and even the New World. A center of Sephardi Jews emerged in the Galilee town of Safed in the sixteenth century. Although Sephardi Jews, like their Ashkenazi brethren, came in limited numbers to live in the Holy Land throughout history, larger numbers of Sephardi Jews (for example from Bulgaria and Turkey) came to Israel only after its establishment in 1948.

Oriental Jews 
The communities from which these Jews descend did not undergo a direct European experience. Often, these Jews are erroneously referred to as Sephardim, but although they generally took on Sephardi customs in prayer and religious service, they have their own unique traditions. Some of these communities date back thousands of years, as does for example Iraqi Jewry which traces its origins back to ancient Babylonia. Other communities were formed by Jews from the Land of Israel as early as the Second Temple period. Generally, Jews from Arab or Moslem countries (North Africa, the Middle East, Iran, Afghanistan and the Moslem republics of the former Soviet Union) are considered Oriental or Eastern Jews. A large wave of Jews from these areas came to Israel in the 1950s. (The Mass Migration of this period will be investigated in class 3). 
As noted above, at the time of the establishment of the State of Israel, Ashkenazim made up about 80% of the Jewish population. Due to the large influx of Oriental Jews during the first decade of the state and their higher fertility rate, the percentage of Oriental Jews increased consistently until in 1965 they comprised the majority of Israeli Jewry. This trend was altered with the immigration of Jews from the former USSR in the 1990s. Using the criteria of father's birthplace, as of December 31, 1993, 39.9% of Israeli Jews were of European and American origin (Ashkenazim for the most part), 36.3% were of Asian or African origin (essentially Oriental Jews) and 23.8% were of Israeli origin. It would appear, at present, that there is a numerical balance between Ashkenazim and Oriental Jews.

"Olim" and "Sabras"
Israel is unique in its official and longstanding encouragement of Jewish immigration. Unlike most other immigrant societies, this openness to immigration has remained consistent even in times of economic stress and crisis. As a result, Jews have continued to arrive from all over the world to settle in Israel. Naturally, the number of "sabras" or native born Israelis was relatively low when the state was established, reaching only 35.4% in late 1948. Due to the ongoing "aliyah", this had not changed substantially by mid-1961 when the percentage of Israeli born was still only 37.8%. With time, the percentage of "sabras" in society increased, and in recent years it has leveled off at just under 61%. 
The effect of a large number of "olim" (immigrants) on a small society has been highly significant socially, economically and culturally. The need to absorb the newcomers placed a heavy burden on the young state, although once integrated, the "olim" led to considerable economic growth. Immigrants brought with them their values and traditions, and these in turn have influenced the emerging society in Israel.

Non-Jewish Minorities: Arab Citizens 
Israel's non-Jewish population is differentiated religiously, socially, culturally and nationally from the Jewish majority. Over 75 percent of Israeli non-Jews are Moslems, the rest being Christians, Druze and a few other smaller groups. The Moslems and the vast majority of the Christians identify as Arabs, generally as Palestinian Arabs who hold Israeli citizenship and have integrated considerably into Israeli western culture (especially in the case of the Christian Arabs) but at the same time also share feelings of solidarity with their Palestinian brethren outside Israel's borders. Among the Moslems, trends of Islamic fundamentalism have become more pronounced in recent years. Although they enjoy full legal and political equality, it is very difficult for Arabs in Israel to accept the basic definition of Israel as a Jewish state and the reflection of this in the country's national symbols (for example the national anthem, the flag, Remembrance Day for Fallen Soldiers, Independence Day and the Law of Return). (The issue of the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel will be discussed further in class 6). The Druze comprise a very different population which has on the whole identified fully with the State of Israel since 1948. Living in their own villages and maintaining their own religious beliefs and traditions which have their origins in Islam, the Druze identify as a separate people, loyal to the state in which they live while at the same time connected with Druze communities in neighboring states. Druze men serve in the Israeli army by law (unlike Arabs who are not obliged to do military service) and often volunteer for the most elite reconnaissance units.

Religious Identity: Secular, Orthodox, Ultra-Orthodox 
In the traditional society of the middle ages, all Jews followed the precepts of Jewish law as set down in the Bible, the Talmud and later rabbinic writings. From the eighteenth century on, Jewish society began to undergo processes of secularization and acculturation to the surrounding society which led, especially in western Europe of the mid-nineteenth century, to the emergence of new religious trends (Reform Judaism, Neo-Orthodoxy and Ultra-Orthodoxy for example) as an attempt to redefine Jewish identity in an age of increasing modernization. Other Jews at this time and during the next century adopted radical ideologies such as nationalism or socialism which also influenced or altered their religious attitudes. 
Most of these positions were reflected in the waves of Jewish immigration to Israel. Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Jews (referred to in Hebrew as "Haredim") formed the so-called Old Yishuv in the four holy cities as noted above. In the pre-state period, Russian Socialist-Zionist pioneers, for whom Judaism was a national-cultural identity as opposed to a religious one, played the formative role in creating the foundations of modern Israeli society. Modern orthodox Jews (in Hebrew - "Datiim") came to settle in Israel, both before and after the establishment of the state. The large influx of Jews from oriental communities brought Jews who, for the most part, still lived in a traditional social and religious environment which included religious observance and practice. While many of these took on much of the secular lifestyle of the Israeli majority, others continued to be religiously observant Jews, while still others were attracted to Ultra-Orthodox groups. Immigrants from North America and other diaspora communities have brought with them the trends of Reform and Conservative Judaism (known in Israel as Progressive and Traditional - "Masorati" - Judaism respectively). 
It is rather difficult to determine the exact number of each Jewish religious group or even the proportion of observant and non-observant Jews. Most Jews in Israel maintain some form of tradition, be it Sabbath candle lighting, observance of at least certain dietary laws or holiday traditions. An estimate that 20% of Israeli Jews are religiously observant (ie. keep at least Sabbath and dietary laws) is probably not far off the mark. There are considerable variations in the percentages of Israeli Jews affiliating with orthodox or ultra-orthodox institutions such as schools, health funds or religious political parties. Certain cities (Jerusalem, Bene Beraq) have a much higher religiously observant population than do others. Orthodox and ultra-orthodox Jews often have specific religious demands,usually in regard to public compliance with Jewish law. (We will be studying this issue in class 5).

Final Remarks 
In addition to the usual subgroups of a population, groups defined by gender, income, geographical dispersion, professional distribution, age, etc. - Israeli society is comprised of groups of people with different and sometimes clashing values and world views. They have different opinions about the nature and future of Israeli society which are voiced in the public debate over the relationship of religion and state, the status of Arabs, the future of the territories and the status of women, to name only a few issues. Israeli social, economic and foreign policy makers must constantly take these various and vying opinions into account. It is these groups, these opinions and these issues that we shall examine in the remainder of our course.

Questions for Discussion:

  • What factors unite and what factors separate the various groups which together comprise Israeli society?
  • On what basis is it possible to unite the largest number of Israelis?



Share           PRINT   
20 Apr 2015 / 1 Iyar 5775 0