Contemporary Israel 101
The modern state of Israel was founded by United Nations resolution in 1948. Created as a homeland for Jews, in the shadow of World War II and the near destruction of European Jewry, Israel populace comes from a multitude of religious, ethnic, and racial backgrounds. Established by British colonial powers in a heavily Muslim, Arab region of the world, Israel’s geography and history have led to a constant need to defend itself.
Israel’s government is a parliamentary democracy. The Knesset, Israel’s parliament, has 120 members. The Likud (Unity) party—in general, economically, socially and militarily conservative--has been the most powerful party in most of the Israeli governments since 1977. Labor, historically the other major party in Israel, is, generally speaking, economically, socially and militarily liberal. (They disagree, for example, about whether trading land for peace is the best way to solve the conflict with the Palestinians.) In 2005, Ariel Sharon founded the Kadima party in order to support his disengagement plan. Moderate Likud and like-minded Labor politicians joined the party, and Kadima won the majority of seats in the Knesset in both the 2006 and 2009 elections. Smaller parties (including religious parties) are also important in Israeli politics as their support is necessary to form a coalition required to pass legislation.
Israel is home to over 6 million people. Approximately 79% of the country’s population is Jewish; non-Jewish citizens, mostly Arabs, make up the remaining 21% of the population. Since the founding of the state of Israel, divisions among Jews have characterized Israeli society. The tension between Israel’s Middle Eastern and European identities is personified in the struggles between Ashkenazim (Jews who trace their heritage to Germany and Eastern Europe) and Sephardim or Mizrachi Jews (Sephardim trace their heritage to Spain and Portugal; Mizrachim are those Jews from Arab countries and their descendents). Mass immigration of Sephardic Jews from Arab lands in the 1950s and 60s made Sephardim/Mizrachim a majority of the population, but Ashkenazim continue to dominate positions of power in the Israeli establishment, and many Sephardim and Mizrachim feel that they have been treated like second-class citizens by the Ashkenazim. There is also strain between secular and religious, and Arab and Jewish Israeli communities. Secular Jews resent the control that the rabbinic establishment has over some aspects of their lives. Many Israeli Arabs feel alienated from much of Israeli social and political life and note, for example, disparities in municipal services between primarily Jewish and primarily Arab areas.
The struggle between the Israelis and the Palestinians is one of the world’s most enduring and explosive conflicts. Both sides argue that they have a historic right to the land of Israel, including the West Bank (an area west of the Jordan River), the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem, specifically. The Palestinians have “risen up” against the Israeli occupation on two occasions, the first Intifada (uprising) in 1987 and Intifada II in September of 2000. In 2005, Israel unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza Strip. A diversity of opinion exists among Israeli Jews regarding the proper response to these uprisings and the best ways to pursue peace and security for Israel, ranging from the endorsement of a Palestinian state to the belief that all of the occupied territories should remain part of Israel.
While the majority of Israelis are secular Jews, a vocal, powerful minority of Orthodox Jews has a disproportionate influence on religious policy for the nation (in return for their support on issues of foreign and economic policy) because of their decisive role in coalition government. The tension between Orthodox practice and secular reality results in frequent flare-ups in areas like marriage, divorce, conversion, and education. For example, many secular Israelis resent funding a parallel religious school system that prevents religious and secular children from mixing.
Israel has been a member of the U.N. since 1949 and maintains relations with a majority of states around the world. Israel also maintains relations with Jewish communities worldwide. In both cases, i.e. international and Diaspora relations, Israel’s strongest ally is the United States. Israel’s relations with neighboring Arab and/or Muslim countries are always in flux. As political instability increases between Israel and the Palestinians, tensions rise between Israel and her neighbors as well, as the Palestinians count these Arab nations, which have long histories of anti-Israel activities, among their chief supporters.
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