Israeli Society & Religious Issues

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Modern Israel is a vibrant and complex multi-ethnic, multi-racial, and multi-religious society. Israel's two official languages are Hebrew and Arabic. 

Israel is a democracy guaranteeing the right to vote of all its citizens regardless of religion or ethnicity. As a democracy Israel has a democratically elected parliament--the Knesset--and an independent judiciary and free press.

Israel is home to over 6 million people. Approximately 79 percent of the country’s population is Jewish; non-Jewish citizens--Arab Muslims and Arab Christians, Druze, Bedouin Arabs, and Circassians--make up the rest of the population, and several Arab-Israelis are members of the Knesset. However, 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.

An additional 3 million Arabs and approximately 200,000 Jews live in the territories that Israel has controlled since the 1967 war. However, the territories remain disputed and therefore Israel has not extended Israeli law--including Israeli citizenship--to the Arab residents of the territories.

After the state was established in 1948, it was flooded with Jewish immigrants from around the world, primarily Holocaust survivors from Europe and refugees from Arab lands. Since then, divisions among Israel's residents have plagued 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 (who trace their heritage to Spain, Portugal, and Arab countries).

In addition there are religious differences among Jews, with Jews defining themselves as ultra-Orthodox ("haredim"), Modern Orthodox ("dati-leumi"), traditional ("masorati"), and secular ("hiloni"). There are tensions between the religious and secular sectors of Israeli society: Secular Jews resent the control that the rabbinic establishment has over some aspects of their lives, and many ultra-Orthodox Jews believe the country's laws should reflect a greater affinity for Jewish tradition and law.

In addition, non-Jewish religions, particularly Christianity and Islam, are recognized by and receive funding from the Israeli government. The Christian community makes up 2.1 percent of the Israeli population while the Muslim community makes up 15 percent of the population. Israeli law allows for freedom of religious expression, hence these communities worship freely and are protected in this basic human right. These religious communities are autonomously governed by their respective religious leaders, although in recent times the Israeli government has had to mediate between Christian and Muslim communities in Israel. Other religions, of course, are also represented in multi-cultural Israel; the Bahai's, for instance, maintain their international headquarters in the port city of Haifa.

israel today quizIsrael's educational system reflects Israel's religious and ethnic diversity, and so there are many different school systems catering to different populations. For example, there is a school system for the Arab population where the language of instruction is Arabic; a school system for the ultra-Orthodox where the language of instruction is Yiddish and at times modern Hebrew; a school system for the modern Orthodox where the language of instruction is Hebrew and religious studies are included in the curriculum; and a school system that caters to secular Israelis where Hebrew is the language of instruction and Jewish studies--including Bible--are studied in a cultural rather than a religious framework. In addition, an alternative school system, called the Tali Schools, strikes a middle-ground between the state-secular and state-religious schools, and experimental schools bring secular and religious Israeli Jews--as well as Arabs and Jews--together.

After completing their high school studies, Israeli Jews, male Israeli Druze, and some male Israeli Bedouin serve two to three years of compulsory service in the Israeli Defense Forces (I.D.F.).

Israel has a technologically advanced market economy, alongside a relatively large public sector. Its major imports include oil, grains, raw materials, and military equipment. Main exports include cut diamonds, high-technology equipment, and agricultural products (not including grains). Economic growth was strong in the mid-to-late 1990's, and in 2000 it was measured at 6.4 percent. In 2001, however, Israel entered a recession as a result of the NASDAQ crash in the United States and the outbreak of the Second Intifada. The recession lasted until the first half of 2003. In 2010, the economy grew at a rate of 4.5 percent. 

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