Few states in the world are as widely covered in the international media as Israel. But in the big political drama, Israel is often portrayed as something one-dimensional, like a homogeneous mastodon with a powerful army and strong leaders. This picture reflects to a small extent the Israeli society, which is rather very heterogeneous, and is characterized by being a young state with a population that has immigrated from many – and in some cases very different – countries. Israeli society is therefore also characterized by deep, internal dividing lines. Therefore, in order to better understand Israel’s political priorities, we must look inward toward Israeli society itself.
- Who are the Israelis?
- What are the central dividing lines internally in Israel between different Jewish groups?
- How has Israel’s history affected Israel’s views of the world around it?
- How does immigration to Israel affect political life?
2: A safe haven for Jews
The creation of Israel was the result of a long process. Establishing a state for the world’s Jewish population became a goal in 1897. At that time, a group of European Jews gathered in Basel, Switzerland for what became known as the First Zionist Congress. Anti-Semitism and nationalism in Europe were on the rise, and the World Zionist Organization was established to establish a national home for Jews from all over the world.
At the same time, the organization was to encourage – and facilitate – Jewish immigration (immigration) there. The Declaration of Independence, read out in the Israel National Assembly by the Knesset by Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion on May 14, 1948 , is descriptive of how the Jewish people in the country themselves understood the significance of their recent state. The declaration opens as follows: “The land of Israel is the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped … The recent catastrophe of the Jewish people – the massacre of millions of Jews in Europe – was another clear demonstration of the urgent need to address the problem of the homelessness of the Jewish people by restore the Jewish state in the Land of Israel. ”
There were thus two important reasons behind the establishment of Israel: That the state held areas of very special religious and cultural significance to the Jewish people, and that the Jews in Europe had always been treated as second-class citizens.
3: Turbulent history
Israel was established on May 14, 1948 and has been at war since then. This has affected the way the Jewish people of Israel view their Arab neighbors, who today are marked by obvious distrust. Many attribute this to the turbulent history of Israel. Israel has not only been a state at war: Israel was born at war, it is often said.
Over the heads of the Palestinians, the UN General Assembly (51 mainly Western states) adopted a partition plan for historic Palestine on November 29, 1947. At that time, war broke out immediately between Palestinians and Jews. It took less than 24 hours from the creation of the state until Israel was at war with its Arab neighbors. That the Israelis see this war fundamentally differently than the Palestinians can be seen only from the name of the war: While the Palestinians call it “al-Nakba” – the catastrophe – the Jews in Israel talk about the ” war of independence” .
When this war ended with a ceasefire agreement in 1949, the boundaries of the Jewish state had been extended well beyond the UN partition plan. The Israeli state still has no internationally recognized state borders. Israel has therefore been in border disputes ever since the ceasefire agreement. The most violent war in which this took place took place in June 1967. It has become a milestone: Israel won sovereign and occupied territories three times larger than itself , including the West Bank and East Jerusalem. from Jordan.Since then, Israel has expanded and consolidated its control in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, mainly through the establishment of Jewish settlements in the areas.
Today, the settlers number 289,600 in the West Bank, and 190,000 in East Jerusalem. This has contributed to regular conflicts between the Israelis and the Palestinians. In 1987 came the first Palestinian intifada. The first intifada ended with the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. The Palestinians believe that the agreement made their situation worse, and this has led to the second intifada, also known as the al-Aqsa intifada, which broke out on September 28, 2000. Several analysts believe that we can now face a third intifada.
4: A society of immigrants
The people of Israel are made up of immigrants from all over the world. The population of the country has increased dramatically rapidly: While the Jews numbered about 84,000 in 1922, the number had increased to 800,000 in 1948. Today, Israel’s Jewish population numbers about 5.5 million. Of these, only 68 percent were born in Israel. As many as 32 per cent are immigrants, mainly from Europe and the USA. So who are the Israelis?
About 25 percent of Israel’s nearly 7.5 million people are Arabs. Yet it is the Jewish majority of Israel that characterizes the entire state. Therefore, it is worth noting that when the majority is asked to name their most important identity marker, it is not “Israelis” they give in response, but “Jewish”.
The strong immigration to Israel is inevitably linked to the country’s identity as a safe haven for the world’s Jews. In line with Zionist ideology, the Israeli government has always actively encouraged Jews outside Israel to immigrate in order to strengthen the Jewish character of the new state . At the same time, Jews around the world have wanted to move to Israel in search of community and belonging. The authorities continue to offer automatic citizenship and, to some extent, generous welfare schemes to Jews who choose to immigrate.
This is in line with Israeli law, which gives all people of Jewish descent and their spouses the right to immigrate to Israel. For Zionists, this is understood as a return to the homeland of the ancestors. As a result, the extensive immigration has led to a very pluralistic society, with some deep dividing lines.
5: Ashkenasim, sefaradim and mizrachim
The different ethnic and geographical backgrounds of the Jewish immigrants are expressed through the differences between what we call ashkenasim, sefardim and mizrachim (the im-suffix is a Hebrew plural). The meaning of the words says a lot about what the conflict is about:
- Ashkenazi is a Yiddish word for “German” and is used to denote Jews who come from Europe.
- Sefardi comes from the Hebrew word for Spain – Sefarad – and refers to Jews of Spanish and North African descent.
- Mizrachi Jews refer to Jews who come from the Middle East, i.a. Iran and Iraq, as Mizrach is Hebrew for the east.
In everyday speech, however, Sephardim and Mizrachim are mixed, and both are used about Jews from North Africa and the Middle East. Somewhat simplified, we can therefore say that the main difference in the Jewish population is between Ashkenazi and Mizrachi / Sephardic Jews.
6: Ethnicity and conflict
The differences between Ashkenazi and Mizrachi / Sephardic Jews are not only about ethnicity , but also about political influence , economic class and education , as well as cultural differences. These dividing lines go back to the wave of immigration that the creation of Israel brought with it. At that time, the Jewish community in Israel went from being relatively small and homogeneous to growing rapidly and becoming heterogeneous. The country has increased tenfold in 50 years.
Over 57 percent of the immigrants are Ashkenazis from Europe, with the majority from Eastern Europe and countries in the former Soviet Union. Since 1991 alone, more than 1.3 million Russians have moved to Israel. They are becoming a significant power group in the country. As it was the Ashkenazis who founded both Zionism and later also the driving force in the establishment and construction of modern Israel, this group has been a leader in Israeli society. And it still is. As a consequence, the Sephardic and Mizrachi Jews have experienced that they have had to work for greater recognition, ever since the state was established.
In a young society such as the Israeli one, the struggle over the values on which it should be based has also been important. Before the state was established, was the unifying value a kind of pioneering spirit, where Jews stood together to establish a Jewish state. And, in the early years of the state, it was Zionism that filled this role in the Israeli-Jewish identity. But as the population grows, so do the Jewish community . At the same time, Zionism is no longer as unified an ideology as it once was. It is therefore difficult today to point to any common denominator in the Israeli-Jewish identity.
7: Religion in Israel
Israel is the only country in the world where the majority are Jews , and the state strongly associates itself with Jewish culture and religion. Therefore, it is worth noting that according to Israeli law, there should in principle be full religious freedom. Israel is a secular state, and there is a sharp divide between state and synagogue (Jewish house of worship). At the same time, the Jewish religious law (Halakha) applies in some areas, such as family law. This means that all Jewish marriages and divorces must be heard in a religious court.
Judaism is far from a unified religion. The two main branches that we find in Israel are Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Judaism. The difference between the two mainly concerns the extent to which religion should dominate all aspects of people’s lives. Israel conforms to what is called Orthodox Judaism. This is a relatively strict form of Judaism. It nevertheless allows the followers to participate in society, provided that it does not directly contravene the commandments of the religious law.
Ultra-Orthodox Judaism, on the other hand, allows no flexibility, and has a strained relationship with other Jewish denominations as well as with non-religious Jews. Ultra-Orthodox Jews claim to be the true heirs of Judaism. Therefore, they live in strict accordance with Jewish law and relatively isolated
from the rest of Israeli society. They therefore live mainly in their own enclaves, primarily in the areas of Mea She’arim in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak outside Tel Aviv. There they have their own schools, courts and shops.
The conflict between religious and secular
The fact that ultra-Orthodox Jews have chosen to isolate themselves from the rest of society has set the minds of the non-religious population in Israel on fire. The conflict between ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews is based on two issues in particular: the payment of taxes and the service of military service. While Israel has a general conscription for both men and women (3 years for men and 2 years for women), the ultra-Orthodox are exempt from this duty, and they live largely on social benefits from the Israeli authorities.
This is the result of an agreement between ultra-Orthodox leaders and the Israeli government when the state was created. Then it was a central idea that Israel should be a state for all Jews. Therefore, Israel should allow all forms of Jewish living. At that time, the ultra-Orthodox in Israel were few and far between, and there was no major burden on the state to enter into this compromise.
But over the years, the groups’ share of the population has changed drastically , and the pressure on the non-religious part of the population has increased. While non-religious groups have an average of 1.8 children, ultra-Orthodox women have about 8, which today makes up just under 20 percent of Israel’s Jewish population. While the exemption from military service for the ultra-Orthodox in 1948 applied to 400 people, it applies to almost 130,000 today.
Secularists – who do not care about religion – have therefore become increasingly opposed to the exceptions and benefits that the ultra-Orthodox receive from the government: where being in the army is eventually associated with great risk.
8: “Ethno-religious” politics?
Israel has a multi-party parliamentary system . The National Assembly – the Knesset – consists of 120 members. The representatives are democratically elected by election every four years; All Israeli citizens – both Jews and Palestinians – over the age of 18 have the right to vote. Election day is a public holiday.
Israeli politics is at times very confusing with many parties and volatile constellations. All Israeli governments (with the exception of the one in 1948) have been coalition governments , composed of a whole range of different parties. This contributes to the fact that Israeli governments tend to be both unstable and pragmatic. The parties in a government are often given responsibility for their own flag issue , rather than a government standing for a single political platform. One reason for this is that the barrier limit to the Knesset is low – only 2 percent. This makes it a little easier to get voted in. Another reason is that the various dividing lines also cut through Israeli politics – across the parties.
According to RCTOYSADVICE, the religious and ethnic contradictions between Jewish groups have manifested themselves in the fact that political parties can in many ways be described as interest groups. With the exception of the three largest parties – the Social Democratic Labor Party , the Center Party Kadima and the right-wing Conservative Likud party
– the other parties’ political programs are more a reflection of the group they represent than a program of broad interests and a broad ideological platform.
The Russian immigrants, for example, have Avigdor Lieberman’s (current Foreign Minister) party Israel Beiteinu (Our Home Israel) as “their” party; Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox Jews have United Torah Judaism , while Mizrachi and Sephardic ultra-Orthodox Jews have their mouthpiece in the influential Shas party .
We find Arab groups mainly behind three parties; either Hadash on the left, Balad – which is a nationalist party – or the more moderate United Arab List . When the whole country also consists of one constituency, it means that the composition of the Knesset evenly reflects how Israel is composed. The large groups will always have the greatest influence, while small groups will remain without much weight in the Israeli parliament.
9: Israeli economy in 2010
Did you know…:
- Israel has an economic system that is somewhat similar to the Norwegian one: A market economy with significant state control.
- Israel has few natural resources and is dependent on significant imports of oil and gas.
- Israel has signed free trade agreements with both the United States, the EU and China and was the first country outside Latin America to sign a free trade agreement with Mercosur.
- Agricultural products and high technology (especially computers, computer technology and military technology) are crucial to Israel’s exports.
- Israel’s high technology is among the leaders in the world, and that Israel’s significant growth in technology and science was crucial for Israel’s membership in the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development) in September 2010.
- The United States is Israel’s most important economic partner. The EU is second most important.
- The United States provides the Israeli state with an annual loan guarantee of more than $ 3 billion, in addition to supporting Israel’s defense budget with nearly $ 3 billion annually.
- the relationship between poor and rich largely coincides with the relationship between Israel’s Jews and Arabs: Of Jews, 16% are poor, while 50% of Arabs (Druze, Palestinians) are poor.
- Diamond grinding and tourism are crucial to both employment and the Israeli economy.