At independence, Israel had some 806,000 citizens (650,000 Jews and 156,000 non-Jews). Israel's population by September 2007 stood at 7.05 million, some 78 percent of which were Jews. Israel's non-Jewish population has grown dramatically since 1948, mostly as a result of high rates of natural growth. The Jewish population has increased more than fivefold since independence, with more than 2.8 million Jewish immigrants, many of whom came from Arab and Islamic countries of the Middle East and North Africa. Beginning in the late 1980s, some 800,000 immigrants from the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) added substantially to Israel's population, while smaller but more dramatic immigrations came from Ethiopia. Under the Law of Return, any Jew, with some specific exceptions, may immigrate to Israel and receive citizenship. Immigrants are provided with housing and language and vocational training to speed their integration into the mainstream of Israeli society.
   Israel's Jews are of a single religious faith and share a spiritual heritage and elements of historical experience. However, ethnically and culturally, they are heterogeneous. The Jewish population is composed of immigrants from numerous countries and reflects a variety of ethnic and linguistic groups; degrees of religious observance; and cultural, historical, and political backgrounds. And their religious practices vary considerably, from ultra-Orthodox to secular, with substantial differences in liturgy and in observance of Jewish law.
   The two main groups in Israel's Jewish population are the Ashke-nazim (that is to say, Jews of central and east European origin) and the Sephardim or Orientals (Jews who came to Israel from the countries of the Middle East and the Mediterranean area). Although the overwhelming majority of the Jewish population was of Ashkenazi origin at independence, Israeli society is now split between the Ashkenazim and Jews of Sephardic origin, who are also referred to as "Edot Hamizrach" (eastern or Oriental communities). Increasingly, ethnic divisions are becoming less relevant as the instances of cross-cultural marriages grow and as native-born Israelis identify themselves not as Ashkenazi or Sephardic but as "Sabra."
   Geographically, Israel is a Middle Eastern country, but its culture, society, and political system remain primarily Western in nature and orientation. The early Zionists laid the foundations for an essentially European culture in Palestine, and subsequent immigration accelerated the trend. The Western immigrants created and developed the structure of land settlement, institutions, trade unions, political parties, and educational systems in preparation for a Western-oriented Jewish national state. Future immigrants from non-Western countries had to adapt to a society that had formed these institutions.
   After the Holocaust and the creation of Israel, whole Jewish communities were transported to Israel from the countries of the Middle East and North Africa. This massive immigration created a situation in which a large portion of the population had societal and cultural traditions different from those of their Western coreligionists who constituted the majority and dominant element in Israel. The religious traditions of Judaism provide a common core of values and ideals, but there are major differences in outlook, frames of reference, levels of aspiration, and other social and cultural components. Although steps have been taken to alleviate the situation, Israel continues to suffer from ethnic-cultural cleavages, a socioeconomic gap, and consequent inequalities within the Jewish community.
   Israel's non-Jewish citizenry, constituting about 22 percent of the total population, consists primarily of the Arabs who remained in what became Israel after the 1948—49 Arab-Israeli War and their descendants. The Arab population is composed primarily of Muslims (about 80 percent) and is predominantly Sunni, although some 11 percent are Christian (mostly Greek Catholic and Greek Orthodox) and some 9 percent Druze. Although their legal status is the same as Israel's Jewish population, Israel's Arab citizens are confronted by problems qualitatively different. Between 1948 and the mid-1960s, activities of the Arab community were regarded primarily as concerns of Israel's security system, and most of the areas inhabited by the Arabs were placed under military control. The restrictions were gradually modified, and in 1966, the military government was abolished. Although Israeli Arabs vote, sit in the Knesset, serve in government offices, have their own schools and courts, and prosper materially, many face difficulties in adjusting to Israel's modern, Jewish, and Western-oriented society. The Arabs tend to live in separate sections of major cities. They speak Arabic, attend a separate school system, and generally do not serve in the army. The Arab and Jewish communities in Israel have few points of contact, and those that exist are not intimate; they are separate societies that generally continue to hold stereotypical images of each other that often are reinforced by the tensions and problems generated by the larger Arab-Israeli conflict. There is mutual suspicion and antagonism, and there is still a Jewish fear of the Arabs — a result of wars and terrorism.
   Israel is a Jewish state; nevertheless, it guarantees all of its citizens — in law and in practice—freedom of religion and conscience and considerable autonomy under the millet system derived from the Ottoman Empire. At the same time, there have been tensions and often open clashes between the religious and secular segments of the Jewish community and between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox denominations. At issue are the authority and power of the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox religious authorities and their desire to mould Israeli society in their preferred image. Debate has focused on the appropriate relationship between religion and the state, between the religious and secular authorities, and between the Orthodox-dominated religious establishment and non-Orthodox movements (i.e., Conservative and Reform/ Progressive Jewry). At the core of this debate is the contentious question of "Who is a Jew?" The issue has had philosophical, theological, political, and ideological overtones with specific practical dimensions in connection with immigration, marriage, divorce, inheritance, and conversion as well as in registration of identity cards and in the official collection of data and information. The question relates to the application of legislation, such as the Law of Return, the Nationality Law, and others passed by the Knesset. Despite ongoing efforts, no permanent solution to the enduring "Who Is a Jew" controversy has occurred.

Historical Dictionary of Israel. .


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