The modern state of Israel was founded by a United Nations resolution in 1948. However, the Jewish connection to the land of Israel goes back to biblical times, continuing through the periods of the First and Second Temples. While the Jewish people scattered all over the world following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, Israel continued to be a spiritual and cultural focal point.
Israel’s establishment as a modern Jewish state came about as a result of Zionism, a political and cultural movement whose aim was bringing the Jewish people to the land of Israel where they could rule themselves and be safe from anti-Semitism. In the decades before Israel’s founding, when the land was under Ottoman and then British rule, hundreds of thousands of Jews emigrated from other countries to settle there.
Created in the shadow of World War II and the near destruction of European Jewry, Israel’s population comprises a multitude of religious, ethnic, and racial backgrounds, including Jews from all over the world and Palestinian Arabs, also known as Arab Israelis, whose families have lived in the area for centuries.
Located on a relatively small spot of land 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 Mizrahi Jews (Sephardim trace their heritage to Spain and Portugal; Mizrahim are those Jews from Arab countries and their descendants).
Mass immigration of Sephardic Jews from Arab lands in the 1950s and 60s made Sephardim/Mizrahim a majority of the population, but Ashkenazim continue to dominate positions of power in the Israeli establishment, and many Sephardim and Mizrahim 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 many 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. A wave of stabbings that some people referred to as the third intifada began in the fall of 2015, but had mostly subsided by the spring of 2016. In addition, since before Israel’s founding, different Palestinian groups and individuals have launched numerous deadly terrorist attacks against Israelis, including a wave of suicide bombings in the mid 1990s.
In 2005, Israel unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza Strip. Soon after, the Islamic terrorist group Hamas came to power. Since Hamas’ ascent, Israel has experienced repeated rocket attacks from Gaza — and has discovered multiple tunnels that Palestinians there have built in an effort to launch cross-border terrorist attacks. Israel maintains a naval blockade of Gaza and has fought two wars there, most recently in the summer of 2014. Both ended in cease-fires, rather than a victory for either side.
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. Many also resent the fact that most ultra-Orthodox Jews are exempted from military service, something that is mandatory for other Jewish Israelis.
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.
Israel has fought several wars with its Arab neighbors, but signed a peace agreement with Egypt in 1979 and one with Jordan in 1994. 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.
In the 21st century, Israel has earned a reputation as a leader in the high-tech world. Many tech startups, including a number of cyber-security firms, are based in Israel, and the country is also considered a leader in the fields of medical research and medical technology. Its film and television industries have also gained international attention in recent years, with several TV shows adapted into American programs or broadcast internationally via streaming services like Netflix. Israeli cuisine, with its mix of cultural influences and use of fresh Mediterranean produce, has also become popular in many Western countries. Thanks in large part to its rich history and numerous biblical and other archaeological sites, Israel enjoys a vibrant tourism industry. It has welcomed approximately 3 million tourists annually in recent years, although the number fluctuates significantly depending on the political situation and the level of violence and terrorism.
Pronounced: k’NESS-et, Origin: Hebrew, Israel’s parliament, comprising 120 seats.
Pronounced: seh-FAR-dik, Origin: Hebrew, describing Jews descending from the Jews of Spain.