Israeli Society & Religious Issues

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.

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