The Other Side of Israel

The Other Side of Israel

© David Burton 2013

The People of Israel

     Most of what we see and hear about Israel has to do with tourism, the on-going hostility of Israel’s Arab/Muslim neighbors, the ongoing war with Gaza and its Hamas rulers, the fruitless “2-state peace negotiations” with the Fatah rulers of the West Bank, Israel’s vibrant technology and economy, the continuing threat of annihilation by Iran’s theocratic government, and the call to Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) Israel by anti-Semites around the globe. But perhaps the most important feature of Israel is the historical and religious significance it holds for three of the world’s major religions.

     Yet, there is another side to Israel that is perhaps of equal or greater importance than those features listed above. This other side of Israel is the diverse, often contentious, yet mostly united people of this very unique Mid-East nation. Summarized in what follows is my attempt to outline some of the characteristics of this other side of Israel. Much of what follows is derived from the references listed, while some comes from personal observations obtained over some ½-dozen annual trips to the country as a tourist/volunteer.

     To some, Israel appears to be one more-or-less semi-homogeneous Jewish nation. In actuality, this is a gross misconception. Israel is composed of a number of disparate elements that sometimes work together and sometimes are in violent conflict with each other. Other countries in the Middle-East with similar internal divisions either suffer from constant brutal conflict that claims tens of thousands of lives, or else give the false appearance of unity only when under the thumb of ruthless, intolerant and despotic regimes. In the case of Israel, the nation functions as the only open democracy in the region – and, despite the occasional appearances of complete chaos, it functions extremely well.


     Israel is home to a widely diverse population from many ethnic, religious, cultural and social backgrounds. Also, relative to its population, Israel is the largest immigrant-absorbing nation on earth. Immigrants come in search of democracy, religious freedom, and economic opportunity.[1] Around 7 million people live there today, including approximately 5-1/2 million Jews and 1-1/4 million Arabs.

     Israeli society encompasses a wide spectrum of lifestyles, ranging from religious to secular, from modern to traditional, from urban to rural, and from communal to individual.

     Jews have lived in the land of Israel for nearly 4,000 years, going back to the period of the Biblical patriarchs (c.1900 B.C.). Over that span of time, there has been a continuous Jewish presence in the land of Israel. It has always been the aspiration of the Jewish people to live there and to practice the world's first monotheistic religion in peace. The concluding words of Israel's national anthem, Ha Tikvah (“The Hope”) summarize that aim: “The hope of 2000 years:/ To live as a free people/ In our own land/ The land of Zion and Jerusalem.”

     Following the expulsion of most of the Hebrew people from Israel by Rome some 2,000 years ago, Jews were dispersed to other countries throughout the world, where they established many large Jewish communities – “the Jewish Diaspora”. In this Diaspora, these refugees from the land of Israel attempted - unfortunately too often without success - to live in peace with the peoples of their host countries and to continue to practice their religion.

     The biblical concept of the “ingathering of the exiles” always persisted. At the end of the 19th century, this concept was given a modern political manifestation in the form of Zionism. In 1948, the United Nations approved statehood once again for the Jewish people.

     In 1950 the State of Israel enacted the “Law of Return”, which allows every Jew the right to return to Israel and, upon entry, to automatically become an Israeli citizen. Members of other faith communities may apply for Israeli citizenship as they would in any other country. By law and biblical injunction, all Israeli citizens enjoy the same rights.

     During the first 4 years of statehood, mass immigration doubled Israel’s Jewish population from 650,000 to about 1.3 million. A majority at that time was comprised of the established Sephardic community, veteran Ashkenazi settlers, and newer Holocaust survivors. A large number of recent Oriental Jewish immigrants from the Islamic countries of North Africa and the Middle East formed the minority. Jews from Europe constituted the Ashkenazi community while Jews from North Africa and the Middle-East comprised the Sephardic community.

     The Ashkenazi Jews from Europe assumed political control of the new nation while the Sepharidic Jews were placed in a lower social strata. In the 1950s, the 2 groups coexisted virtually without social or cultural interaction. The Jews of North African and Middle Eastern backgrounds finally expressed their frustration and alienation in anti-government protests which in the 60s and 70s became demands for greater political participation, compensatory allocations of resources and affirmative action to help close the gap between them and the dominant mainstream Ashkenazis.

     In 1984 a Sephardi-Orthodox religious political party, Shas was founded. Its influence grew rapidly and it soon became Israel’s third-largest political party, holding the balance of power in a country where no political party has ever achieved an outright majority. By the end of the 1980s, the protest movements had become marginal, marriages between people of Sephardi and Ashkenazi origin became more common, and the inter-ethnic social gap had narrowed.

     During the 1980s and 1990s Israel continued to receive new immigrants. The largest wave was comprised of Jews from the various communities of the former Soviet Union. Since 1989, over one million Russians have settled in the country, among them many highly-educated professionals, well-known scientists and acclaimed artists and musicians.

     The 1980s and 90s also witnessed the arrival of some 50,000 Ethiopian Jewish immigrants in two massive airlifts. They are believed to have been living in Ethiopia since the time of King Solomon. These Ethiopian Jews are readily distinguished from their Ashkenazi and Sephardic brethren by the color of their skin – These Ethopian Jews are black-skinned pople.

     Approximately 23% of Israel's population is non-Jewish. Although often defined collectively as Arab citizens of Israel because of the linguistic commonality of many of these people, this group includes a number of different communities, each with distinct characteristics. Some are not even of Arab background.

     Almost one million mainly Sunni Muslims reside in small towns and villages in Israel, over half in the north of the country. An estimated 170,000 Muslims, belonging to some 30 tribes, live scattered over a wide area in the south. Formerly nomadic shepherds, Bedouin Arabs are currently in transition from a tribal social framework to a permanently settled society and are gradually entering Israel's labor force. Many voluntarily serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

     About 113,000 Christian Arabs live in urban areas of Israel including Nazareth, Shfar'am and Haifa. The majority are affiliated with the Greek Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches.

     Some 106,000 Arabic-speakers living in 22 villages in northern Israel constitute a separate cultural, social and religious community called the Druze. The Druze religion calls for complete loyalty to the government of the country in which they reside. Many Druze therefore serve in the IDF.

     Concentrated in two villages in northern Israel are about 4,000 Circassians who are Sunni Muslims. They share neither the Arab origin nor the cultural background of the larger Muslim community of Israel. While the Circassians maintain a distinct ethnic identity, they still participate in Israel's economic and national affairs without assimilating either into Jewish society or into the Muslim community.[2]

     Israel-haters have accused the nation of being racist and of practicing Apartheid. Yes, Israel has ethnic and racial tensions. But, these are minor and truly irrelevant in comparison to the freedoms, rights and opportunities afforded to all of Israel’s citizens and residents. Compared to other countries in the region, and, in fact, to most other nations throughout the world, Israel is an ethnic, religious and racial utopian melting pot. One illustration of this fact is that “one of Israel’s top football (soccer) clubs, Bnei Sachnin, – a small Arab village in the Galilee - won the Israel Cup in 2004 and participated in the UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) Tournament. The team is made up mostly of Israeli Arabs but also includes a number of Africans ‘on loan’ and a manager, as well as several key players, who are Jewish. No other country in the world has a national team in which Whites, Blacks, Arabs, Jews, Christians, Muslims are all represented. If any other country had such a team, it would undoubtedly be the subject of abundant praise by the international media. [Emphasis mine] (Ref. 3)

Non-Jewish Israelis


     In what follows, I have chosen to use “Druze” and “Bedouin” spellings for these communities. The spellings “Druse” and “Beduin” are often used as well.

     “The topic of the Arab sector in Israel is politically charged and represents contradicting narratives – one Jewish, the other Arab. Just as there are differences of opinion within the Jewish sector, there are variances in the Arab sector, and attitudes toward the Jewish sector, the state and its institutions can often even represent polar opposites.
     “To start with, there is no such thing in Israel as one ‘Arab sector’; rather, there are several Middle Eastern populations, some of which are not Arab, and they differ from one another in religion, culture, ethnic origin and historical background. Parenthetically, it is debatable whether there is one cohesive Jewish sector in Israel. Therefore, when we use the terms ‘the Arab sector’ and ‘the Jewish sector,’ it will be only for the sake of simplicity.
     “Within the Arab sector {in Israel}, there are a number of ethnic groups that differ from each other in language, history and culture: Arabs, Africans, Armenians, Circassians and Bosnians. These groups usually do not mingle, and live in separate villages or in separate neighborhoods where a particular family predominates. For example, the Circassians in Israel are the descendants of people who came from the Caucasus to serve as officers in the Ottoman army. They live in two villages in the Galilee – Kafr Kama and Rehaniya – and despite their being Muslim, the young people do not usually marry Arabs.
     “The Africans are mainly from Sudan. Some of them live as a large group in Jisr e-Zarka and some live in family groups within Bedouin settlements in the South. They are called ‘Abid,’ from the Arabic word for ‘slaves.’ The Bosnians live in family groups in Arab villages.
     “The Armenians came mainly to escape the persecution that they suffered in Turkey in the days of World War I, which culminated in the Armenian genocide of 1915.
     “In general, it can be said that the Arab sector is divided culturally into three main groups: urban, rural and Bedouin. Each group has its own cultural characteristics: lifestyle, status of a given clan, education, occupation, level of income, number of children, and matters connected to women – for example, polygamy, age of marriage, matchmaking or dating customs, and dress.
     “The residents of cities – and to a great extent also the villagers – see the Bedouin as primitive, while the Bedouin see themselves as the only genuine Arabs; in their opinion, the villagers and city folk have lost their Arab character. The Arabic language expresses this matter well: The meaning of the word ‘Arabi’ is ‘Bedouin,’ and some of the Bedouin tribes are called ‘Arab’ – for example, Arab al-Heib and Arab al-Shibli in the North.
     “The Bedouin of the Negev classify themselves according to the color of their skin, into hamar (red) and sud (black).
     “Bedouin would never marry their daughters to a man darker than she is, because they do not want their grandchildren to be dark-skinned. Racist? Perhaps.
     “Another division that exists in the Negev is between tribes that have a Bedouin origin, and tribes whose livelihood is agriculture (fellahin), who have low status. A large tribe has a higher standing than a small tribe.
     “The Arab sector in Israel is divided into Muslims, Christians, Druze and Alawites. The Christians are subdivided into several sects – Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant – and among the Muslims, there is a distinct sect of Sufis, who have a significant presence in Baka al-Gharbiya. There is also a Salafi movement in the country. The Islamist movement is organized along the lines of the Muslim Brotherhood.
     “The religion of the Druze is different from Islam, and Muslims consider the Druze heretics. Because of this, the Druze are supposed to keep their religion secret, even from each other, and therefore most are juhal (ignorant, of religious matters). Only a small number of the elder men are aukal (knowledgeable in matters of religion). In the modern age, there have been a number of books published about the Druze religion.
     “The Alawites in Israel live in the village of Ghajar, in the foothills of Mount Hermon, and some live over the border in Lebanon. They are also considered heretics in Islam, and their religion is a blend (syncretism) of Shi’ite Islam, Eastern Christianity and ancient religions that existed in the Middle East thousands of years ago. Their principal concentration is in the mountains of al-Ansariya in northwest Syria, although some are in Lebanon and some migrated southward and settled in Ghajar.
     “The meaning of the word “Ghajar” in Arabic is “Gypsy,” meaning foreign nomads with a different religion. In Syria, the Alawites have ruled since 1966. The Assad family is part of this heretical Islamic sect, and this is the reason for the Muslim objection to their rule. According to Islam, not only do they not have the right to rule, being a minority, but there is significant doubt as to whether they even have the right to live, being idol worshipers. {Theologically, Alawites claim to be Twelver Shiites, but traditionally they have been designated as “extremists – ghulat” and outside the bounds of Islam by the Muslim mainstream for their deification of Ali ibn Abi Talib or Ali, who was the cousin and son-in-law of the Islamic prophet Muhammad.}
     “Some parts of the Arab sector are communities that have lived in the land now called the State of Israel for hundreds of years, but a significant part is the offspring of immigrants who migrated here mainly in the first half of the 20th century – especially after 1882, when Petah Tikva was established. {The reason for this influx was the economic opportunities afforded by the arrival of the Jews escaping from the pogroms of Russia and Eastern Europe and the beginning of the Zionist development of Palestine from a land of desolation to one promising to once more be the land of milk and honey.}
     “Many people from neighboring lands migrated here at that time to work in the Jewish farming communities.
     “Many migrated from Egypt even earlier, to escape being impressed into forced labor as the Suez Canal was being dug. This is how the al-Masri, Masarwa and Fiumi families, as well as many others, came {to Israel}, with names testifying to their Egyptian source. Other families have Jordanian names (Zarkawi and Karaki, for example), Syrian ones (al-Hourani, Halabi), Lebanese (Surani, Sidawi, Trabulsi) and Iraqi (al-Iraqi).
     “The Arabic dialect that most of the Bedouin in the Negev speak is a Saudi-Jordanian dialect, and because of their familial ties to tribes living in Jordan, when the Bedouin become involved in matters of blood-vengeance, they escape to family members in Jordan.
     “The connection between Arab families in Israel and groups in neighboring countries should not be surprising, because until 1948 the borders of Israel were not hermetically sealed, and many Arabs of “Sham” (Greater Syria) wandered almost totally unimpeded, following their flocks and the expanding employment opportunities.
     “The division between traditional and modern outlooks exists in each group, meaning that in each group there is a subdivision: those who are more connected to the tradition of the group and those who are less connected. Among the young, one sees more openness and less adherence to group tradition, and it can be assumed that the youth of the next generation will generally adhere even less to the group’s traditions. This is obvious among the Bedouin groups, because among the young there are more than a few who challenge the Bedouin’s socially accepted ways.
     Education also plays an important role in the changing attitude toward tradition, because Arab academics are usually less linked to social tradition and the framework of the clan, and live more within the framework of nuclear families (father, mother and children). They also tend to move to more open areas, such as mixed cities like Acre, Ramle and Lod, and even to Jewish cities such as Beersheba, Karmiel and Upper Nazareth, where they adopt a modern lifestyle.
     “The shift to the city is also connected to a change in the source of livelihood. There are more {opportunities} in the independent professions and fewer in agriculture – a change due partly to the confiscation of the lands of absentees after the War of Independence.
     “Beyond the religious dividing line that differentiates Jews and non-Jews, another basic division exists between the country’s Jewish and Arab sectors in their general approach to the state.
     “For most of the groups within the Jewish sector, the State of Israel fulfills two roles. One is the political and governmental embodiment of the Jews’ aspirations to return to themselves and to regain the independence and sovereignty over the land of their fathers that was stolen from them after the Second Temple’s destruction.
     “The symbols of the state are Jewish: the national anthem, which includes the words “the Jewish soul yearns”; the flag, which represents the prayer shawl; the Star of David; and the seven-branched menorah. Hebrew is the official language of the state, and on Jewish holidays, the governmental institutions are closed.
     “The second role of the state in the eyes of most Jews is functional: to provide its citizens with security, employment, livelihood, health, education, roads, bridges and social services.
     “For the Arab sector, the first role does not exist. The State of Israel is not the embodiment of their diplomatic and political dreams. The national anthem is not their hymn, the symbols of the state are not their symbols, and {Israel’s} Independence Day is their Nakba (disaster). The second role as well, the functional, is only partly fulfilled in matters of education, planning, roads and infrastructure. One may argue about the causes and reasons, but the facts are clear: How many Arab members are there on government companies’ boards of directors? How many Arab judges are there in the High Court? What is the proportion of Arabs in the academic staff of universities? That said, one cannot ignore the phenomenon of reverse discrimination, either. Laws of planning and building that are observed almost fully within the Jewish sector are very loosely observed within the Arab sector, especially in the Bedouin sector in the Negev. How many thousands of buildings have gone up in the Negev without building permits, on land that does not belong to Bedouin? How is it that there are no sidewalks in Umm el-Fahm, and the distance between the buildings is about the width of the cars? Another example of reverse discrimination exists in the area of marriage. If a Jew dares to marry a woman before he has completed the process of divorce from his present wife, he will find himself behind bars. But if an Arab marries a second, third or fourth wife, the state pays a monthly children’s allowance for each wife separately and without asking too many questions.
     {During my annual visit to Israel this past winter,I passed a number of Arab villages in which there were piles of construction rubble, abandoned buildings, trash and uncompleted new buildings. The shabbiness of these Arab villages contrasted sharply with the various Jewish communities in Israel, where no such dilapidation and shabbiness could be seen. I asked our guide what was the cause of the poor condition of these Arab villages. His explanation was that in Arab villages there was a reluctance on the part of the Arab-run municipal governments to collect taxes – it is viewed as improper for one Arab to collect taxes from another Arab. As a result these Arab municipalities don’t have the financial resources to clean up their environment. Only a small percentage of Arab residents of these Arab villages pay their municipal taxes. This contrasts sharply with the Jewish communities where nearly all residents pay their full share of municipal taxes.}
     “Another case of discrimination in favor of Arabs exists in the area of housing. About 90 percent of the Jewish sector lives in apartments, and about 10% in private houses. In the Arab sector the picture is the reverse.
     “But the characteristic that most unites the country’s Arab sector is the environment in which they live. All the Arabs {outside of Israel} live in one of two situations: in dictatorships in their homeland, or in dictatorships in their diaspora. There is almost no Arab community that has lived in its homeland for dozens of years in a truly democratic state. {In marked contrast,}The Arab citizens of Israel are the only Arab group that lives on its land (especially if you ignore the lands from which they originated) {under} a democratic regime that honors human rights {along with religious and} political freedoms. This is the reason Arabs outside Israel envy Israel’s Arab citizens and call them ‘Arab al-Zibda’ – ‘butter Arabs.’” [Emphasis mine] (Ref. 4)

     Changes are occurring in some sectors of the Israeli-Arab community, where recognition of the right of Israel to exist is being accepted, as is the obligation to serve in the armed forces of the country in which you are a citizen.

     ”The Arab parties in the Knesset {Israeli parliament} oppose Arabs serving in the Israeli Defense Forces or in civilian service, and some of their members do not want Israel to remain a Jewish state. {A} new party, though, advocates allegiance to Israel as a Jewish state and participation in military or national service alongside most Jewish Israelis.” (Ref. 5)

     An Arab-Israeli recently announced that he is founding a Christian-Arab political party that will recognize Israel as a Jewish state. The party name, Brit Hachadasha, in Hebrew means both ‘new allies’ and ‘children of the New Testament.’ The party will urge Christian-Arab Israelis to serve in the army or perform civilian national service. Today, approximately 10% of Israeli’s Arab citizens are Christians.[5]

     According to the party’s founder, “At least in Israel, those who stayed here have been given the right to be a citizen and to integrate. But Israel’s first demand, which I support – and which needs to be understood – is that Israel is the home of the Jewish people.” (Ref. 5)

     In still one more instance of support for the Jewish state, a young Israeli-Arab Christian woman created a stir recently when she posted a strong statement in support of Israel on Facebook. She stated: “I am an Arabic-speaking Christian, but I am not an Arab. I ask, with all due respect, that you not say in the name of Christians that ‘we are Palestinians.’ Hear me, we are not Palestinians and we don’t care about them. We are Israeli Christians, covered in blue and white in our hearts and souls. … We simply love blue and white. And we as Christians will enlist in the IDF and will serve the state…‘” (Ref. 5)

Ahmadiyyat Muslims

     “Haifa is Israel's third largest city, the capital of northern Israel and gateway to the Galilee, and home to over a quarter of a million residents. Its outstanding record of coexistence among its diverse population of Jews, Christians, Muslims, Bahá'is, Druze and Ahmadis is a model of cultural and religious pluralism and harmony.” (Ref. 6)

     The Ahmadiyyat Muslims arrived in the British Mandate of Palestine in 1927 and found a home in the suburb, then a village, of Kababir in Haifa in 1928. Rather than following the clerical literature of Islam, they adhere only to the text of the Quran and to the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad. They encourage self-learning and the idea of personal experience with God. The Ahmadis are a minority in Israel and in the world and have been persecuted in many countries, mainly Islamic countries that have deemed the Ahmadis as heretic. Israel, however, is perhaps the only nation in the Middle East that guarantees their safety to practice their religion and, therefore, the community has been able to expand. They have built the Mahmood Mosque and an adjoining community center in the Kababir section of Haifa. The relations between the Ahmadiyyat Muslims and the Jews has been excellent, which cannot be said of their relations with the rest of the Muslim world.[7]

     I have personally visited the Kababir neighborhood in Haifa, visited the Mahmood Mosque and its adjoining Muslim community center, and talked with one of the Ahmadi religious leaders. I can attest to the fact that Haifa Ahmadis are fully integrated into Israeli society, as are nearly all the Arabs and Muslims in Haifa.


     The members of the Druze community in Israel are staunch supporters of the Jewish state. In Israel’s several wars with its Arab neighbors, a disproportionate number of Druze have fallen in defense of Israel. The bond between Jewish and Druze soldiers is commonly known by the term "a covenant of blood".

     The Druze are of Arab descent, but they do not practice the Islamic religion. The Druze religion was established at the beginning of the 11th century but only in the 19th century were they recognized as an independent congregation by the Ottoman regime. Their culture is Arab and their language Arabic, but they opted against mainstream Arab nationalism in 1948 and have since served (first as volunteers, later within the draft system) in the Israel Defense Forces and the Border Police.[8]

     The Druze are a religious minority in Israel. In 2010, there were 125,300 Druze living in the country,[9] – many in and around the Druze towns of Isfiya and Daliyat al-Karmel near Haifa. In 1957, the Israeli government designated the Druze as a distinct ethnic community at the request of its communal leaders. The Druze are Arabic-speaking Citizens of Israel and they serve in the IDF. Members of the community have attained top positions in Israeli politics and public service. Many Druze of college age attend the nearby Haifa University and Technion, and there are members of the faculties at these universities that are Druze.

     The Druze are very communal or clannish. Intermarriage outsize the Druze religion is forbidden. The Druze are, however, very hospitable to outsiders. I spent several very pleasant hours in Isfiya, learning about the Druze people and their religion and enjoying a delectable strictly kosher meal in the home of a Druze family.

     The Druze community reveres Jethro, the non-Jewish father-in-law of Moses. It has been claimed that the Druze are actually descendants of Jethro. According to the biblical narrative, Jethro joined and assisted the Israelites in the desert during the Exodus from Egypt, accepted monotheism, but ultimately rejoined his own people. In fact, the tomb of Jethro near Tiberias in Israel is the most important religious site for the Druze community.

     The relationship between Israeli Jews and Druze since Israel's independence in 1948 is both emotional and practical, partly because of the considerable number of Israeli Druze soldiers that have fallen in defense of Israel during the country’s many wars with its Arab neighbors.

     Many Druze-Israelis have achieved prominent status in Israel. A Druze politician, Majalli Wahabi, served as the acting President of Israel in February 2007.[10] Five Druze lawmakers were elected to serve in the 18th Knesset, a disproportionately large number considering their population.[9] Reda Mansour a Druze poet, historian and diplomat, explained: "We are the only non-Jewish minority that is drafted into the military, and we have an even higher percentage in the combat units and as officers than the Jewish members themselves. So we are considered a very nationalistic, patriotic community."[10]

     In 1973, the Zionist Druze Circle, a group whose aim was to encourage the Druze to support the state of Israel fully and unreservedly was founded.[10]

     In 2007, the group’s founder stated that “‘The state of Israel is a Jewish state as well as a democratic state that espouses equality and elections. . ., the fate of Druze and Circassians in Israel is intertwined with that of the state. This is a blood pact, and a pact of the living. We are unwilling to support a substantial alteration to the nature of this state, to which we tied our destinies prior to its establishment’ he said. As of 2005 there were 7,000 registered members in the Druze Zionist movement. In 2009, the movement held a Druze Zionist youth conference with 1,700 participants.
     “In a survey conducted in 2008, {a report from} the Tel Aviv University found that more than 94% of Druze youth classified themselves as ‘Druze-Israelis’ in the religious and national context.
     “On 30 June 2011, {The Israeli newspaper} Haaretz reported that a growing number of Israeli Druze were joining elite units of the military, leaving the official Druze battalion, Herev, understaffed.” (Ref. 10) In other words, the Druze youth were opting to be integrated into elite IDF units, rather than serving in an all-Druze IDF battalion.

     The IDF Sword Battalion (Hebrew: Gdud Herev), formerly known as Unit 300 and as the IDF Minorities Unit, is an Arabic-speaking unit of the IDF. Non-Jewish minorities also serve in the Druze Reconnaissance Unit and the Bedouin Trackers Unit. In 1987, “Unit 300" was officially renamed the ‘Sword Battalion.”[11]

     The Minorities Unit was formed in the early summer of 1948 by incorporating a unit of Druze defectors from the Arab Liberation Army and small numbers of Bedouins and Circassians. It has fought in every war since. Today, most members of the unit are Druze, but there are also Bedouins, Circassians and Christian and Muslim Arabs. The unit has produced several generals. The Minorities Unit has a small elite Sayeret special forces branch.[11]

     Today, Druze and Circassian men are subject to mandatory conscription into the IDF. In the mid-1950s, the Druze leadership appealed to David Ben-Gurion, then Minister of Defense, to draft Druze men on the same basis as Jews. The State Defense Act of 1949, which called for drafting all individuals in the country, allowed the minister to issue exemptions for certain groups. The Druze asked that their exemption be canceled. Originally, they served in the framework of a special unit. Since the 1980s, Druze soldiers have joined regular combat units, attaining high ranks and commendations for distinguished service. 83% of Druze boys serve in the IDF and 369 Druze soldiers have been killed in combat operations since 1948.[11]

     There are four Druze villages on the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria and later formally incorporated into the State of Israel. In the late 1970s, the Israeli government offered citizenship to all non-Israelis living in the Golan, which would entitle them to an Israeli driver's license and enable them to travel freely in Israel. Most Druze in the region, however, continue to regard themselves as Syrian citizens, with less than 10% having accepted Israeli citizenship. As Israel does not recognize the Syrian citizenship of the Golan Heights Druze, they are defined in Israeli records as "residents of the Golan Heights." Golan Heights Druze are not drafted by the IDF. In 2012, young Druze applied for Israeli citizenship in much larger numbers than in previous years because of the ongoing Syrian civil war. Also, because of bloodshed in Syria, many Golan Heights Druze who were attending schools in Damascus have now switched to schools in Israel. Public support for the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad has historically been high among Golan Druze and Assad's government had secured agreements with the Israeli government to permit Golan Druze to conduct trade across the border with Syria.[10]


     Israeli Bedouins have a schizophrenic relationship with Israel. These Bedouin Arabs are divided in their views of Israel, with some acting as loyal citizens of the state, while others side with Israel’s enemies in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

     “Bedouin citizens of the State of Israel hold divergent views about the Israeli state. Some Bedouin Israelis are very loyal to the Jewish state. These Bedouin proudly serve in the IDF as Israeli Arab soldiers, viewing it to be a family tradition, and some of them even work for the Israeli government in senior level positions. They love the vibrant Israeli democracy and view Israel to be a country that respects their rights. However, other Israeli Bedouins, especially the ones living in unrecognized villages in Southern Israel, support the Palestinians and engage in anti-Israel activism.” (Ref. 12)

     "We're not big Zionists, but we are proud Israelis." This is how a Bedouin, who has a master's degree in Political Science from Tel Aviv University and serves in Israel’s Foreign Service, describes his own people, the Bedouin. "The Bedouin are more tribal than nationalistic," he said. It’s that deeply ingrained tribal culture that has allowed the Bedouin to survive centuries of nomadic existence, but it’s also the trait that presents barriers to their continued wellbeing in modern Israel.[13]

     With a birth rate amongst the highest in the world, the Israeli Bedouin population has grown tenfold since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Today Bedouins comprise almost 3% of the population of Israel, but in the Negev desert region, Bedouins make up 25% of the residents.[13]

     Most of the Bedouin in the Negev hail from a region in the north of the Arabian peninsula from where they migrated between the 14th and 18th centuries, making them relatively recent arrivals in Israel. Historically, the Bedouin have been nomadic or semi-nomadic tribes, traveling from one grazing pasture to another. The Bedouin organize themselves around clans of extended family members and it’s not unusual for a Bedouin man to father several dozen children with different wives.[13]

     “In 1948, when Egyptian and Saudi Arabian forces invaded Israel, the Negev was turned into a battleground. Some 90,000 Bedouin fled to Egypt or Jordan, and by the end of 1948, only 11,000 remained in the deserts of southern Israel. The newly independent Jewish state saw the Negev as a potential area for growth and development, and gave little thought to the Bedouin living there. Since the Negev constitutes 60% of Israel’s total land mass, every Israeli government since 1948 has tried to preserve Negev land for future development, and ignored Bedouin claims to the area. Despite this core land conflict, Israel was the first body to take any interest at all in the Bedouin people, granting them citizenship, and providing them education, medical care, and access to the social benefits enjoyed by every Israeli citizen since the implementation of the National Insurance Law of 1953. Nevertheless, Israel’s government policy has “never been geared to Bedouin needs or desires”. (Ref. 13)

     In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Israeli government began to push the Bedouin to settle in seven towns in the northern Negev. Israel’s goal was to make it easier to provide basic services and modernize the population, as well as to try to prevent the Bedouin from spreading out over the Negev, and blocking development of new Jewish communities. Today, around half the Bedouin people of the Negev live in these towns, which were built without careful planning or input from Bedouin leaders. The remaining 50 percent prefer to continue to live a traditional nomadic lifestyle in 45 unrecognized villages, which are not hooked up to the national electric, sewage, or water systems. Today, many Israeli politicians and intelligence officials regard the Bedouin with alarm, as their towns have become breeding grounds for crime as well as rising Islamic fundamentalism. [13]

     Traditionally Islam was never a prevalent factor in Bedouin life since Islam stresses that one’s number one allegiance should be to Allah, whereas Bedouin primary allegiance has always been to the tribe. It’s only in recent years that this has begun to change, as radical Islamists have seen in the rapidly growing Bedouin population an opportunity to expand their reach within Israel’s borders.

     Many Israeli demographers warn that the "Bedouin problem" in the Negev threatens the stability of Israel's southern region. One expert predicts that, "Within five years, the next intifada will break out in the Negev." He lays out a dire scenario, pointing to security problems, crime, drug dealing, and extortion of Negev business owners and farmers by Bedouin gangs.[13]

     Bedouin ties with their brethren in Jordan, Syria, and Egypt raise other security concerns for Israel, as Bedouin identity takes on a new and more radical twist. “There is no difference between the Bedouin and the Palestinians,” declared a Bedouin leader in the Negev in 2007, expressing sentiments not necessarily shared by Bedouin from the Galilee.[13]

     As noted, one segment of the Bedouin population looks unfavorably upon the State of Israel. “Not too long ago, thousands of Israeli Bedouins marched through the city of Be’ersheva, waving PLO flags and banners of the Israeli Islamic Movement, while chanting, ‘With our blood and our spirit we will redeem the Negev.’ These Israeli Bedouin were protesting a decision by the Israeli government to settle them in permanent homes as part of a compromise agreement that recognizes Bedouin legal rights in over 60 percent of the land in the Negev that they have squatted on illegally {for decades, if not centuries}.
     “For these Bedouin, this compromise deal was not good enough because they believe the Negev which makes up 66% of the State of Israel, belongs to the Palestinians and not the Jewish people, despite the ancient Jewish connection and presence in the Negev. These Southern Israeli Bedouin are cooperating with anti-Israel forces who seek to have the Negev become Palestinian, thus connecting Gaza to Judea and Samaria, as well as Egypt.” (Ref. 12)

     One of the most sensitive issues for the Bedouin minority is army service. Israeli Arabs are exempt from the mandatory army service, but since the beginning of the state, a significant number of Bedouin have volunteered to serve in Israel’s defense forces. In 1946, a Bedouin tribal leader sent some of his men to fight alongside the Jewish people in their struggle for independence. Ever since that date, there has been a Bedouin presence in the Israeli Army, which continues to grow by the year. Bedouins mainly do tracking or scouting activities in the IDF, with the Israeli Army’s Desert Reconnaissance Unit consisting entirely of Bedouin soldiers, although Bedouins can be found serving Israel in other capacities. There is even a memorial for Bedouins who have died fighting for the State of Israel in the Galilee.[12]

     An IDF Bedouin Major on the Golan Heights explained his family tradition of serving the State of Israel: “It’s a legacy – it’s something that has been passed on from generation to generation in my family. My father and his father served in the army too.” He claimed, “I will do whatever is required from me to do the job with the full faith in the service of the Israeli state. Yes, I have fought against Muslims in Gaza. And I would fight again if I had to. Israeli Muslims who don’t serve in the IDF should be ashamed for not serving their country.” [12]

     One IDF medic whose father is Bedouin, stated, “I think we can call ourselves a patriotic family. Almost all of us have served in the IDF, and some of us are career soldiers. When a family member decides not to join the IDF, the family isn’t happy.” Other Bedouins who have served in the IDF have now achieved prominent positions within the State of Israel.[ 12]

     “Ismail Khaldi, who started out his career in the IDF, the Israeli Police, and at the Israeli Defense Ministry, is now working for the Israeli Foreign Ministry in London. Previously, he was Israel’s Deputy Consul General in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. Aetef Karinaoui, a Bedouin Israeli Knesset candidate who has been politically active, also served proudly in the IDF and runs an organization called Social Equality and National Service in the Arab Sector, which seeks to encourage all Israeli Arabs to serve the State of Israel.” (Ref. 12)

     As citizens, Bedouins are eligible for benefits from Israel’s quasi-welfare state. In Rahat, 79% of its residents receive welfare payments, mostly unemployment benefits. Israel encourages large families and awards an allowance for every child born to an Israeli citizen. These grants are very common in Rahat, where 65% of the population is under 18. Meanwhile, hundreds of Israeli citizens are active “in many non-governmental groups that work to ensure that the challenges of the Bedouin do not go unnoticed. They’re Arabs and Jews, dedicated to creating a better future for their fellow Israeli citizens.” (Ref. 13)

     “They {Bedouins serving in the IDF} spend their waking hours on the front line, protecting sovereign Israel and West Bank settlements from terrorist infiltrators. And then some go home to unrecognized villages, slated for destruction.” (Ref. 14) Such is part of the dilemma facing Israel’s Bedouin community.

     Life in Israel for Arabs is not all roses. Still, life in the adjoining Arab countries is far less appealing to most Israeli Arabs and to many Bedouin Muslims. They are all free to leave Israel – few, if any, do. That says it all!


     Among the nations of the Mid-East, there are none, save the State of Israel, that have welcomed multitudes of people of diverse cultures, ethnicity and religion to live in their midst with complete freedom. Israel was born as a sanctuary for a people banished from their homeland, harassed in exile and ultimately subjected to mass murder. Other peoples that have undergone similar traumas have found a welcoming home in the Jewish state.

     One of the minorities that has found a welcoming environment in the Holy Land after being persecuted elsewhere is Israel’s small Muslim community of Circassians. “Some 1.5 million Circassians were killed in the Caucasian War of the mid-to-late 19th century, and another million — fully 90% of the population — were deported from their land in the Caucasus Mountains. Today, roughly 4,000 Circassians live in Israel, where they constitute the country’s only Sunni Muslim community that sends each of its sons {into Israel’s military}.
      - - -
     “Most Circassians took refuge in the lands of the Ottoman Empire. Today, 2 million of the world’s 7 million Circassians live in Turkey, with another 120,000 in Syria and 100,000 in Jordan. Circassians were Christian for 1,000 years, but from the 16th to the 19th century became Islamized under the influence of Crimean Tatars and Ottoman Turks.
     “In Israel, the community is spread across two villages in the green hills of the Galilee: Kfar Kama — 13 miles southwest of Tiberias, population 3,000; and Rehaniya — nine miles north of Safed, population 1,000. In the 16th century, the Circassians also founded Abu Ghosh, now a famous restaurant town located west of Jerusalem, but their progeny long ago adopted the Arabic language and culture of their surroundings.
     “In 2009, Circassians and Druze . . . staged a joint month-long protest against what they described as government discrimination, alleging that the two communities received less state funding than their Arab or Ultra-Orthodox counterparts. After protracted negotiations, the government last year {2011} allotted $170 million to shore up education, employment, housing and tourism for both populations.
     “The modern histories of Jews and Circassians in the Holy Land are intimately intertwined. Circassians first settled in Kfar Kama in 1876, Rehaniya in 1878. Four years later (and just 10 miles away), Zionist immigrants established Rosh Pina, the first Jewish agricultural settlement in the Galilee.
     “Circassians helped Jewish immigrants — many of them illegal — reach the Promised Land. ‘There was no Ministry of Immigrant Absorption back then. It was the Circassians who took in those immigrants’ . . .
     “’The major division in the Galilee at the time wasn’t between Arabs and Jews, but between sedentary people and Bedouin nomads. The nomads demanded protection money from all the sedentary communities . . . The Circassians, who were sedentary and themselves had come from outside, easily made ties with the Jewish settlers. Later, when the national conflict between Jews and Arabs began in the British Mandate period, the Circassians generally took neutral or pro-Jewish stances.
     “The Circassians identified with the Jews’ history of exile and dispersion, and cordial relations were also aided by the fact that many Jews and Circassians understood Russian.
     “Israel’s Circassians generally no longer speak Russian, but they continue to be remarkable polyglots: Most of their children are fluent in Hebrew and Arabic, learn English at school and their Circassian mother tongue at home. The language (also known as Adyghe) is written in Cyrillic script and is one of the world’s oldest and most difficult to learn.
     “Circassians have a reputation as a warrior people who, until succumbing to imperial Russia, had defended their strategically located homeland against invaders from Persians to Huns and Mongols. In the decades after Israel’s creation, male members of the community flocked to the defense establishment, particularly the border police. - - -
      - - -
     “- - - in recent years the community has been making its mark far beyond the defense arena. Today 80% of Circassian youth complete a postsecondary degree. Circassians are even making waves in international soccer: Kfar Kama’s Bibras Natcho is a midfielder on Israel’s national team. After four seasons with Hapoel Tel Aviv, he now plies his trade for Russia’s Rubin Kazan team.
     “Five years ago, Druze and Circassian authorities launched an ongoing marketing initiative to encourage Israelis to visit {their} communities’ bed-and-breakfasts, tour {their} landscapes and enjoy {their} culture.
     “The Circassians have prospered in the Jewish state. Still, for many, their first loyalty remains to their scattered, beleaguered nation, and some espouse an ideology that Israelis will find familiar: the aspiration for a national home in the land from which they were forcibly banished. (Ref. 15)

     The Circassians in Israel refers to the Adyghe community who live there. They tend to put an emphasis on the separation between their religion and their nationality. As is the case with the Israeli Druze living in the state of Israel, since 1958 all male Circassians (at their leader's request) must complete the Israeli mandatory military service upon reaching the age of majority, while females do not. Many Circassians in Israel are employed in the Israeli security forces, including in the Israeli Border Police, the Israeli Defense Forces, the Israeli Police and the Israeli Prison Service. The percentage of the army recruits among the Circassian community in Israel is particularly high.[16]

     The larger Circassian village of Kfar-Kama has Jewish settlements as neighbors. Children graduating from the village school continue their education at nearby Jewish schools. In the village school, the children are taught Hebrew, English and Circassian. The National Circassian Alphabet of Caucasus is used in teaching Circassian. Reyhaniye is closer to Arab settlements and children from this village are able to go to both Arab and Jewish schools. The Circassians living in these two villages communicate in their own Circassian language. Security, municipal and public service positions are wide open to the Circassians.[17]

     “The Circassian Law (Khabza) regulates the conduct of the Circassians and {they settle} all matters among themselves.” (Ref. 17)

The Baha’i

     “The Baha'i faith was founded in Iran in 1863 by Mirza Husayn ali Nuri (1817-92), known as Bahaullah or Baha Allah (Arabic for ‘splendor of God’). This religion's name comes from the Arabic word for splendor.
     “Baha Allah was imprisoned or exiled from 1852 to 1877. During that time he wrote the Kitab al-aqdas (Arabic for ‘The Most Holy Book’). After his death, his son, Abbas Effendi (1844-1921) or Abd al-Baha, was named the leader of the community and given the power to interpret his father's work. At the time of his father's death, the Baha'i were based in Iran and Acre in Palestine. Through Effendi's travels, he spread the faith around the world.
     “Since 1962, the Baha'i have been administered by the Universal House of Justice, which is elected every five years, and based in Haifa. . . . While their world headquarters is based in Israel, few Baha'is live there. In Iran, the Baha'is were the country's largest minority population and were treated with relative tolerance by the Shah's regime. Since the revolution, however, the Islamic government has persecuted them.
      - - -
     “The gold-domed Shrine of the Bab in Haifa was built in 1953 to contain the tomb of Siyyad Ali Muhammed – the Bab – a Muslim in Persia who proclaimed the coming of a ‘Promised One’ in 1844. He was executed in 1850 in Tabriz, Iran, at the age of 31 for heresy. His disciples who consider him to be a Martyr brought his remains to Haifa in 1909. The man the Bahais believe was the ‘Promised One’ – Baha Allah – is buried near Akko (Acre) where he died in 1892.”(Ref. 18)

     “The establishment of a Baha'i Department under the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the official acceptance of Baha'i marriage and the excusing of Baha'i children from school attendance on Baha'i Holy Days, the exemption of Baha'i properties from taxation and customs duties are all evidences of the official recognition accorded by the State of Israel to the World Centre of the Baha'i Faith.” (Ref. 19)

     There is a long-standing arrangement/agreement between the Baha'i World Center and the Israeli Government that no active teaching of the Faith will occur in Israel. They have agreed to not proselytize or to try to solicit conversions in Israel. Baha'u'llah himself instituted this policy more than 50 years before the establishment of the State of Israel.

     Two of the Baha'i's most important shrines are located in Israel: the Bahai Gardens in Akko (Acre) and the Baha'i Gardens in Haifa, which is comprised of 19 terraced gardens, leading up the slope of Mt. Carmel. This dramatic pathway leads visitors to the shrine, the highlight of which is the striking gold dome which can be seen for miles. Inside the shrine, prayer and meditation are encouraged, though no formal prayer service is held there.

     “The Shrine of the Bab {in Haifa} is one of the most recognized and visited landmarks in Israel. The peaceful gardens and impressive shrine bring in many pilgrims every year, as well as tourists of all faiths. Despite the importance of these Israeli landmarks in the Baha'i faith, there is no Baha'i community in Israel. The only Baha'i residents of Israel are the volunteer workers at the sites. Bahaullah left explicit instructions that spreading the faith and accepting converts was forbidden in a land where such preaching might be controversial. The absence of proselytizing, the tremendous income generated by the holy shrines, and the Baha'i edict of loyalty to whatever government is in power in their land have forged a very positive relationship between the Baha'i faith and the Israeli government.” (Ref. 20)


     Drive along one of the main streets in Tel Aviv early on a week-day morning, and you will see groups of Blacks standing or sitting on the sidewalks. These are Black refugees from Africa, mainly Sudan or Eritrea, who have entered Israel illegally. They are sometimes referred to as “illegals” by Israelis. They are hoping to be picked up by Israeli contractors and given work.

     The illegal arrival of a large number of “undocumented workers from Africa” into Israel began around 2010, mainly through the unfenced border between Israel and Egypt. According to the data of the Israeli Interior Ministry, the number of these illegal immigrants amounted to 26,635 people up to July 2010, and over 55,000 in January 2012.[21]

     Many of the undocumented workers are seeking asylum status under United Nations conventions. But only a fraction of all the undocumented workers are actually eligible for this status. Many of them, mostly citizens of Eritrea and Sudan, cannot be forcibly deported from Israel for fear of being killed. The Eritrea citizens (who, since 2009, form the majority of the undocumented workers in Israel) cannot be deported because they face death, persecution or enslavement if returned to Eritrea. They have therefore been defined as a "temporary humanitarian protection group". Despite the fact that a similar opinion does not exist in relation to citizens of Sudan, Israel does not deport them back to Egypt because of an all-too-real fear for their fate. Although the immigrants entered Israel from Egypt, Israel cannot deport them back to Egypt because the Egyptians refuse to promise that they will not deport the immigrants back to their countries of origin, where their fate would be, at best, uncertain. Accordingly, the Israeli authorities grant a temporary residence permit to the undocumented workers. Various authorities in Israel estimate that between 80–90 percent of the undocumented workers live primarily in two centers: Tel Aviv (more than 60% of the Illegal immigrants) and Eilat (more than 20%), with a few in Ashdod, Jerusalem and Arad.[21]

     Illegal immigration from Africa to Israel until recently has been relatively easy because Israel's land border with Egypt has been absent of obstacles. This has changed since 2013 when a fence was erected along the Israel-Egypt border in an effort to stop or slow down the flood of illegal immigrants. “While 9,570 citizens of various African countries entered Israel illegally in the first half of 2012, only 34 did the same in the first six months of 2013, after construction of the barrier was completed. It represents a decrease of over 99%.” (Ref. 21)

     In some of the illegal immigrants' countries of origin humanitarian crises exist. The UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) has declared Eritrea as a country in humanitarian crisis. In the Darfur region in western Sudan, a genocide has been taking place since 2003. As a result, many of its residents became refugees and fled to Egypt. Added to those were refugees from southern Sudan, where civil war took place between the predominantly Arab Muslim inhabitants of the north and the non-Arab, Christian and animist inhabitants of the south.[21]

     Upon their arrival in Israel, most illegal immigrants request refugee status. Israel does not review the status of the individual asylum seekers from Eritrea or Sudan, who constitute about 83% of the total coming through the Egyptian border and, instead, automatically grants them a "temporary protection group" status. This allows these illegal immigrants to gain a temporary residence permit within Israel. This also means that they are eligible for a work permit in Israel. In the past, Israel also granted automatic "temporary protection group" status to all citizens of the Ivory Coast and South Sudan.

     After 2005, as conditions in Africa worsened, there was a significant increase in the number of undocumented workers who crossed the Egyptian border. The numbers of undocumented workers detained was about 1,000 in 2006. In the first half of 2010, the illegal immigration rate had increased to over 8,000 in just the first 7 months. The total number of undocumented workers is clearly greater than these figures, because many were not apprehended. The early wave of undocumented workers came mainly from Sudan, while in 2009 the majority of the immigrants were from Eritrea. In early May 2010, it was estimated that over 24,000 undocumented workers resided in Israel.[21]

     African illegal immigrants into Israel usually initially arrive in Egypt from their country of origin by air. From there, they often pay sums of up to $2,000 for Bedouin smugglers to transfer them to the border between Egypt and Israel. There have been cases of abuse against the female illegal immigrants committed by the Bedouin smugglers, including rape and other degradations. Another danger lurking for the illegal immigrants is the Egyptian army policy to shoot at them in order to prevent their crossing the Egypt/Israel border.[21]

     Here’s an anecdotal story about Israel’s treatment of its Illegals. I recently had lunch with a former New Englander who now lives in Tel Aviv 6 months out of the year. Her apartment came with a garage, but she didn’t use it initially since she had no car in Israel. Recently, she bought a car. When she went to use her garage, she found a car parked at its entrance. Each time she went to get her car into the garage, there was always a car blocking the entrance – usually a different car each time. She complained to the police to no avail. She finally found out the reason for her inability to gain entrance to her garage when she asked one of her apartment neighbors what was going on.

     The neighbor explained that there were illegals living in the garage. The people in her apartment building were deliberately parking at the entrance to the garage to prevent her from using the garage in order to protect the illegals. In addition, the neighbors were supplying food and other necessities to the illegals living there.

     In Israel, being a survivor and an escapee from genocide has historical significance and meaning. There are Biblical injunctions to the Israelites to be kind to the stranger and the needy: “And a stranger shalt thou not wrong, neither shalt thou oppress him; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.[Exodus XXII, 20]. “And thou shalt remember that thou wast a servant in the Land of Egypt. [Deuteronomy V, 15]. “For the poor shall never cease out of the land; therefore I command thee, saying: ‘Thou shalt surely open thy hand unto the poor and needy . . .’” [Deuteronomy XV, 11]. Israel’s government will not return these survivors of African terror to their homeland where enslavement or death awaits them and private citizens in Israel are going out of their way to help these people.

     Here's another anecdotal instance of how Israel treats escapees from terror. In the late 1970s, the North Vietnamese defeated the South Vietnam regime. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the fall of Saigon, hundreds of thousands became refugees. An estimated one million people were imprisoned and masses were sent to “re-education camps”, where 165,000 people are reported to have died.

     Some 145,000 South Vietnamese were brought to the United States. For the rest – hoping to escape Communist persecution and torture – there was no choice but to attempt escape by sea in creaky, overloaded wooden boats.

     On June 10, 1977, an Israeli freighter, en route to Taiwan, sighted a South Vietnamese fishing boat crammed with 66 refugees and took the refugees aboard. No country was willing to accept these refugees.

     But, Menachem Begin’s first act as Israel's new prime minister was to offer asylum and resettlement to the 66 Vietnamese. Those rescued became the first of three groups of Vietnamese refugees to be resettled in Israel. From 1977-79, Israel welcomed over 300 Vietnamese refugees. Many of these immigants have remained in Israel to form the core of a thriving Vietnamese community in Israel.

     A few years ago, I met one of these Vietnamese "Boat People" who was working in a book shop in Jeruslem. When asked how she came to be in Israel, she told the story of the "Boat People" and their rescue and settlement in Israel. She expressed her gratitude to the State of Israel for rescuing her and the other escapees from Viet Nam and told me that she was proud to be a citizen of Israel that had the compassion to take her in, when so many other countries had turned the refugees away.

Jewish Israelis

The Shephardim and the Ashkenazi

     Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews represent two distinct subcultures of Judaism.

     “Ashkenazic Jews are the Jews of France, Germany, and Eastern Europe and their descendants. The adjective ‘Ashkenazic’ and corresponding nouns, Ashkenazi (singular) and Ashkenazim (plural) are derived from the Hebrew word ‘Ashkenaz,’ which is used to refer to Germany.
     “Sephardic Jews are the Jews of Spain, Portugal, North Africa and the Middle East and their descendants. The adjective ‘Sephardic’ and corresponding nouns Sephardi (singular) and Sephardim (plural) are derived from the Hebrew word ‘Sepharad,’ which refers to Spain.”
     “Sephardic Jews are often subdivided into Sephardim, from Spain and Portugal, and Mizrachim, from . . . Northern Africa and the Middle East. The word ‘Mizrachi’ comes from the Hebrew word for Eastern. . . . Until the 1400s, the Iberian Peninsula, North Africa and the Middle East were all controlled by Muslims, who generally allowed Jews to move freely throughout the region. It was under this relatively benevolent rule that Sephardic Judaism developed. When the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, many of them were absorbed into existing Mizrachi communities in Northern Africa and the Middle East.
     “In Israel, a little more than half of all Jews are Mizrachim, descended from Jews who have been in the land since ancient times or who were forced out of Arab countries after Israel was founded. Most of the rest are Ashkenazic, descended from Jews who came to the Holy Land (then controlled by the Ottoman Turks) . . . in the late 1800s, or from Holocaust survivors, or from other immigrants who came at various times.” (Ref. 22)

     The Yiddish language, which many people think of as the international language of Judaism, is really the language of Ashkenazic Jews. Sephardic Jews have their own international language: Ladino, which was based on Spanish and Hebrew in the same way that Yiddish was based on German and Hebrew.[22]

     “A central tenet of Zionism is that Jews share a common heritage and destiny. Nevertheless, the reality of Jewish society in the state of Israel is marked by four prominent social and geo-cultural divisions: Orthodox observant vs. secular, veteran settlers vs. new immigrants, the haves vs. the have-nots and Geo-cultural origin (European vs. Middle Eastern or Oriental). - - -
     “Left wing critics of Israel, including some within Israel itself and the Jewish community in America have tended to use the experience and vocabulary of the American civil rights struggle in order to paint Israel as a racist country. Their central thesis is that the Oriental Jews . . . have been discriminated against and that this has been a conscious act to perpetuate ‘white’ European (Ashkenazi) domination. Their contention is that the darker skinned Sephardim share a common cultural identity and fate with the Palestinian Arabs.
     “While it is true that there has been and still is discrimination, and social snobbery on many levels, the conclusion is wrong, misleading and increasingly less true of the younger generation. - - -
     “Although a gross simplification, it has become acceptable parlance to divide all Jews into two major geo-cultural groups; ‘Ashkenazim’ . . . and ‘Sephardim’. - - -
      - - -
     “- - - Israel’s Jews of Afro-Asian origin have shifted from Sephardi {originally referring to Jews expelled from Spain in1492} to Mizrachi (Oriental). {For simplicity, I have lumped Mizrachi and Sepaharic Jews together and refer to them as Sephardic Jews.}
      - - -
     “There is indeed a serious social and geo-cultural cleavage in Israel’s diverse Jewish population groups, precisely because all the four divisions overlap to a considerable degree. Most of the Jews from Africa and Asia arrived in Israel after 1948 and, being relative newcomers, had to adjust to difficult conditions. Most of them arrived destitute and unlike many of the Ashkenazim never received any reparations for their confiscated property. They still tend to have larger families and as a rule are much more religiously observant than the Ashkenazim who established the secular norms and institutions of the Zionist movement and later of the State of Israel. It is only human nature that the new arrivals from Asia and Africa resented the more established veteran European settlers and those new immigrants from Europe who immediately found more personal connections and sympathy with the veteran Ashkenazi settlers through a common knowledge of Yiddish and shared political and social backgrounds.
     “For {all Jews, with the possible exception of the fanatic Haredi Ultra-Orthodox,} who live in Israel, there is . . . a shared dynamic sense of modern nationhood that has been instilled by the rebirth of a common Hebrew language, a strong belief in the return to their historic homeland and the constant threats of a hostile environment. Their unity and belonging far exceeds that of the incoherent and fractured ‘Arabs’ whose 26 different states and sheikhdoms have conspired against each other since their achievement of independence from the Ottoman Empire and the European colonial powers. It also exceeds that of the so called Palestinians, divided into warring armed factions in the ‘West Bank’ and Gaza Strip and incoherent as to how to ultimately relate to the Kingdom of Jordan, 70% of whose population regards itself as descendants of the Palestinian Arab population of Mandatory Palestine.
      - - -
     “Israel resembles other countries that have been characterized by mass immigration by people from diverse ethnic backgrounds. There are still tensions and feelings of deprivation by those who are lowest on the totem pole and, as in the United States, the ‘ethnic’ (or ‘racial’ card) is played by many who seek to appear before the power brokers as self-appointed ‘leaders’ of their ‘community’.
      - - -
     “Despite the attempts of many Oriental Jews to become fully integrated into the greater Ashkenazi community in Israel, they were faced with overt discrimination because their Eastern (Asian or African) society and culture were regarded as ‘Levantine’ (synonymous with corrupt and backward). Israeli political figures including Ben-Gurion occasionally spoke disparagingly of the ‘dissident’ underground movements, the Irgun and Stern Gang, and characterized many of their supporters as ‘primitive Yemenites’ and later used similar language (in private) in referring to the new immigrants from the Arab countries stigmatizing them as backward and creating a repressed resentment that endured for decades.
      - - -
     “{Early on,} the dominant approach of the {Israeli} establishment was to force the new immigrants into a melting-pot. The new Oriental immigrants in large numbers, in spite of a predominantly urban pattern of settlement in their original homelands, were shunted into agriculture in more than 200 moshavim (agricultural cooperatives) or resettled in new small size development towns in the peripheral Negev, Jerusalem corridor and Galilee and exposed to constant attacks by Arab ‘fedayeen’ (Arab irregular forces committed to terrorizing the border population).
     “- - - By the 1970s, {the Askenazi attitudes toward the Sephardim} and the very apparent lower class status of the Mizrachim provoked a new generation to rebel and assert their own identity as no less authentically Jewish {than the} the older more established and largely non-observant European derived elite.” (Ref. 3)

     Sephardim have gained political power through their support of the major rightwing/nationalist party, the Likud, and the largest religious party, Shas. The success of both parties stems, in disproportionate measure, from the Mizrachim, especially those who were less well off, and lived in the peripheral regions of the Negev and Galilee.[3] Much of the division among ethnic divisions of Israeli society dissolved in the traumatic attack on Israel by massed Egyptian and Syrian troops in the Yom Kippur war of October 1973, which led to an unprecedented solidarity among Israelis of all origins whose patriotism outweighed past grievances.

     “The real breakthrough in achieving a large measure of Jewish solidarity in Israel across ‘ethnic’ or geo-cultural lines came about as a result of Mizrachi participation in the astounding victory of the 1967 Six day War and the long ‘War of Attrition’ followed by the month long heroic struggle to defeat the Egyptian, Syrian, Egyptian and Iraqi forces in the Yom Kippur War after the initial surprise attack in October 1973. In 1948, the Mizrachi-Sephardi component at the time of Israel’s independence was no more than 15% and in 1956, many of the new immigrants from Asia and Africa were still in temporary transit camps and not fully integrated into Israeli society or the armed forces. In the military campaigns of 1967-73, a blood covenant was established that erased much of the negative preconceptions held by many Ashkenazim.
     “The Oriental Jews fought on all fronts with distinction and a return to the old paternalistic attitude of many Ashkenazi politicians was unthinkable. By no means did much of the still considerable economic, educational and social distinctions between communities disappear but the result of the war experiences was a watershed after which the diverse Jewish populations began to assimilate much of what had previously been the hoped-for Zionist ideals of . . . the Ingathering and Mixing of the Exiles.
     “Nevertheless, some Mizrachi intellectuals continue to bear a grudge, particularly those whose education and economic status is far above the average of their own community but feel left out, slighted or discriminated against, especially regarding academic appointments in the limited number of Israeli universities. By all accounts, Israel today is a much healthier society as regards intra-communal relations and this includes relations with the newest arrivals of Black Ethiopian Jews. In spite of the constant tensions and threats of terrorism and war, Israelis have learned to live together and to rely less and less on simply being tagged with a label whether ethnic, racial or cultural. Much remains to be done and to find a formula to better integrate approximately a million non-Jews but no other state in the region has progressed as far and is unique in what it has achieved in enabling people of so many diverse backgrounds to live and work together. [Emphasis mine]
      - - -
     “In the important political and military areas, Mizrachim have {now} reached the highest levels including Commander of the Airforce (Dan Halutz whose parents came from Iran and Iraq) and Chief of the General Staff (Gabi Ashkenazi despite his name, whose parents came from Bulgaria and Syria), Defense Ministers Shaul Mofaz (born in Iraq) and Benjamin Ben-Elizar (also an ‘Iraqi’), Moroccan born Labor Minister Amir Peretz, Moroccan born Foreign Ministers Sivan Shalom and David Levy (who led the Israeli delegation to the Madrid Conference), Oxford educated diplomat and historian Shlomo Ben-Ami (a true Sephardi born in Tetuan in the former Spanish Morocco) and Moshe Katsav (arrived in Israel at age six from Iran) who became President of Israel.” (Ref. 3)

     While the early discrimination against Sephardic Jews by Ashkenazi Jews in Israel has subsided greatly over the years, a new area of discontent has arisen – that between the Sephardic community and the Ultra-Orthodox Haredim.

     In June of 2010, the Ultra-Orthodox community protested the sentencing of parents who refused a court order to integrate a religious school where Sephardic and Ashkenazi students were separated. This event is just one more symptom of the deeply complex ethno-religious relations between European Jews and Middle Eastern Jews in Israel. Middle Eastern Jews have for many decades lived as stigmatized citizens of Israel - their traditional Arabic culture and the form of their Jewish religious practices frequently makes them objects of scorn and prejudice.

     “Less obvious than the second-class status of Sephardim in Israel has been the gradual assimilation of Sephardic Jews into the dominant Ashkenazi collective. In spite of the fact that Sephardim comprise a substantial percentage of the Israeli Jewish population, in socio-cultural terms they find themselves in a subservient position vis-à-vis the Ashkenazim.
      - - -
     “It is critical to understand that some Israeli Sephardim have moved into the Ultra-Orthodox camp. The establishment of the Shas party in the early 1980s cemented an integration of Sephardi Jewish interests with the more powerful Ashkenazi Haredi Yeshivas. The bizarre sight of Middle Eastern Jews dressed in the black garb of the Eastern European tradition was common in public demonstrations of rank and file Shas members.
      - - -
     The hysterical Ultra-Orthodox reaction {to the court order to integrate the Ultra-Orthodox Sephardic students with the Ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi students} ignited the bitter religious contentiousness that continues to simmer in Israel. Media accounts described the Ashkenazi parents and their supporters in terms similar to White supremacists in the U.S. South and compared the court ruling to Brown v. Board of Education.
     “This struggle will continue to be played out on the Israeli stage for some time. Secular and religious factions are frequently at odds with one another, and in the case of the . . . Yeshiva, the issue involves state funding of religious institutions that seem to have no respect for the government and its representatives.
      - - -
     “The media reports feature statements by the leaders of Shas, many of whom send their children to these same Ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi institutions. With the resistance of the {yeshiva} parents to the court-ordered integration, the Ultra-Orthodox Sephardim have been forced to wake up from their complacency and see Ashkenazi racism anew. Feeling that they have properly assimilated into the Ashkenazi Haredi world, these Sephardim have been unpleasantly surprised to find that they are not welcome as equals in that world.
      - - -
     “Ashkenazi Ultra-Orthodoxy has largely been absent from the historical Sephardic community. Sephardim and their rabbinic leaders over the course of many centuries practiced a Judaism that was bereft of the extremism that characterizes Ashkenazi Ultra-Orthodoxy. Sephardim were open to what would be characterized as ‘secular’ studies and the rabbinic leadership was frequently quite tolerant of various levels of religious observance, preferring instead to emphasize communal unity and family ties rather than fanatic observance.
      - - -
     “Unlike the Ashkenazi rabbis of the modern period who rejected change and emphatically asserted the inviolability of past behaviors and legal rulings, Sephardi rabbis were more open to new developments and reacted accordingly. Conversely, the Sephardim never had to withstand the sorts of reformist challenges that played a major role in the Ashkenazi world, challenges that led to profound divisions between Orthodoxy and the forces of reform.
     “The current conundrum of Israeli Sephardim has been whether to maintain their heritage and their traditions, or to integrate into one or another sector of the Ashkenazi world. As we see in the case of {the Yeshiva dispute} and the Shas party, there are many Sephardim who have chosen to turn their backs on the values of the past and make common cause with the Ashkenazim by sending their children to such schools.” (Ref. 23)


     “When Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, granted a few hundred Haredi Orthodox Jews an exemption from army service, it’s likely he never dreamed that 63 years later, tens of thousands of Haredi Israelis would claim the exemption — or that the issue would be among the most contentious in modern Israel.

     In January 2012, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that he would not seek a five-year extension of this exemption, which was formalized as the Tal Law, but would allow the Israeli Knesset to vote on the issue which they are doing in 2013. [24]

     The Tal Law, “ named after retired Supreme Court justice Tzvi Tal and enacted in 2002 under then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak, allows full-time yeshiva {Jewish religious schools, devoted to Torah study} students to delay their army service until age 23. At that time, students either can continue studying full time, do a shortened 16 months of army service (instead of three years) or a year of national service. Afterward, they may choose to join the workforce.
     “’The Tal Law has failed,’ said {a member} of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies. ‘It has not been able to wean the community off the idea of not serving and not working. There is now a third generation that believes this is the way they should live.’
     “Until the Tal Law, Haredim were theoretically draftable unless they were full-time Torah students. Opposition to joining the army meant that tens of thousands of young men were staying full time in yeshivas just to avoid army service. Theoretically the men were subject to the draft if they left the yeshiva before age 40, but practically they could leave the yeshiva after turning 30.
     “The Tal Law was intended to get the students out of the yeshivas, into the army briefly and then into the workforce, solving a problematic cycle.
     “It hasn’t turned out as its proponents had hoped.
      - - -
     “. . . the vast majority of Haredi men have stayed in the yeshivas, and their rabbis continue to discourage serving in the army. The opposition is largely ideological. Haredi leaders worry that the army will open up a path to lax Jewish observance. Some Haredi sects are anti-Zionist - - -
      - - -
     “Resentment against Haredi army exemptions from Israelis who do serve in the army — both secular and Modern Orthodox — is growing.
     “{A current government opposition leader said:} ‘Social justice begins with equally sharing the national burden and army service,” (Ref. 24)

     The ideal achievement for a male Ultra-Orthodox Jew is to learn and study Torah full-time in a Yeshiva. In Israel, the growth in the number of these Yeshivas has made this possible, but it has also created a host of growing problems: overburdened wives and mothers, a culture of poverty (over 55% of Haredim live below the poverty line), a lack of integration into Israeli society, and growing resentment from the rest of the country.

     Today, the Ultra-Orthodox are the largest growing group in Israel, now comprising over 10% of the population. A crisis is looming. Today, 60,000 Ultra-Orthodox male students are exempt from military service, and estimates for the annual cost of supporting the Haredim and their large families stand at more than $3 billion because Israel pays stipends to Yeshivas for all students, their wives and for each child. Considering that nearly 25% of first graders are Ultra-Orthodox, this economic burden will greatly increase unless something is done. Even the International Monetary Fund has noted that the cost of subsidizing the Ultra-Orthodox will put a significant drag on Israeli economic growth.[25]

     In times past and in countries outside Israel, nearly all Jews worked, and only the most scholarly spent their lives in Torah study. Today, most of the Ultra-Orthodox in other countries work, but, in Israel, about 60% percent of Ultra-Orthodox men study Torah and do not work.[25]

     The rest of Israeli society resents the Ultra-Orthodox exemption because they and their children must risk their lives doing military service, pay taxes to support the Ultra-Orthodox, and then have to accept the Ultra-Orthodox imposition of extreme social conservatism on all of Israel, e.g., by attacking women asking for the right to pray at the Western Wall, trying to segregate buses by sex and by harassing Orthodox girls on their way to school, all while continuing to oppose the modern secular state of Israel.[25]

     The growing resentment against the Haredim in Israel is one of the reasons of the ascendency of the "Yesh Atid" (Hebrew: "There's a Future") party and its charismatic leader, Yair Lapid. During the 2013 election campaign, Lapid spoke of "equal share of the burden" for all Israeli citizens. He said he would work to see to it that all Israeli citizens, including the thousands of Haredim who had, up until that point, been exempt from most military or national civil service, would be included in military and national service. On May 27, 2013, Lapid, now the Minister of Finance, threatened to topple the government unless the Ultra-Orthodox would be subject to jail sentences for engaging in religious study instead of military service.[26]

     In response to vehement Haredi opposition, Lapid responded with "The problem is not that you are Haredim, but that you give Haredim a bad name," . . . "No more privileges, no more huge budgets … Torah does NOT mean an exemption from work. Torah does not come between Jews; it unites them.” . . . In mid-July of 2013, Lapid addressed the Knesset and said, "That is why we will invest half a billion shekels in a five-year plan that will encourage Haredim to join the job market. That is why we believe that cutting budgets of yeshivot will not damage the world of Torah. They will go to work in the morning and study Torah at night." (Ref. 27) The Haredim are vehemently opposed to such a plan, while the vast majority of non-Haredi Israelis who are in favor of the plan are insisting that Haredim be treated the same as themselves, with the elimination on most of their historical special privileges.

     The minister added that the Torah said that one is to work six days of the week, "not six days you shall sit in the yeshiva and let someone else pick up the check; not six days you shall receive stipends; not six days the secular shall work from dawn till dusk." He added that the seculars have been "The Messiah's donkey for too many years." . . . "In 1979, 84% of Haredi men were employed," Lapid noted, asking "Were your parents not as Haredi as you are? Were they not as religious? Did they have lesser faith in God? "To me, it is the opposite – your parents, unlike you, followed the Rambam," who, according to Lapid, believed that to live on charity is blasphemous.[27]

The Ultra-Orthodox, the Modern Orthodox and the Secular

     Ever since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, the Ultra-Orthodox community, commonly referred to as the Haredi community, has received very special concessions from the government of Israel.

     In January 2013, Israel held national elections that resulted in a government which, for the first time in many years, did not include the party of the Ultra-Orthodox. At the forefront of this election was the hugely culturally contentious issue of abolishing the historical exemption of Ultra-Orthodox Jews from the draft that allowed them to pursue religious education.

     Following the January elections, the new government abolished the 65-year-old legislation that exempted the Ultra-Orthodox from mandatory service in the IDF in an attempt to bring together a more secular society, thus leading to fresh tensions between the government and the Ultra-Orthodox religious group.[28]

     “As tens of thousands of Jews jammed Jerusalem’s Western Wall Plaza on Tisha B’Av {in July of 2013} to mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples, leading rabbinical and political figures from Israel’s national religious and Haredi streams found themselves embroiled in a war of words over a number of issues that in some instances spurred violent street clashes.
     “During the past week, three Haredi soldiers were attacked in broad daylight in the heart of Jerusalem by Haredi hooligans whose actions were not immediately condemned by Ashkenazi Haredi leaders or Haredi members of the Knesset {Israeli parliament}.
     “One of the soldiers was on his way to {an in-depth orthodox religious lecture} in the Meah Shearim neighborhood {an Ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem} when he was attacked and had to be rescued by special police units operating in the area. When the police arrived on the scene they were greeted by chants of ‘Nazis’ and pelted with garbage and stones by some of the residents. - - -
    ”- - - {A} Rabbi . . ., who works with Nahal Haredi {a religiously observant unit of the IDF} soldiers, {said} that those who attacked the soldiers represented a minority faction and that most Nahal Haredi soldiers are treated with dignity in their neighborhoods.
     “Several Haredi soldiers told reporters a different story, however, describing how the violent reactions to their IDF uniforms had necessitated changing into civilian clothing when traveling on trains; others said they could not return to their homes and were forced to spend Shabbat {the Jewish Sabbath} in hostels that cater to Haredi soldiers considered outcasts by their families.” (Ref. 29)

     The outrage of many Israelis at the viciousness of the Haredi opposition to the Ultra-Orthodox serving in the IDF was symbolized in the following:

     “As a survivor of the Transnistria death camp, I was shocked and dismayed at the words of someone who calls himself a chassidic {pious} rabbi and who banned all uniformed IDF soldiers from his group’s synagogues and yeshivas {religious schools}. The reason: ‘To pray with those clothes is like praying while making the sign of the cross. These clothes proclaim heresy!’ - - -
     “How can anyone utter these words and go on living with himself? It takes a lot of chutzpah to live in Israel under the protection of Hashem {God} and His emissaries, the IDF soldiers, and instead of being grateful, throw stones and resort to vicious name-calling.” (Ref. 30)

     Many Israelis have long bridled over state privileges handed to the Haredim. The debate over this issue heated up when elections in January of 2013 saw strong performances for 2 parties who campaigned against the exemptions and created the first cabinet in a decade without Ultra-Orthodox members. Just 6 months after the January 2013 elections, Israel’s cabinet voted 14-0, with four abstentions, to approve a draft law which abolishes wholesale exemptions from military duty granted to Jewish seminary students. As to be expected this has provoked Ultra-Orthodox anger over the impending loss of one of their special privileges. Under the proposed law, only 1,800 students designated as "outstanding biblical scholars" (out of an estimated 8,000 who become eligible for the draft every year) would get an exemption.

     While Haredi leaders have pledged mass demonstrations against the proposed legislation, an Ultra-Orthodox backlash currently poses little danger to the government's survival, given its composition. In the past, changing the so-called secular-religious status quo in Israel carried significant political risk for coalition governments, which often relied on the support of Ultra-Orthodox partners.[31] Ultra-Orthodox political power may finally be on the wane in Israel.

     “Hoping to avoid any immediate confrontation, the government agreed to delay any sanctions against draft-dodgers by imposing a four-year interim period in which the military will encourage young Bible scholars to enlist.
      - - -
     “Some 3,500 Haredim already serve in the military, and a recent study by the Economy Ministry found that 70 percent of Ultra-Orthodox soldiers entered the workforce after they completed their service. By contrast, only 45 percent of all Haredi men were employed, according to the central bank.” (Ref. 31)

     In Beit Shemesh and elsewhere across the country, some Ultra-Orthodox Jews have tried to impose a kind of communal piety—a strict code of behavior that includes gender segregation on buses, with men in the front and women in the back. For most Israelis, this zealousness is off-putting. Founded by secular Jews who envisaged a modern, egalitarian state, Israel has all the trappings of a liberal society: progressive laws and cutting-edge universities, women in bikinis and women in business and politics. But it also has the fast-growing Haredi community that shuns modernity and views the world through the narrow prism of biblical warrant. Once a tiny minority, Ultra-Orthodox Jews now make up more than 10% of Israel’s population and 21% of all primary-school students. With the community’s fertility rate hovering at more than three times that of other Israeli Jews, demographers project that by 2034, about 25% of Israelis will be Ultra-Orthodox.[32]

     The impact will reach well beyond the neighborhood quarrels over segregated buses or modest attire. Most Ultra-Orthodox Jews lack the skills to work in a modern economy, having studied little or no math and science beyond primary school (their curriculum focuses almost entirely on religious texts such as the Torah and Talmud). As a result, more than 60% live below the poverty line, compared with 12% among non-Haredi Jews. Haredi men are on a path that has proven hard to reroute: instead of employment, they engage in lifelong Torah study and receive support from the dole. According to recent labor surveys, some 65% of working-age men in the Ultra-Orthodox community don’t have jobs and don’t want them, preferring to spend their days in the seminary. The cities they live in are some of the poorest in the country.[32]

     The net effect as the Haredi community expands is that burden of both taxation and conscription falls on fewer and fewer Israelis. Secular Israelis joke bitterly that one third of the country serves in the military, one third participates in the workforce, and one third pays taxes - but that it’s all the same third.[32]

     Ultra-Orthodox Jews are by definition averse to change. They dress in the same outfits as their 19th-century forebears—dark suits, frock coats, and wide-brimmed hats. And they hew fastidiously to practices that were laid out in texts thousands of years ago.[32]

     “Modiin Illit is home to about 60,000 Haredim, midway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Built in the 1990s to help solve the housing shortage for Ultra-Orthodox in Jerusalem and elsewhere, it’s one of Israel’s fastest-growing cities. “Families here have 10 or more children, on average.” The city winds along the slopes of several hills and has a synagogue or seminary on almost every block. Nearly all of Modiin Illit’s residents, because of their low income, qualify for a 90 percent discount in city taxes, making it difficult for the municipality to build public facilities or fund services. So, {there are} very few parks or playgrounds.
       - - -
     “. . .Haredim are so cloistered, it’s hard to see how they could ever catch up {with the rest of Israeli society}. . . .{No} one at Modiin Illit owns a television and few residents have computers. This past summer an entrepreneur persuaded rabbis in the city to allow him to open a cybercenter—three computers in a small room above a dingy shopping strip—where customers can access the Internet for about $5 an hour. The computers are reasonably new, but the Internet is filtered through a server that blocks access to all but a few dozen websites—mostly on religious instruction and family services. A search for news sites yielded just one hit—Haredi Jewish Daily News. Wikipedia and Yahoo came up as dead links. ‘It’s kosher Internet . . . It’s very limited.'
     “Back in Beit Shemesh, another conflict has been brewing between the Haredim and their neighbors, this one over a school for girls. Opened in September, the school lies adjacent to apartments of Haredim, who complain they’re exposed to impurities when they open their windows. Their objections might seem more reasonable if these were secular students dressed in tight jeans and tank tops. But the girls, ages 6 to 12, are themselves from religiously observant homes—not Ultra-Orthodox but modern Orthodox. Their uniforms consist of long skirts and loose-fitting, long-sleeve shirts but not the stockings that are requisite for Haredi women appearing in public, winter or summer.
     “When the school year began several months ago, Haredi men gathered outside to protest, some hurling insults at the girls like “prutza” (whore) and “shiksa” (the Yiddish term for a non-Jewish woman). The taunting scared the students but also left them bewildered: one resident told me his daughter initially thought the men were yelling ‘pizza’ and ‘schnitzel.’ - - -
     “The Haredi community is far from homogenous, and the protesters at the girls’ school are unquestionably at the extreme end of the band—a minority within a minority. One of the most vocal Haredi opponents of the school . . . says that Israel itself was an abomination (because its laws were based on something other than the Torah) and posed a challenge to real Judaism. ‘It’s too bad Herzl and his people didn’t create Israel in Uganda instead of bringing their defilement to this country,’ he said, referring to Zionism’s founder, Theodor Herzl.
     “As is often the case in closed societies, the extremists tend to set the tone. And they can be particularly hard on those fellow Haredim who might lean toward moderation. . . . A lawmaker {within} the largest Ultra-Orthodox faction in Parliament, Shas, learned just how hard when he started advocating last year for Haredim to serve in the military and join the workforce. ‘This poverty is killing the Haredi community,’ {he said}. ‘There’s no reason Haredim can’t have regular careers and continue studying Torah in their spare time.’ For taking a stand, {the Haredi lawmaker} was ejected from Shas and received threatening messages. But he says his position is quietly gaining ground among the Ultra-Orthodox.” (Ref. 32) May it be so!

Yemenite Jews

     “Today the Yemenite Jews in Israel have three basic identities: as Jews, as Israelis, and as Jews from Yemen. Any one of the three may take precedence in a given situation, but all are important to them.
     “The Yemenite Jews arrived in Israel with little preparation for life in an industrial state. None had a modern education or technical training. They had a very strong work ethic, however, and willingness to take on jobs others might consider demeaning. About 28 percent went to settle in more than fifty newly created cooperative villages (moshavim) and learned to become farmers. (Most of these families still have homes and farms in the villages, although many of their children have been well educated and have moved to urban occupations.) The other immigrants went to live in towns and cities. Many men went to work in the building trades or in industry, often learning skilled trades within a few years. Some worked in sanitation. Women, who had not usually worked outside of their homes in Yemen, were often employed as housekeepers in private homes, offices, and institutions. The younger the immigrants were when they arrived, the more likely they were to get some schooling, perhaps enough to become teachers or clerks. Today Yemenite Jews in Israel can be found in many occupations, especially as teachers, bureaucrats and organizers, skilled workers in industry, engineers and technologists, artists and musicians, and members of the military forces. There are growing numbers of professionals among them.
     “Yemenite Jews are integrated into Israeli society and participate in all the institutions of the state. Although there have been Yemenite political parties contesting national elections, these have usually not fared very well. Nevertheless, Yemenites are increasingly gaining political office, especially on municipal and regional councils and workers' councils, not on the basis of ethnic appeals but as members of the established parties. They tend to split their loyalties between the Labor party, the Likud, and the National Religious party, Shas.
     “An outstanding aspect of Yemenite life in Israel is their tendency to form their own neighborhoods. This is particularly important because they generally remain devoted to the practice of the Jewish religion, in the form that they knew it in Yemen. They maintain their own synagogues, employing their distinctive melodies and pronunciation of liturgical Hebrew, which they prize. Because an observant Jew is strictly forbidden to ride on the Sabbath and most holy days, a religious Yemenite family must be within walking distance of a Yemenite synagogue. Because there must be a congregation to support such a synagogue, there must be a sufficiently large population in the area. The Sabbath and other holy days are spent visiting family and friends, often participating in distinctive Yemenite social and ritual gatherings to eat and drink. They continue to celebrate the life-cycle rituals very much as they did in Yemen, and this, too, requires a group of like-minded neighbors. In Israel as in Yemen, community life centers on the family, the synagogue, and the observance of the cycles of religiously mandated activities.
     “The importance of Judaism for most Yemenites cannot be overstressed. Their distinctive expressive culture is based largely on their Judaism. Yemenite men tend to be extremely knowledgeable about religious practice, and most can direct synagogue services themselves. Their synagogues do not depend on the services of rabbis; members of the congregation take turns leading public worship. As in Yemen, this often results in rivalries and conflict. Yemenite communities usually contain a number of small synagogues competing for worshipers and honors. Religion is taken very seriously, the synagogue being the locus of much of the social life of the men. In addition to weekly and annual occasions for worship and celebration, men and women are frequently called upon to participate in birth, marriage, and death rituals. These are celebrated with the participation of kin, friends, neighbors, and more distant fellow Yemenites. Food, ritual, poetry, music, and sometimes dance and costuming, may be accompaniments to these rituals. They pride themselves upon their abilities and their loyalty to these traditions. Marriages, in particular, are celebrated with a number of events, often lasting over several weeks. The h'inna celebration preceding marriage is basically a women's party, during which the bride-to-be is dressed in extraordinary costumes and jewelry, and women drum and sing special songs and dance. (These days men usually join in as well.) From Yemen they brought a corpus of poetry (based on religious themes), musical style and melodies, and distinctive dance traditions and costumes. All of these are maintained in Israel today. While almost anyone may dance or sing, there are organized amateur dance groups and many professional performers and composers. New works are always being created on the base of the old forms. Professional musicians often achieve considerable prominence for their Yemenite works, as well as for their performance of other genres. Even before Israel became a state, in the 1920s and 1930s, Yemenite traditions and performers contributed much to the development of Jewish music, dance, and decorative arts.” (Ref. 33)

Ethiopian Jews

     Israel is unique in that it has welcomed and absorbed a multitude of victims of the Holocaust, discrimination, oppression, racism, ethnic conflict and more. From the victims of European pogroms and the Holocaust, through the forced exodus from Arab and Islamic controlled countries, to the intaking of the boat people of Viet Nam, and the rescuing of black Jews from Ethiopia and the recent arrival of “illegals” (African blacks forced from their homes in Africa by ethnic cleansing and slavery).

     Israel has taken in all of these. Has the new land been paradise for all who have made it to the Holy Land? Certainly not. But, all these people have been accepted with the legal rights of all other Israelis. Discrimination has been and still is present, but, these newcomers have the right and the ability to fight against such discrimination and this they are doing. Acceptance comes slowly, but steady progress has been made and still more is being made. All is not roses and Israel is not yet heaven, but the land of milk and honey is a land of opportunity for all newcomers. Few chose to return to where they came from – a land where one may have to work for full equality is much to be preferred over a land in which there is no hope of equality.

     For years, Israel’s array of peoples from African communities had little interaction, divided by religious, linguistic and cultural differences. That is changing. They face a common situation in Israel — relegated to bottom rungs, partly because of discrimination over their skin color. That has brought some members of a wide range of communities together, including Jewish Ethiopians, nomadic Muslim Arabs and migrants from Eritrea and Sudan.[ 34]

     These various communities with African roots have formed a group to launch economic projects that would provide employment to the most disadvantaged blacks in Israel — African asylum seekers and Bedouin Arabs. They are also lobbying the government to improve the situation of blacks in Israel. In order to get attention in Israel, groups like this must cooperate and join together so as to become a politically significant factor.

     One segment of this minority are Blacks descended from African slaves who served lighter-skinned Arabs generations ago. The community’s name means “the slave” in Arabic. It’s also Arabic slang for a black person. Some Hebrew-speaking Israelis refer to blacks as “kushim,” a term derived from an ancient name for Ethiopia but today considered derogatory.[ 34]

     An Ethiopian-Israeli participant in the initiative said he was thrilled to find a place to discuss “the future of black people” in the Holy Land. “It doesn’t matter if you are Christian, Muslim, Jewish,”[ 34] he said. Even so, few Israelis from Ethiopia have joined, identifying with fellow Israeli Jews more than with other black Africans. The only Ethiopian member of Israel’s parliament said, “If you are raising the Bedouin problem, it’s not like the Ethiopian problem. We are Jews, we have the same identity as other Jews.”[ 34] This, in itself, creates a part of the problem facing Ethiopian Jews. By not banding together and by not joining with other minority groups, they do not gain sufficient political strength to be heard above the incessant clamor of Israeli politics, where there are dozens of political parties shouting to be heard.

     The minority populations of Israel are vastly different. Bedouins are Muslim Arabs who identify more with Palestinians than with Israelis, though they are Israeli citizens. The ”illegals”, the Eritreans, who include both Christians and Muslims, are caught in legal limbo as asylum seekers and face the possibility of expulsion from Israel. Ethiopians are Jews and citizens of Israel, facing their own set of problems. Citizens and legal migrants are inevitably treated differently from illegals who sneak into the country looking for work.

     Another minority group in Israel are the Black Hebrews, a 2,500-strong group of vegan polygamists who believe they are descendants of a lost tribe of Israelites. These Black Hebrews, who first arrived in Israel from the U.S. in the 1970s, aren’t considered Jews, but Israel has granted many of them residency rights.[ 34]

     In 2012, out of some 7.8 million people in Israel, some 200,000 people had African roots. In addition to the Black Hebrews, there were about 120,000 Ethiopian Jews, 50,000 African asylum seekers, an estimated 10,000 black Bedouins and at least 12,000 dark-skinned urban Arabs. There are no official statistics based on skin color.[ 34]

     “Ethiopian Jews, who trace their ancestors to the Israelite tribe of Dan and were cut off from the rest of the Jewish world for more than 1,000 years, first arrived in Israel in large numbers in the 1980s in dramatic airlifts.
     “As Jews, they are automatically eligible for Israeli citizenship, but their absorption into society has been problematic. Suffering from a lack of a modern education, many have fallen into unemployment and poverty and have watched their family structures disintegrate.
     “Ethiopian Jews say racism has added to their troubles. In some towns, Israeli parents have tried to prevent Ethiopian children from sharing classrooms with their own. Ethiopians have also claimed discrimination in housing and job opportunities. Ethiopian religious leaders have struggled to win recognition.
     “The Israeli government provides stipends to Ethiopians for housing and education and offers help in employment, among programs meant to help them integrate.
     “Ethiopian Israelis have average monthly household incomes of around $1,800 dollars, less than half the average of other Jews, according to the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews.
     “Still, the Ethiopian community is making inroads. Following a traditional path to integration, many have risen through the ranks of Israel’s military. Others have entered politics, and scholarships are available to send Ethiopians to universities.” (Ref. 34)

     On a personal note and from a limited perspective, I can offer the following comments. As a volunteer in Israel over the past half-dozen years, I have tutored hundreds of students in English in a dozen or more public and private Israeli schools in Haifa and Tel Aviv. In some schools black students comprised a significant percentage of the student population. At no time did I observe any racial discrimination against the black students. Student abilities varied considerably. I was told that a large part of the problem with some of the black students was the fact that they had little academic support at home, where many of the parents were illiterate and/or had little to no command of the Hebrew language. In every case that I observed, the black students were fully integrated into their school programs. In some schools, special after-hour programs had been instituted for those students whose parents were not at home when normal school hours were over.


     Israel is not yet heaven on earth. It is not perfect. But, when one looks dispassionately at the what Israel is, what it has accomplished in its short existence, and then compared it with other nations in the region, or, for that matter, with other nations around the world, it has done and is doing remarkably well. Despite apparently irresolvable differences and disparities among its citizens, there is an underlying unity of purpose and achievement that truly differentiates the State of Israel from nearly every other nation on the face of this planet. This unity is almost never brought to light in the media reporting of events in the Holy Land. Still, this underlying unity contributes to making Israel what it is – it constitutes the other side of Israel, the side that is not often apparent to the outsider.

  1. Interesting Facts About Israel, Oren Kessler, Jewish Federation of the North Shore, Accessed 15 August 2013.
  2. People of Israel , NSW Board of Jewish Education, Accessed 24 July 2013.
  3. The Mizrachim and Sephardim in Israel, Dr. Norman Berdichevsky, ANNAQED: “The Critic”, 15 August 2010.
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  29 August 2013 {Article 174; Israel_18}    
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