The Ethnic Palette in the Land of Israel


   Past and present: background, numbers, facts


   September 2007


Tel Aviv is the first all-Jewish city in modern timesIn the aftermath of World War Two with it`s tragedy of Holocaust, the state of Israel was established as a homeland for the Jewish people and since then is frequently referred to as the Jewish stateSince 1948 the Israeli society has integrated 2.5 million millions of Jewish immigrants from more then 100 countries, speaking more than 70 languages. According to statistics, 59% of the immigrants came from Europe (including the former Soviet Union), 19% from Africa, 15% from Asia, and 7% from the Americas and Oceania. This society has invigorated an ancient language to form a common basis of modern communication, and developed a rich culture of literature, theater, film, and scholarship.










Tel Aviv is the first all-Jewish city in modern times


   Jewish people constitute more then 75 percent of the total population of a country. The sub-ethnic diversity among Jewish Israeli population is mainly a legacy of the cultural diversity and the nature of the Jewish Diaspora. The two dominant Jewish ethnic groups in Israel are the Ashkenazim (word for “Germany” in old Hebrew) and Sephardim (word for “Spain” in old Hebrew). The first group includes the Jews from northern, central and Eastern Europe and the main part of the ones living in America and Australia. The latter one includes the Jews of Mediterranean region, Balkans, Caucasus, Central Asia, Aegean, and Middle Eastern lands.



Menora near the building of Israeli Knesset


Menora near the building of Israeli Knesset


   Interestingly enough that more then 1.7 million people, comprising some 24.2  percent of Israel's population, are non-Jews. Although defined collectively as Arab and Russian-speaking citizens of Israel, they include a number of different groups, each with distinct characteristics. The major segment of this population are Palestinian Arabs, most of whom are Muslims; the remaining ones are of Christian and Druze confessions. About 309,900 of Israeli citizens (4.4% from total population) are the immigrants mostly from the former Soviet Union who belong to different non-Jewish ethnic groups, mostly Slavic (Russians, Ukrainians, Belarus), but also of ethnic Turk background  (Tatars, Azeri, Uzbek, etc.). There is a Russian Orthodox community in Jerusalem consisting mostly from ethnic Russian citizens of Israel and members of their families.






Being an Arab in a state of the Jews


   According to the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, 16.2% of Israelis are Arab Muslims – this is about 1.15 million people. The majority of them are the Sunni. They reside mainly in small towns and villages, over half of them in the northern part of the country  - Galilee. They are not required to serve in the Israeli military, and very few (around 120 a year) of them volunteer. The Muslim population is mostly young: 42% of Muslims are children under the age of 15. The median age of Muslim Israelis is 18.


The Dome of the Rock in the center of the Temple Mount


 The Dome of the Rock in the center of the Temple Mount





















Bedouin Arabs, also Muslims (around 170 000 persons), belong to more then 30 tribes, a majority of them is spread over southern part of the country - Negev desert. In earlier times traveling shepherds, the Bedouin are at present in transition from a tribal social structure to a permanently settled society and are increasingly entering Israel's labor force.


Israel Bedouin Arabs race camels in the Negev Desert, in southern Israel, during a local festival celebrating Bedouin culture


Israel Bedouin Arabs race camels in the Negev Desert, in southern Israel, during a local festival celebrating Bedouin culture

   The largest Bedouin locality in Israel is the city of Rahat. The Israeli government encourages Bedouins to settle as permanent residents in these development towns, but some 76,000 continue to live in tens of "unrecognized villages," some of which pre-date the existence of Israel.

   Unlike Jewish, Druze, and Circassian Israelis Bedouins are not required by law to serve in Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Nevertheless, each year, up to 10% of the Bedouin population of draft age volunteer for the Israeli army.




Christian Arabs comprise about 9% of the Arab population in Israel, and approximately 70% of them reside in Galilee, numbering around 117 000. Nazareth has the largest Christian Arab population. Even though many religious denominations are represented, the majority are affiliated with the Greek Catholic (42 percent of the Arab Christian community), Greek Orthodox (32 percent) and Roman Catholic (16 percent) churches.

Nazareth is the capital and largest city in the Northern District of Israel. It also serves as an Arab capital for Israel's Arab citizens who make up the vast majority of the population there.

Nazareth is the capital and largest city in the Northern District of Israel. It also serves as an Arab capital for Israel's Arab citizens who make up the vast majority of the population there.

   Christian communities in Israel, regardless of ethnicity of their members, have a broad degree of autonomy in religious and communal affairs. The Greek Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches are the largest denominations, and most of them are found in Jerusalem. Apart from the Greek Orthodox church, which has a patriarchate in Jerusalem, each church is dependent to a degree on a supreme hierarch residing abroad. These communities include Roman Catholics and Greek Catholics known as Uniates. The Evangelical, Episcopal, and Lutheran churches are small and primarily Arabic-speaking.

    A number of Christian Arabs, like their Muslim and Druze counterparts, are active in Israeli politics and civil life. The only non-Jewish Arab judge to receive a permanent appointment to preside over Israel's Supreme Court is Salim Jubran - a Christian Arab born in Haifa.

   Being not like the others

   Some 113,000 Arabic-speaking Druze living in 22 villages in northern Israel, constitute a separate cultural, social and religious community. Druze have traditionally formed a closed, tight-knit community and practice a secretive religion founded in 11th-century Fatimid Egypt.

August 2004: Druze leaders check a list of those allowed to go to Syria

August 2004: Druze leaders check a list of those allowed to go to Syria

   The members of a Druze sect residing in many countries, although largely in mountainous regions in Israel, Lebanon and Syria. Druze in Israel live mainly in the north, notably in the area of Carmel Mountain near Haifa. There are also Druze villages in the Golan Heights, which were captured in 1967 from Syria and annexed to Israel in 1981 .

   While the Druze religion is not accessible to outsiders, one acknowledged aspect of its values is the concept of total loyalty by its adherents to the government of the country, which they inhabit. So while the Druze in Israel are Arabic-speaking, they often consider themselves Israeli and unlike the Arab Muslims or Arab Christians in Israel they rarely identify themselves as Palestinians.

   The Druze are defined as a separate ethnic group in the Israeli Ministry of the Interior's census registration. Israel has recognized the Druze as a separate community in Arabic sector since 1957, and Israeli Druze serve in the armed forces. While the Israeli education system is basically divided into Hebrew and Arabic-speaking schools, the Druze have autonomy within the Arabic-speaking branch. Druze have usually been agriculturists, but younger members of the community have found employment throughout the economy.

   Trying to be mainstream  

   Arabs, whether Christian, Muslim, or Druze, speak a dialect of Levantine Arabic and learn Modern Standard Arabic in school. An increasing number also avail themselves for higher education within Israel's public schools and colleges, and many younger Arabs are now bilingual in Hebrew. All Israeli Arabs are full Israeli citizens with political and civil rights that are equal to those of Israeli Jews, with the exception of some limitations on military service.


Dr. Ahmad Tibi is an Israeli Arab politician and leader of the Arab nationalist party, Ta'al (the Arab Movement for Renewal). In 1999 he was elected to serve in Israel's parliament, the Knesset.


Dr. Ahmad Tibi is an Israeli Arab politician and leader of the Arab nationalist party, Ta'al (the Arab Movement for Renewal).
In 1999 he was elected to serve in Israel's parliament, the Knesset.

   Accounting for more than 10 percent of voters, the political involvement of the Arab sector is visible in national and municipal elections. Many Arabs participate actively in the Israeli politics, and several Arab political parties currently having 12 members in the Israeli Knesset, who operate in the political arena to promote the status of Arab minority and their share of national benefits. Despite this visible inclusiveness, many Israeli Arabs still perceive themselves as Palestinians living in an occupied state. Therefore various degrees of antagonism persist, usually not effecting the relations with immediate Jewish or other non-Arab neighbours, colleagues or family members.



Israeli soldiers belonging to a Bedouin border patrol unit stand guard


Israeli soldiers belonging to a Bedouin border patrol unit stand guard

   Since Israel's establishment in 1948, Arab citizens have been exempted from obligatory service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) out of concern for their religious and cultural affiliations with the Arab world (with which Israel is still having a long dispute), as well as concern over potential dual loyalties. At the same time, volunteer military service is encouraged, with some candidates choosing this option every year. Since 1957, at the request of their community leaders, IDF service has been mandatory for Druze and Circassian men, while the number of Bedouins joining the career army increases gradually.


 Israel`s loyal Muslims

   When we talk about the Muslim presence in Israel, then we should mention here local non-Arab Muslim citizens: Circassians, Tatars, Azeris, and Uzbeks. Non-Arab Muslims principally loyal to the state of Israel and affiliate themselves with Israeli Jews in a bigger degree then with local Arab population. For example, this loyalty concept is a cornerstone for the activities of Israeli Tatar association, established in spring 2006, and of ethnic Azeri branch, established in spring 2007, within the public association “Azerbaijan – Israel”. The ethnic Muslims from former USSR (around 50 000 persons) are in need for basic Muslim education, which would not be in contradiction with relatively tolerant in religious issues Israeli laws. And the progress of such initiative greatly depends from community`s capability and joint cooperation with the governments (namely, Ministries of Foreign Affairs and of Education) of their countries of origin.


Cocking Circassian food in Reyhaniye




Cocking Circassian food in Reyhaniye


   The Circassians, who are Sunnite Muslims, emigrated from the Caucasus in the 1870s. The members of this community are living mostly in the villages Kfar Kama (2 000) and Reyhaniye (1 000). These two villages were a part of a greater group of Circassian villages around the Golan Heights. The Circassians in Israel enjoy, like Druzes, a status aparte. Male Circassians (at their leader's request) are obligated for military service, while females are not.



  They share neither the Arab origin nor the cultural background of the larger Islamic community. While maintaining a distinct ethnic identity, they participate in Israel's economic and national affairs without assimilating either into Jewish society nor into the Arab Muslim community. Older Circassians speak Arabic as well as the Circassian language, but members of the younger generation prefer to speak Hebrew.


   Almost Jewish …


   The Karaites are a sect originated from Judaism that emerged in the early Middle Ages on the territory of a modern Iraq. Like other religious minorities of Israel, they have their own religious courts and communal organizations. Considered to be a part of Jewish society, they have maintained their separate identity by resisting intermarriage and preserving their religious rites based on the Torah as the exclusive source of religious law.


Karaite Synagogue in Ashdod




Karaite Synagogue in Ashdod


   In 1948, Karaites - who had flourished in the Middle Ages under Muslim rule - suffered the same persecution in Arab countries as local Jews, and the Karaites escaping from Arab countries were welcomed by Israel’s government. In the early 1950s, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate originally objected to the arrival of Karaite immigrants in the country and ineffectively tried to obstruct it. Rules were set in place that legislated that Karaite butchers had to advertise on their storefronts that their meat was “kosher for Karaites,” and Karaite Courts of justice were not recognized by the following Israeli governments.

   Mainly concentrated in the cities of Ashdod and Ramla, Israel’s Karaite community is about 30 thousands strong. In Israel today, they have an impressive synagogue and community center in Ashdod that adheres to their meticulous traditions.

Samaritans in worship


Samaritans in worship

   The Samaritans trace their roots to those Jews not dispersed when the Assyrians conquered Israel in the VIII-th century BC. In 2005 there were about 700 Samaritans, living almost exclusively in Kiryat Luza on the holy Mount Gerizim near the city of Nablus (Shechem) in the West Bank, and in the city of Holon in Israel. They preserve their separate religious and communal organizations and speak Arabic, but pray in an ancient form of Hebrew. They participate in national life as part of the Jewish section of the population.




Followers of the most universal religion


   Similarly to Druze community, the religious group of Bahai, also originated in Islam, is not considered as Muslim.


Bahai Temple, Haifa Israel


Bahai Temple, Haifa Israel


   The Baha'i faith, a universal religion founded in Iran in the middle of 19-th century, is the only religion other than Judaism to have it`s world centre in Israel. A teaching centre, archive building, shrine, and administrative headquarter are located on Mount Carmel in Haifa. There are around 400 adherents of this religion in Israel. Most of them are employed at Bahai centre in Haifa.













Gypsy people … as anywhere else in this world


   A community related closely to the European Roma and living in Israel, Palestinian territories and in neighboring countries are known as Dom people. Before 1948, there was an Arabic-speaking Dom community in Jaffa, whose members were known for their involvement in street theatre and circus performances. Like most other Arabs of Jaffa, much of this community was displaced and uprooted during the events of April 1948, and its descendants are assumed to be presently living in the Jebalia refugee camp in Gaza Strip. Another Dom community is known to exist in East Jerusalem. In October 1999, the nonprofit organization "Domari: The Society of Gypsies in Jerusalem" was established by Amoun Sleem to advocate on this community's behalf.


Brothers and sisters in Dom family


Brothers and sisters in Dom family

Some Eastern European Roma are known to have arrived in Israel in the late 1940s and early 1950s, being from Bulgaria or having intermarried with Jews in the post-WWII Displaced Persons camps or, in some cases, having pretended to be Jews when Zionist representatives arrived in those camps. The exact number of these Roma is unknown, because given individuals tended to assimilate into the Israeli Jewish environment. According to several recent accounts in the Israeli press, some families preserve traditional Romani lullabies and a small number of Romani expressions, and pass them on to generations born in Israel who, for the most part, are regarded as Jews and speak Hebrew. The Roma community in Israel has grown since the 1990s, as some Roma immigrated there from the former Soviet Union.

Russian Rom Sergey Bushuev with his grandson on a public celebration in Rishon-Le-Tzion, Israel


Russian Rom Sergey Bushuev with his grandson on a public event in Rishon-Le-Tzion, Israel






Talking about co-existence

Arab Culture Month Festival in Haifa, 2005  Thus, Israel is not a melting pot society, but rather a mosaic made up of different population groups co-existing in the framework of a democratic state. Development of inter-group relations between Israel's Jews and non-Jews has been and still is in different degrees hindered by deeply-rooted differences in ethnicity, religion, values and political beliefs. Nevertheless, through co-existing as self-segregated communities, over the years they are coming to understand and recognize each other, acknowledging the uniqueness and aspirations of each given community and participating in a growing number of joint endeavors.  


Arab Culture Month Festival in Haifa, 2005






Britannica Online Encyclopedia. Israel: Samaritans.


Circassian World. Circassians In Israel.


Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. SOCIETY- Minority Communities. Karaites flourish in Israel.


Nitzan Israel. The People of Israel.


Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Arab citizens of Israel.






An overview on Israeli non-Jewish minorities has been written with the use of both, external sources and author's personal observations. Given article aims to introduce the reader with the basic facts on various ethno-religious groups living in a complex socio-political environment of modern Israel. The composition of a text helps the reader to learn about Israeli non-Jews in a form of historical and nowadays facts, statistics, conclusions and graphic images. The main emphasis is given to positive examples showing the possibility for mutual co-existence instead of notorious confrontational approach in illustrating the relations between Arabs and Jews in Israel/Palestine.


    Biographical information
Valery Novoselsky - the editor of Roma Virtual Network
Valery Novoselsky - the editor of Roma Virtual Network
Valery Novoselsky – born in April 1970 in a mixed Romani-Jewish family in the city Dnipropetrovs’k, Ukraine. Part of his childhood lived in Siberia. In 1991-94 studied history in Dnipropetrovs’k National University. In 1993-95 was working in an Evangelical mission in Moscow, Russia.
Immigrated to Israel in autumn 1995 according the Law of Return. In 1996-2002 was studying Christian disciplines and working as English-Russian translator in the Galilee Bible College - Israeli branch of American Global University. BA on Theology and Bible obtained in 2002.
In the international Romani movement since summer 1999 due to his capacity of an editor of Roma Virtual Network. Alumni of post-graduate Roma Diplomacy Program (2005-2006). Currently working as consultant with European Roma Information Office (ERIO) and International Debate Education Association (IDEA). Beside his active involvement in international Roma movement, Valery Novoselsky participates in public initiatives of Russian Diaspora organizations. Languages: English, Russian, Ukrainian, Hebrew, basic Romani, basic Spanish.

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