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Official name State of Israel
Formation 1948 / 1994
Capital Jerusalem (not internationally recognized)
Population 7.3 million / 930 people per sq mile (359 people per sq km)
Total area 8019 sq. miles (20,770 sq. km)
Languages Hebrew*, Arabic*, Yiddish, German, Russian, Polish, Romanian, Persian
Religions Jewish 76%, Muslim (mainly Sunni) 16%, Other 4%, Druze 2%, Christian 2%
Ethnic mix Jewish 76%, Arab 20%, Other 4%
Government Parliamentary system
Currency Shekel = 100 agorot
Literacy rate 99%
Calorie consumption 3540 kilocalories
Israel as a Jewish state traces its origins back to Abraham, the biblical patriarch who propounded the concept of monotheism (a belief in one god). According to the Bible Abraham, his son Yitzhak (Isaac), and grandson Jacob (later changed to Israel) lived in the region of Canaan, which later became known as “the land of the children of Israel” or simply “the land of Israel.” From Jacob’s 12 sons arose the 12 tribes that combined to form the Israelites, the precursors of the Jewish nation. The name Jew is derived from Yehuda (Judah) who was one of Jacob’s progeny.
Archaeology and history tell us that the people who became the Hebrews, the Israelites, and ultimately the Jews were indigenous to the region west of the Jordan River. The Bible tells their story in details that are sometimes difficult to verify but nonetheless powerful to those who believe the Hebrew Bible as a historical account. The rule of the Israelites in the land of Israel, according to biblical accounts, began with the conquests of Joshua, the successor of Moses, credited with leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt.
The period from 1000 to 587 B.C.E. is known as the “Period of the Kings.” The greatest among the legendary kings was David (1010–970), who unified Israel and Judah, two related but independent nations, combining them into the kingdom of Israel. David made Jerusalem the capital of Israel, and his son Solomon (970–31) built the first temple there.
In 587 the army of the Babylonian ruler Nebuchadnezzar (c. 630–562) captured Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and drove the Jews into captivity. They went to Babylon (presentday Iraq), and the area was subsequently ruled or controlled by a number of powerful empires.
Following the Persian conquest of Babylon the Emperor Cyrus (c. 585–c. 29) allowed the Jewish exiles to return to their homeland, and in 516 they rebuilt their Temple in Jerusalem, which they called the Second Temple. The Jewish people reestablished themselves but eventually found that they were caught between expanding powers, Egypt and Syria. The land came under Syrian rule, causing revolt and civil war and ultimately resulting in subjugation by Rome.
The Roman Empire seized Israel in 63 B.C.E., placing it under the control of a series of consuls, including Herod the Great (73 B.C.E.–4 C.E.) and Pontius Pilate (d. after 36 C.E.). This was around the time when Jesus is believed to have been born, grown up, and provided the inspiration for the foundation of Christianity.
The malpractices and misrule of the Emperor Caligula (who lived between 12 and 41) led to a Jewish revolt. It lasted four years but was finally crushed, and the Temple in Jerusalem was again razed. After a second revolt Jerusalem itself was devastated, and a new city (Aelia Capitolina) built in its place. At this time the province of Palestine was created. This bitter defeat marked the end of the ancient Jewish state and the beginning of the Diaspora, the scattering of the Jewish people across the world.
In 331 the Emperor Constantine (306–37) converted to Christianity and gave the religion official status. But Christianity’s hold over the country was short-lived. In 638 Jerusalem fell to the Caliph Omar (c. 581–644) and was declared a holy city of Islam on the grounds that Muhammad had ascended to heaven from the Temple Mount. This enraged Christians around the world, and by the year 1099, in what became known as the Crusades, they had raised an army, occupied Jerusalem, and started nearly 100 years of Christian rule.
By the year 1187, however, the Muslims had regained control of the region. After decades of conflict the Islamic Mamluks gained control of the last crusader stronghold in 1291. Mamluk is the Arabic word that is usually translated as “owned.” The Mamluks were slave soldiers deployed by the Muslim caliphs and the Ottoman Empire and who, on more than one occasion, seized power for themselves.
During the next 500 years empires rose and fell.
In the 16th century the Ottoman Empire took control, and Suleyman the Magnificent (1491/95–1566) rebuilt Jerusalem’s city walls. By the mid-19th century the Ottomans’ grip over Israel had loosened considerably, and other countries began to take an interest in the region. The United Kingdom opened a consulate in Jerusalem, and in 1839 Sir Moses Montefiore (1784–1885), a British Jew, proposed the idea of an independent Jewish state. By the 1880s when a devastating series of anti-Semitic pogroms (massacres of Jews) swept through the Russian Empire, and a new ideology of Jewish nationalism (Zionism) emerged, European Jews increasingly turned their attention to the land of Israel, where they hoped to realize their new dream of self-determination in their ancient homeland. Jews poured out of Europe to the United States, South America, and British dominions, but they also immigrated to Palestine in the First Aliyah (or “ascension”) between 1881 and 1903. Continued anti-Semitism, particularly the Dreyfus affair in France, in which a Jewish officer was unjustly convicted and imprisoned for treason in the 1890s, also inspired Zionism. The first Zionist Congress met in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897.
While Jewish settlement increased in Ottoman Palestine, the Arab population of Palestine was developing its own nationalist consciousness. Hostility between Jews and Arabs increased; meanwhile the Ottoman Empire disintegrated.
During World War I Britain issued the Balfour Declaration (1917), which declared its support for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.
Britain similarly promised Arabs that it would support Arab independence in the Middle East. When the war ended Britain was given a mandate to rule the country, and it sought to balance various claims with its own colonial self-interests. Jewish immigration increased, national aspirations expanded, and Arab hostility and resistance grew.
Following World War II British control of the situation in Palestine eroded. By 1947 the conflict among Arabs, Jews, and British colonial authorities had reached a crisis point, and Britain withdrew from its mandate. A United Nations partition plan, Resolution 181, which was passed in November 1947, sought to create two new states in Palestine, one Arab and one Jewish. Reaction to the Holocaust (the systematic genocide of millions of European Jews by the Nazis prior to and during World War II) was a major impetus in the creation of a Jewish state, which world powers supported as a place of refuge for the surviving remnants of European Jewry.
On May 14, 1948, the country of Israel came into being and was immediately plunged into war, as Arabs rejected the prospect of sharing Palestine and attacked. Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon invaded Israel but were pushed back. By the time a cease-fire was declared in May 1949, Israel had secured and extended the territory under its control.
Citizenship was offered to any Jewish individual who chose to immigrate, and the country welcomed an influx of new arrivals.
The next few years witnessed continued skirmishes between Israel and Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon. On June 5, 1967, Israel reacted sharply to the threats it faced from its Arab neighbors and launched attacks on Arab troops gathered along its borders. During the Six-Day War Israel extended its territory into the Golan Heights, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Sinai Peninsula. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), founded in 1964 and reconstituted under the late Yasser Arafat (1929–2004), emerged as the principal representative of the Palestinian people and vowed to regain their lost territories and destroy the Israeli state.
In 1979 after failing to regain the Sinai from Israel in the Yom Kippur War (1973), Egypt signed a mutual recognition pact with Israel, and the Sinai was handed back. Relations with Lebanon and Syria worsened. In 1981 Israel invaded Lebanon, and the Golan Heights were formally annexed. Israeli troops withdrew in 1985, but the area along its border in south Lebanon remained an occupied security zone until 2000, when a peace agreement with Jordan was signed.
In 1987 a Palestinian uprising, known as the Intifada, tried to put an end to the encroachment of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. To this end it employed guerrilla warfare against Israeli forces. In 1993 the Oslo Peace Accord advocated mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO. It also offered limited Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza. The chances of success were diminished when, in 1995, Israel’s prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin (1922–95) was assassinated by an extremist, ultra-Orthodox Jewish law student, Yigal Amir (b.
1970). Rabin’s successor Benjamin Netanyahu (b.
1949) proved unsympathetic to the peace process.
During his time Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza spread, and terrorist activity increased.
In 1999 Ehud Barak (b. 1942) came to power in Israel promising to withdraw from the security zone in southern Lebanon, where Israeli troops and Hezbollah guerrillas had been fighting each other.
Israeli forces unilaterally withdrew in May 2000, and hope grew that Israel might achieve peace both with its neighbors and with the Palestinians. Yet talks between Prime Minister Barak and Chairman Arafat broke down, and in 2001 hard-liner Ariel Sharon (b.
1928) replaced Barak as prime minister. Previous to his election Sharon made a controversial visit to the al-Aqsa/Temple Mount Complex in Jerusalem, which seemed to ignite a second, more bitter Intifada (uprising), along with a tougher, more resistant Israeli policy toward the Palestinians.
The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States further toughened the Israeli mood. Both sides hurled accusations and blamed each other for unleashing violence and anarchy. As Palestinian suicide bombers killed or wounded myriad civilians, the Israelis swooped down on the Palestinians, attacking suspected terrorist cells and tightening their grip on the West Bank. However Sharon’s policies did little to check the waves of suicide bombings by the Palestinians.
During this time the day-to-day living conditions in the Palestinian territories deteriorated. The aging and feeble leader Arafat resisted attempts to loosen his grip on power but was increasingly isolated.
Israeli settlers on Palestinian land continued to swell. Construction of a security fence was declared illegal by the United Nation’s judicial branch. Yet despite the constant threat of violent acts of terror, life went on. Restaurants and shopping malls were still visited by the local inhabitants, especially the young. Tourist attractions remained open.
Industry and factories functioned normally. Whatever the political environment, Israeli society continued to grow and develop.
With the passing of Yasir Arafat in November 2004, the election of Mahmud Abbas (b. 1935) as the new Palestinian leader in January 2005, and an initiative by Prime Minister Sharon to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, new hope emerged that peace might be possible.
GEOGRAPHY AND CLIMATE
The terrain of Israel is divided into four general areas: the coastal plain, which is fertile, humid, and thickly populated, stretches along the Mediterranean Sea; the central highlands, including the hills of Galilee in the north, have the country’s highest elevation at Mt. Meron (3,963 feet) and the arid Judean hills in the south; the Jordan Rift Valley with its lowest point (1,309 feet below sea level) at the Dead Sea; and the Negev Desert, which occupies about half Israel’s area.
Israel has a Mediterranean climate characterized by long, hot, dry summers and short, cool, rainy winters, as modified locally by altitude and latitude.
The climate is determined by Israel’s location between the subtropical aridity characteristic of Egypt and the subtropical humidity of the Levant, or eastern Mediterranean. January is the coldest month, with temperatures ranging from 41°F to 50°F, and August is the hottest month, with temperatures from 64°F to 100°F.
About 70 percent of the average rainfall in the country falls between November and March; the months of June through August are often rainless.
Rainfall is unevenly distributed, decreasing sharply as one moves southward. In the north the average annual rainfall is 44 inches; in the extreme south, rainfall averages less than 4 inches annually. The areas of the country where agriculture is practiced receive about 12 inches of rainfall annually, and about one-third of the country is arable. Rainfall varies from season to season and from year to year, particularly in the Negev Desert. Precipitation is often concentrated in violent storms, causing erosion and flooding. During January and February it may take the form of snow at the higher elevations of the central highlands, including Jerusalem.
Israel has the most diversified economy in the Middle East, with a high level of modernization and a record of technical innovation. In recent years the Israeli economy has experienced an upswing, much of it due to a decreasing need to divert funds to the military. Much of the strength of Israel’s economy, however, comes from a politics that has allowed high deficits on state budgets and foreign trade balances.
Mining is an important activity for the Israeli economy, and a lot of minerals are extracted from the Dead Sea. Oil drilling exists in Israel but on a very small scale. Agriculture in Israel is very effective since it is able to cover about 75 percent of domestic needs, despite the limited land available. However agriculture contributes only 3 percent of Israel’s gross national product (GDP). Mainly citrus fruits and eggs are exported. Water, critical to agriculture, is a valuable resource and a source of conflict between Israel, the Occupied Territories, and Israel’s neighbors.
Israel has a large income from tourism (especially religious tourism), as well as from donations from individuals and organizations around the world. The United States aids the Israeli economy at the level of $3 billion annually, of which $1.8 billion is allocated to military expenses; the balance goes to the civilian economy. Since the Israeli economy still runs with heavy deficits, the country cannot do without this help, even though recent governments have declared economic independence as a major objective.
Israel has the highest average standard of living in the Middle East, but many, particularly immigrants and Israel’s Arab citizens, do not benefit from the country’s wealth. The cost of living in Israel is high, and for many their wages never manage to cover more than their basic costs. A large portion of the population lives under very modest conditions, often surviving only on aid from the government.
CULTURE AND LIFESTYLE
Probably one of the most familiar aspects of Israeli culture to outsiders, although occupied by only about 7 percent of the country’s population, is the kibbutzim (singular, kibbutz), Israel’s collective communities.
Other countries have attempted communal enterprises, but no other country has been as successful in their implementation. For one thing communal groups in other countries, for example, in the former Soviet Union, were not voluntary; they were imposed by the government. In Israel, in contrast, the kibbutzim are voluntary, intentional collective communities, and they have played a vital role in Israel’s economic success; indeed the kibbutzim have played an essential role in the creation of Israel, especially as the world beyond its borders perceives it.
Though the kibbutz movement never accounted for more than 7 percent of the Israeli population, it did more to shape the image Israelis have of their country, and the image that foreigners have of Israel, than any other Israeli institution. During the six decades of its existence Israel has emerged as a world power, owing to the ambitions, hard work, and creativity of its citizens, and the kibbutzim have provided many of Israel’s military leaders, intellectuals, and politicians.
The Jewish community that inhabits Israel has always been diverse, drawing on the traditions of the wide range of Jews who have returned there from the worldwide Diaspora. Some practice an Orthodox Judaism, while many are secular. Israelis display artistic brilliance in music, literature, dance, and architecture wherever they live, but Israel’s musicians have created a diversified musical tradition.
During the first few years of Israel’s existence, an attempt to forge a unique Israeli cultural identity by combining its constituent musical cultures failed because the disparate musical traditions did not blend well. After 1948 explicit government policy encouraged Hebrew language songs instead of Ladino or Yiddish ones, and Hebrew gradually became the language of choice for most Israeli musicians, though many occasionally include a song or album in Yiddish or Ladino. Into the 1950s most of the musical stars were Yemenite Jews because Yemen had long been a center for the preservation of Jewish traditions. For this reason Yemenite Jews remain popular and some performers have achieved international popularity. Sephardic Jews, for example, Haim Louk and Ruth Yaakov, have also had a major role in the development of Israeli popular music.
During the decades of the 1980s and 1990s wave of roots revival and fusion musicians arose, fusing Iranian, Turkish, Greek, and Moroccan traditions with rock and roll, pop music, and jazz.
Habrera Hativeet, influenced by musical traditions as varied as American blues, African folk music, and Hassidic song, is perhaps the most influential of these groups. Even more recently hip hop has made some inroads into mainstream Israeli musical audiences.
Israel is also one of the leading sources for Goa trance and psychedelic trance music. The most popular artists are Astral Projection, Infected Mushroom, and Skazi.
Israel is also at the forefront of science and technology in disciplines that range from agricultural innovations to medical breakthroughs. Israeli scientists have contributed in the areas of genetics, medicine, agriculture, computer sciences, electronics, optics, engineering and other high-tech industries.
Israeli science is known for its military technology, from simple submachine guns like the Uzi to advanced anti-ballistic defense system. Israel is also one of the few nations capable of launching satellites into orbit. Israel’s scientists have also pioneered in important areas such as energy-conserving methods of crop irrigation, cancer research, and theoretical physics.
Israel’s cosmopolitan society is reflected by the diverse cuisines available there. The Jewish culinary arts mirror the various places that the Jews have lived through the centuries. Jewish cooking is a fusion of Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Spanish, German, and Eastern European gastronomies.
For instance, stuffed cabbage is common in eastern Europe. Blintzes (cheese wraps) and knishes (buns stuffed with meat or potatoes) are German in origin; couscous originated in North Africa, falafel is Egyptian, and shishlik comes from Turkey.
At the same time Jewish food is the food of an agrarian people, who in earlier times barely subsisted.
This reality led to the evolution of a style of cooking that valued everything and wasted nothing.
The dishes are based on readily available ingredients that were also fairly cheap.
Basically one can divide Israeli cuisine into two genres: Ashkenazi and Sephardic. Ashkenazi refers to Jewish people (immigrants) from eastern and western Europe, while Sephardic Jews come mainly from the Mediterranean and Spain. Ashkenazi cooking tends to be heavier and sweeter; Sephardic food is full of aromatic spices and herbs. The latest trend is to combine both traditions.
Orthodox Jews at home, as well as many Israeli restaurants, observe the laws of kashruth, the Jewish dietary laws that dictate what is kosher—which foods may be eaten and which may not—as well as how meals must be prepared and eaten. Kosher means “fit to eat” and encompasses a whole code of rules that originate in the Hebrew Bible’s book of Leviticus. When dining kosher, for instance, pork and shellfish are trayf and cannot be eaten at all, and meat and dairy products cannot be mixed and must be eaten on separate sets of dishes.
The ceremonies of naming infants can either take place in the synagogue or at home, and relatives and friends are welcome to attend the naming. During the ceremony one chair is traditionally left empty (for Elijah, the prophet, to witness the occasion). The Jewish equivalents of a child’s godmother (kvaterin) and godfather (kvater) are involved in the ceremony.
Among the Ashkenazim (Jews from Western European backgrounds) names are usually chosen to honor deceased members of the family (it is forbidden to name a child after a living person). On the other hand among Sephardic Jews (of Eastern heritage), children are named after esteemed individuals still living, to honor them during their lifetimes. It is customary for each child to be given a Hebrew name (by which they will be addressed when in the synagogue) as well as a secular name. The Hebrew name may be simply a translation of the secular name or a completely different one.
Jewish boys are circumcised in a ceremony performed on the eighth day after birth called the brismile or bris (bris, in Yiddish, means “covenant”). The bris represents, or reenacts, the original covenant between God and Abraham. Blessings and prayers accompany a naming ceremony, which is followed by the circumcision itself. Girls are named in the synagogue on the Sabbath closest to their birth. The ceremony is called the brit habat and involves only blessings, prayers, and the naming. Both naming ceremonies are followed by a traditional meal and often a party.
COMING OF AGE
The Hebrew expression for “responsible male” is bar mitzvah, which literally means “son of the commandments.” According to Jewish law, a boy becomes a bar mitzvah at age 13. This means he is eligible to be counted in a prayer quorum (minyan), to wear the tefillin, to lead prayer services, and to testify before a religious court. Many families organize a festive meal to celebrate the occasion.
The equivalent for girls, meaning “responsible female” or “daughter of the commandments,” is a bat mitzvah. According to Jewish law, a girl becomes a bat mitzvah at age 12, based on the belief that girls mature earlier than boys. The bat mitzvah may be celebrated by the girl blessing and/or reading the Torah in addition to leading part of the prayer service.
Festive meals and lavish parties in honor of a girl becoming a bat mitzvah are common in non- Orthodox communities. In Orthodox communities, the bat mitzvah is more of a family celebration than a religious ritual. If a girl wants to celebrate her bat mitzvah by reading Torah or leading a prayer service, then this is generally done in the presence of women only.
The Hebrew word for engagement kiddushin means “to make holy or sanctify,” and the term for the actual wedding nissuin means “to elevate or lift up.” Thus the public ritual that has developed around Jewish marriage reflects the creation of a holy and uplifting bond between the bride and groom. Jewish law requires very little official ceremony, and the presence of a rabbi or other cleric is not mandatory.
Jewish law (halachah) requires only that two witnesses who meet certain criteria be present. The wedding ceremony often takes places out of doors under a bridal canopy (chuppah), usually a cloth covering held aloft on four poles; it symbolizes the home the couple will build together. The tradition of being married under the open sky says that “our home is subject to nature,” and reaffirms the couple’s faith in God’s protection.
The bride is the last to join the wedding party under the chuppah. Upon arrival she walks in a circle around the groom seven times. This symbolizes the seven revolutions the Earth made during the seven days of creation. The rabbi then recites the blessing over the wine and the prenuptial blessing (birkat erusin), after which the bride and groom drink from the wine goblet. The groom recites, “Haray at mekudeshet li betaba’at zu kedat Moshe v’Yisrael” (“Behold, you are consecrated to me with this ring according to the laws of Moses and Israel”) and places the ring on the bride’s finger. The marriage contract (ketubah) is then read.
Exchanging vows is not a Jewish tradition. The Sheva Brachot, or seven blessings, are recited either by the rabbi or a guest. Following the reading, the couple drinks a second cup of wine. The groom then smashes a wine glass. The smashing of the glass recalls the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, the Temple in Jerusalem. In Jewish society no celebration or social occasion (simcha) is deemed complete without thinking of the ancient shrine, its sanctity, and its key role in the lives of the people. As the devout Jewish individuals are about to build a new home, it is mandatory to recall the tragic destruction of the Temple. Usually greeted by a chorus of mazel tovs and joyous singing, the couple is escorted to a private room for the yihud, a short period of time for them to be alone together. The yihud does not call for the consummation of the marriage. Instead it is a chance for the couple to enjoy some privacy as they begin a new life together. Later they join the celebratory dinner—the first in a chain of six. Traditionally the newlywed couple is feted for seven days.
Each night a lavish dinner is held in the couple’s honor, often hosted by a relative or close friend.
At the time of a person’s death, whoever is present at the place he or she dies is not supposed to leave the room. This is done in order to pay last respects to the departed soul. The eyes and mouth of the deceased are shut, and a sheet is drawn over the deceased’s face. His or her feet are arranged so that they point toward the doorway. Until the time of burial the deceased is never left alone.
However immediate members of the family should not be present while the body is prepared for burial.
As part of the preparation the deceased is draped in a shroud. For rich and poor alike this is a simple white garment that is without pockets. He or she is then wrapped in a prayer shawl with one of the fringes cut off to symbolize the loss and mourning period. Devout Israelis do not use caskets at all; the body is put into the ground in the prayer shawl.
Since the deceased’s soul has already returned to God, it is considered proper to “return” the body as well. The deceased must therefore be buried in the earth; cremation and embalming are forbidden.
There should be a natural decomposition of the body. The burial should be done as soon as possible.
The pallbearers are usually family members and close friends, and they are the first ones to shovel the dust into the grave. A prayer called the “Kaddish” is recited for the deceased at this time. All those present at the funeral must wash their hands afterward as a cleansing process.
There are three situations in which mourners may rend their garments: upon hearing of the death, at the funeral chapel, or at the cemetery. The mourner’s act of rending his or her garment is a mark of separation. It also provides psychological relief. The garment is torn for a mother, father, son, daughter, brother, sister, or spouse.
There are five stages of mourning in Judaism: 1. between death and burial 2. the first three days following burial 3. a seven-day mourning period following burial called shivah 4. thirty days after burial, or shloshim 5. the twelve-month period The mourning period for all relatives ends with shloshim (30 days after burial). Mourning from day 31 to the end of the 12 month is to be observed only by children for their parents. Leaving the house of mourning is allowed only for a limited period of time. All mirrors in the house are covered. One reason for this is that a mourner should not improve his or her appearance during this time.
Mourners sit on low stools. Leather shoes are prohibited (because leather shoes were a symbol of wealth and comfort in ancient times). Greetings in any form by mourners and visitors are prohibited.
Wearing new clothes and enjoying carnal pleasures are also forbidden. The Sabbath bathing and washing of clothes is prohibited. Dirt may be removed locally with soap and water. Haircuts, shaving, and clipping of nails are prohibited.