Of the 5,000 years of Jerusalem’s history, Jews represented a majority of the population for about 1100 years. Jewish rule and control over the city lasted about 600 years. In 1850, Jerusalem’s Jews were a small minority; less than 1,000 in a population of 25,000.
The dream for Jews to return began in 1878 with the first Zionist movement to Palestine. Millions left Russia to come to Palestine and elsewhere as anti-semitism rose in 1881. Thus began decades of Jews from around the world seeking refuge in Palestine, then under British Mandate, with another huge surge of refugees as war and anti-semitism broke out across Europe and Asia at the beginning of the century. Jews still hold Judah as their "homeland" as part of their religious beliefs. The Biblical story of Israel being promised to Abraham and Moses as the land of milk and honey was a deed from God for the Jews. For the millions of Jews having their land and property, and life, taken from them, the faith in the restoration of Judah or Israel, as God promised, was a shining light in the darkness. For many sects of the Jewish religion, it is taught that just to walk on the land of Israel or in Jerusalem is to gain a place in the "world to come" or heaven.
By 1947, most of the rest of the world was overwhelmed with the number of Jewish refugees flooding into their countries and they decided to grant the Jews their wish. They turned the frustrating area over to the United Nations which declared the former British Mandate, Palestine, an independent Jewish state, becoming Israel in 1948. The British, worn out from WWII and the years of fighting in the Middle East, gave up resisting and left. The day after the official state was declared, the war of independence began as the Palestinians, many whose families claim to have lived in the area for over 1000 years, declared war upon the new country. Thousands of European and Russian immigrants flooded the country and joined the fight, including many just out of the concentration camps of Europe, determined to fight back. Egypt, Jordan, Syria and other Middle Eastern countries joined the fight on the side the Arabs. While many European and North American countries talked about backing Israel, few actually helped. Israel won and occupied the boundaries as set up by the United Nations. After another war in 1967, the lines are finally drawn in the sand between the Palestinian refuges, the other neighboring countries, and Israel, where they basically remain today.
Israel will be open to Jewish immigration and the ingathering of exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its habitants irrespective of religion, race or sex…"
The 1948 Israel Declaration of Independence
The breadth of diversity in Israel is amazing. With the beginning of the Zionist’s political drive to bring the Jews back to Israel, the immigrants have arrived in what are called "waves" ever since. The first wave of "pioneers" mostly came from Russia and Eastern Europe. Huge waves of immigrants came from Germany and Poland, and other Nazi occupied countries, between World War I to after World War II. North Africans, Egyptians, Iranians, and others facing Arab oppression in the 1950s, sought freedom in Israel, bringing their distinctive influences to the already diverse country. More recently, Russians, Romanians, and Yugoslavians are arriving by droves daily to escape religious and ethnic persecution as well as economic hardship. The Russians make up the largest group of immigrants in Israel, with over 1 million here, about one-sixth of the entire population.
These diverse groups bring their traditions and practices of the Jewish faith with them. Long united only by the religious books, the Jewish faith, similar to Christianity, had become diverse in their practices and rituals, and sometimes their belief system. Whatever their beliefs, they brought with them their culture and culinary skills. The country abounds with restaurants and bakeries and other food sellers featuring traditional foods from Russia, Poland, Greece, Germany, Romania, England, and Ethiopia, and all are combined with the traditional Arabic food found here.
Traditional practices and menus are usually found in the home, and the parents and grandparents still call themselves Germans, Russians, Italians, Ethiopians, Iranians and so on. But their children become Israelis, a blend of new and old moving towards a unique future. Many of these children will not learn their parent’s language, though some do. By the second or third generation, most are speaking Hebrew and another language, often English, not the language of their grandparents. In this way, Israel and the United States have much in common as a giant melting pot of humanity. Most US citizens are not Norwegian, English, French, Mexican, Venezuelan, or German – they are just Americans.
In the fight to overcome the British’s restrictions on immigration during World War II, Israel quickly put laws in place to allow immigration by anyone of Jewish descent without restriction. Jewish immigrants make "aliya", which literally translated means "ascension", a process of indoctrinating the new immigrant into the language, politics and life of living in Israel, often with the help of previous immigrants. The government pays for some of their basic living costs and the expenses of training programs in Hebrew and other programs for the first few years, depending upon the process of immigration they choose. With each new group of immigrants, Israel improved the process of absorption, and over the past 50 years, they have developed quite the indoctrination program.
As Israel fought to gain its independence after recognition by the Balfour Desicion of 1948, new borders were laid out, then tested in the 1967 War and many other times. This memorial honors the establishment of the border between Israel and Lebanon and the horrible cost in lives.
The inflow of such vast numbers of immigrants isn’t easy on such a resource-limited country. It has brought massive housing shortages, high unemployment, and a soaring cost for welfare, but the passion to provide a refuge for Jews overcomes the hardships. The one resource Israel has learned to honor and recognize is in the power of its people. Education has long been held in the highest of regard by Jews and the country offers some of the finest institutes of learning in the world. Many of the country’s residents are very well educated. Yet, there are only so many jobs for attorneys and doctors, so there are many qualified people taking whatever job they can find. As the immigrants struggle to pass tests and learn the language, they take any job they can find. Once every two weeks we have a man come in to clean the apartment. He is a doctor from Russia. A friend of ours is a lawyer from Romania who works in a juice bar on the waterfront during the summer and waits tables during the winter. Many of these over-educated and resourceful people become entrepreneurs, using their skills in ingenious ways as they struggle to find a place and income in Israel. This recognition of human ingenuity helped create a thriving Internet, E-commerce, and software development industry and other technological industries in Israel.
Not Everyone in Israel is a Jew
As the people were exiled from the area, they took their heritage with them through their religious practices and teachings. They also kept alive the pride of being a descendent from the land of Judah, connecting themselves as a nation of people without a country to the land of Judah or Israel. By converting to Judaism, a person can join this "nation". Through matriarchal succession, a child born of a Jewish mother is a Jew even if they do not practice the religion or if the father is of another race or religion. If a woman converts to Judaism, her children become Jews, and if the daughter has a child, that child is a Jew, even if they do not practice the Jewish religion. In this unique way they keep their history and faith alive.
Approximately 20% of Israelis are non-Jews. Most are Muslim but Christians represent a very small minority, and many of those are Arabs. Among the more interesting of the non-Jews are the Bedouins and Druze. The Bedouins are the traditional desert wanderers, Arabs who move with their herds following the seasons and the water supply, and living in great tents. While some are beginning to stay in one place, courtesy of Israeli settlement projects, many still wander across the deserts of the Middle East, obeying few borders, though in Israel they tend to stay in the Negev desert. The Bedouins are renowned as great traders and fantastic hosts, making the greeting of feeding of guests a major ritual and an experience that can last for days.
The Druze are a fascinating and mysterious people in the Middle East who can trace their roots back over 900 years to Egypt. Living in the remote and isolated areas of Lebanon, Syria, and Israel, they keep their religious practices a secret from the rest of the world. It is believed to be a combination of Judaism, Islam, Christianity, and Sufism with a belief in reincarnation, but they keep the real facts to themselves. Long time residents of the Galilee, they have blended well into the Israeli society, more so than many of the other groups. One reason could be that they are willing to participate in the 2-3 year army service requirement, as the Bedouins do, whereas many Israeli-Arabs do not. Their traditional attire of men with huge bushy mustaches and white head dresses and black bloomers for pants makes for another distinctive and varied fashion statement in Israel.
Tel Aviv, Israel