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Religion in Israel

The majority of the Israeli citizens (82%) are Jewish whose origins are varied - the Ashkenazi Jews are originally from Eastern and Central Europe and the Sephardic Jews are from Spain and Africa. Though most Jews are secular there is a powerful group of the Orthodox Jews. Muslims make up 14% of the population and are mostly Sunnis. The rest of the population is Christians, Druze (a separate sect of Muslims) and Bahais and a sprinkling of others. Tourists must dress modestly at all religious sites and in the predominantly Muslim areas.

Israel, including the Gaza Strip and the West Bank has a population of 5.57 million. Of them 4.51 million (81%) are Jews, 805.000 (14.4%) are Muslims, 160,000 (2.9%) are Christians and 95,000 are Druze (1.7%) The Jews are divided over secular versus non-secular, hawks versus doves, and oriental versus Europeans attitudes. The ethnic differences divide the Jews into the Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe and the Sephardic Jews from Spain, but recently there are Jews from Arab and Muslim countries (also called the Oriental Jews).

The Palestinian Arabs are mostly concentrated in Gaza and the West Bank. Of them 80% are Sunni Muslims, the remainder being Christians. The heart of the Palestinian problem is the origin of the Palestinians. The Israelis give the time of the Palestinian origin as 7th century AD, or even 19th century, while the Palestinians claim that their ancestry goes back to five millennia. About 10% of the Arabs are Bedouin who breed sheep, goats and camels.

Approximately 50% of the population is immigrant while the rest were born in Israel. Two thirds of the people live in the Tel Aviv area. Most People live in cities but quite a few also live in the collective agricultural settlements known as kibbutzim and moshavim. The few Bedouin Arabs who were traditional desert nomads are partially settling down. The Israelis like many of the other Mediterranean people are mercurial in their temperament, very noisy, argumentative and volatile, yet friendly and helpful. While the bus driver might go out of his way to help a lost tourist, the rudeness of the Israeli officers at the immigration can upset the tourist. So accept the wheat with the chaff and your trip should be fine! Israelis are sometimes casual about the concept of time so be prepared for it. Be careful of over friendly and pushy people.

Israeli society is a colourful though volatile mix of cultures, races and religions. Many of them have an adventurous and outdoor attitude. They believe in healthy living and hard work. The kibbutz movement that was started in Russia by the Jews was a secular rural movement that aimed at returning to their "promised land". The kibbutz is a community of people (a socialistic rural society) who live together on the basis of shared ownership of the means of production and share consumption. There is no connection between work and remuneration. Each kibbutz is an independent legal, social and economic entity. The establishment of Israel meant that many responsibilities had to be transferred from the kibbutzim to the new government. Like the farmers of today, the members of the kibbutzim are facing hard times so more and more of the younger generation is moving away from this collective culture. Hence, the kibbutz culture is waning after so many decades of existence and only about 2% people live on 270 remaining kibbutzim. But even today a large number of officers in the government are kibbutz members.

The Moshav is a cooperative village that has the traits of both private and collective farming. Families have their own homes, and individual plots of land and budgets. But capital items like machinery are owned by the "moshav", which also markets the produce and buys supplies collectively to get a better price. Approximately 3.2 % of Israel’s population lives on 450 moshavim.

The Israelis claim to be secular but their roots are steeped in Judaism and they follow orthodox Jewish traditions such as circumcision and "bar mitzvah". For over two decades a noveau riche society has come into prominence. The Ultra orthodox Jews, the fundamentalists, or "Haredim", resent the easygoing attitude of the soft liners and try to enforce their strict beliefs on all Israeli Jews. The traditional Palestinians have extended families. As people they are very friendly and helpful to strangers and have no hesitation in inviting strangers to their homes. Their weddings are huge affairs involving whole villages. Though Palestinians are usually tolerant of foreigners, when visiting the Gaza Strip or the West Bank towns, you must dress conservatively. Men and women must both cover their legs while women should not expose their shoulders or upper arms.

Though the secular Israelites are quite westernized in their approach, the visitors have to respect certain conventions in religious areas. Female visitors have to dress conservatively and keep themselves covered in the Orthodox section of the Old City in Jerusalem. While visiting the Muslim Holy sights, the westerners should dress conservatively and remove their shoes when entering the places of worship. Bargaining is acceptable to shop reasonably. "Shalom" meaning peace is the word used for greeting.


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