Israel Table of Contents

THE SOCIETY OF MODERN ISRAEL has diverse sources, but the majority of these sources stem ultimately from Judaism and the modern political movement called Zionism. Crystallizing in the late nineteenth century as a response to both the repression of Jews in Eastern Europe and the non-Jewish European nationalist movements of the time, Zionism called for the reversal of the Jewish dispersion (Diaspora) and the "ingathering of the exiles" to their biblical homeland. Although only small numbers of Jews had resided in Palestine since the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in A.D. 70, the "new Yishuv" (as opposed to the "old Yishuv" consisting of traditional Orthodox Jewish residents), or prestate Jewish community in Palestine, dates from 1882 and the arrival from Russia of a group called Hibbat Tziyyon (Lovers of Zion), intent on settling the land as part of its fulfillment of the Zionist ideal.

As a nationalist movement, Zionism largely succeeded: much of the Jewish Diaspora was dissolved, and the people were integrated into the population of the State of Israel--a self-consciously modern Jewish state. Along with this political achievement, a cultural achievement of equal, if not greater, importance took place. Hebrew, the ancient biblical language, was revived and became the modern spoken and written vernacular. The revival of Hebrew linked the new Jewish state to its Middle Eastern past and helped to unify the people of the new state by providing them with a common tongue that transcended the diversity of languages the immigrants brought with them.

Despite these political and cultural achievements--achievements that Israeli sociologist S.N. Eisenstadt sees as comprising "the Jewish re-entry into history"--modern Israeli society is still beset by problems, some of them profound. Among these are problems found in all industrial and economically differentiated social systems, including stratification by socioeconomic class, differential prestige attached to various occupations or professions, barriers to social mobility, and different qualities of life in urban centers, towns, and rural localities. For example, there are significant differences between the quality of life in the so-called development towns and the rural localities known as kibbutzim (sing., kibbutz) and moshavim (sing., moshav), respectively collective and cooperative settlements that are strongly socialist and Zionist in history and character.

Other social problems that Israel faces are unique to its own society and culture. The role that traditional Judaism should play in the modern state is a major source of controversy. The tension between religious and secular influences pervades all aspects of society. For example, religious practices influence the education system, the way ethnic groups are dealt with, how political debate is conducted, and there is no civil marriage in Israel.

The division between the Ashkenazim (Jews of European or American origin) and Oriental Jews (Jews of African or Asian origin) is another serious problem. This divisiveness results from the extreme cultural diversity in the migratory streams that brought Jewish immigrants to Israel between the late nineteenth century and the late 1980s. Already-settled members of the receiving society have had difficulty absorbing immigrants whose cultures differ so greatly from their own and from each other. Adding further to cultural disharmony is the problem of the place of non-Jews in the Jewish state. In Israel non-Jews are primarily Arabs (who are mostly Muslims, but also Christians and Druzes) a small number are non-Arab Muslims (such as the Circassians) or Christians (such as the Armenian residents of Jerusalem). Jewish Israelis also distinguish between Arabs who reside within the pre-June 1967 War boundaries of Israel and Arabs who live in the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and the Gaza Strip--the latter group is perceived as having no loyalty to the state.

The rift between Arabs and Jews in Israel is, of course, related to Israel's position in the contemporary Middle East. By Israeli count, the 1982 invasion of Lebanon was the fifth major Arab-Israeli war since 1948. This does not count smaller military actions or larger, more celebrated military actions, such as the Entebbe raid of July 1976. American political scientist Bernard Reich has written that "Israel is perhaps unique among states in having hostile neighbors on all of its borders, with the exception, since 1979, of Egypt." He adds that this fact has dominated all aspects of Israeli life since 1948, when the state was established and was invaded by Arab armies. It might be noted that security concerns were a striking feature of life (especially after 1929 and Arab violence against Jews) in the Yishuv as well. To the tension caused by cleavages between Oriental and Ashkenazi Jews, between the religious and the secularists, and between Jews and non-Jews must be added the profound social and psychological stress of living in a society at war with, and feeling itself to be under siege by, its neighbors. Many Israelis would also cite the special stress of having to serve as soldiers in areas regarded by Arab inhabitants as "occupied territories," a situation characterized, especially since December 1987, by increasing civil disobedience and violence.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress