Minority Groups

Israel Table of Contents

The non-Jewish--almost entirely Arab--population of Israel in the mid-1980s comprised 18 percent of the total population (these figures refer to Arabs resident within the pre-1967 borders of Israel). More than three-fourths were Sunni Muslims. Among Muslim Arabs the beduins, concentrated in the Negev, were culturally and administratively distinctive. They numbered about 29,000, divided among about forty ethnically based factions. There were approximately 2,500 (non-Arab) Sunni Muslim Circassians, concentrated in two small villages in Galilee. Among non-Muslim Arabs were Christians of various affiliations: Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholics, Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Protestants of different sects; the Greek Orthodox community being the largest of the Christian groups. In addition, there were Armenians who belonged to several Christian churches.

Another tiny minority group was that of the Samaritans, of whom about 500 remained in Israel in the late 1980s. The Samaritans are thought to be descendants of the Jews who lived in the area at the time of the Exile in Babylon beginning in 722 B.C. and who intermarried with the local inhabitants. Their religion resembles the form of ancient Judaism.

In addition, Israel contained a small number of adherents of Bahaism, an offshoot of Shia Islam. They are followers of Mirza Husayn Ali, known as Baha Ullah (the glory of God), who claimed leadership of a community founded by an Iranian spiritual leader known as the Bab (the way), in the 1850s, after the Bab was executed as a heretic. Bahais have a syncretistic faith that incorporates elements of Islam, Christianity, and universal ethical principles. Their governing body, the Universal House of Justice, which consists of elected representatives from various national spiritual assemblies, acts as supreme administrative, legislative, and judicial body for Bahais, and is located in Haifa.

As a result of a high birth rate and improved health and sanitation conditions, the total number of Israeli Arabs in 1988 (exclusive of those in the West Bank and Gaza Strip) was about equal to (and was expected soon to surpass) what it was in 1947 Palestine under the British Mandate. During and immediately after Israel's War of Independence, approximately 600,000 Arabs left the country of their own volition or were expelled; most went to Jordan's West Bank or the Gaza Strip, and some to Lebanon and the Persian Gulf states. In 1948 many had expected to return to their homes (or to take over abandoned Jewish property) in the wake of victorious Arab armies. Instead, they have come to constitute the Palestinian diaspora, whose disposition has proved fateful to the history of many states in the modern Middle East.

Israel's Arabs are guaranteed equal religious and civil rights with Jews under the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel. They have voted in national elections and sent members to the Knesset since 1949; following the 1984 elections, seven Arabs sat in the Knesset. Nevertheless, until the end of 1966, Israel's Arabs lived under a military jurisdiction that severely limited their physical mobility and ranges of permissible political expression. They have also lost much land to the Israeli government, a good deal of it expropriated by the army for "security purposes," but much more turned over to Jewish settlements in attempts to increase the Jewish presence in northern and western Galilee, the centers of Arab population.

In social and economic terms, the state has sought to dominate its Arab minority by encouraging dependence. This aim has been achieved, for example, by providing funding for the separate Arab (Muslim, Christian, and Druze) school systems, as well as access to Jewish institutions of higher learning, and by providing funding for health facilities, religious institutions, and courts. Many of these institutions have encouraged the maintenance of Arab spheres of interaction segregated from Jewish ones. But the real dependency has resulted from the integration of Arab labor into Israel's economy. This has entailed an acute deemphasis on agriculture (abetted by government expropriations of arable land) and a funneling of labor into industry, especially construction, and into services. Under the British Mandate, for example, about two-thirds of all Arabs worked in agriculture. By 1955, this figure dropped to 50 percent of Arab labor employed in the agricultural sector, 36 percent in industry and construction, and almost 14 percent in services. By the early 1980s, less than 12 percent were engaged in agriculture, 45 percent in industry and construction, and close to 43 percent in the service sector. Along with this proletarianization of Arab labor--the loss of its agrarian base--has come the urbanization of its population. In 1948 less than one-fourth of the Arab population lived in cities or towns; by the 1980s more than two-thirds did.

Yet another way in which the government has related to its Arab minorities has been by encouraging internal segmentation, primarily along religious lines, in the Arab communities. Thus Muslims, Christians, and Druzes have been differentially treated. (So have the beduins, who are Muslims but are culturally distinctive as pastoralists from Muslim Arab village and town dwellers; and so have the Circassians, who although Muslims are not Arabs. Like Christians, beduins may volunteer for service in the army, and some do; like the Druzes, Circassians are conscripted.) Differential treatment almost always has favored Christians and Druzes over Muslims; at least this has been the semi-official "policy." Some ethnographic and sociological studies of Arab villages, however, indicate that other Israeli policies have had the effect of weakening the Christian and Druze position and strengthening that of Arab Muslims.

In the past, Christian dominance, for example, was based on the control of agrarian resources in villages. The dismantling of the agrarian bases of the Arab economy and the proletarianization of Arab labor led to Arab dependence on the Jewish economy. But it did so at the expense of the wealth, and thus the political standing, of Christians. Similarly, the building and support of village and town schools open to all created an educated (and underemployed) Muslim cadre whose intellectual energies have tended to flow into antiestablishment politics.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress