Israel: A Melting Pot of Cultures

Israel is a country of minorities—literally built and founded by immigrants from a multitude of ethnicities.


Judaism is the largest religion but its adherents hail from Asia to South America. Hence, it is difficult to talk about Israel without mentioning the core value of immigration, or ‘Aliyah,’ (“ascension” to Israel) by Jews from all corners of the earth.

Jews comprise approximately 75 percent of Israel’s total population. Israel grants full social and political equality, regardless of ethnicity, religion or gender. Israel’s Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty (Basic Law) ensures this right.

“The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and the ingathering of exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel…”

– Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, 1948

Immigration to Israel

• The idea of immigration, or ‘Aliyah,’ literally means ‘ascension’ to Israel.

• Israel – a melting-pot of cultures, languages and traditions – is a country built on immigration with a pioneering spirit.

• The term dates back to the time that Jews were exiled in Babylon (6th century BCE) and longed to return to their ancestral homeland, Israel.


• After Israel was established in the wake of the Holocaust, the country decided that Jews had a birthright to create a life in Israel – and that Israel would always be the safe-haven for Jews around the world. Over a million Jews from Eastern Europe and the Middle East moved to Israel after World War II.

• Today, Jews from all over the world move to Israel and receive social assistance from the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption when doing so.

In addition, numerous Israel Supreme Court rulings incorporate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, including their religious freedom provisions, into the country’s body of law,” according to the U.S. State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report 2010.


Ethiopian Jews


There are more than 120,000 Ethiopians living in Israel

  • Israel approved the immigration of 8,000 Falash Mura (Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity to avoid persecution in the 19th Century) to Israel in 2010. Israel called it a ‘moral duty’ to help alleviate the harsh living conditions of the Falash Mura, many of whom live in poor transit camps in northern Ethiopia.
  • Operation Moses: The first big Aliyah of Ethiopian Jews to Israel began in the 1980s. After a severe famine affected Ethiopia, approximately 8,000 Ethiopian Jews tried to make their way to Israel. Israel began an intensive operation to transport thousands of Ethiopians to Israel via aircraft.
  • Operation Solomon: In the 1990s, Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, was seized by rebels. Israel struck a deal with Ethiopia and brought some 15,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in the span of 34 hours on May 24, 1991.
  • Organizations like IAEJ, the Israeli Association for Ethiopian Jews, advocates for Ethiopian immigrants among decision-makers.

Humanitarian groups, including the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the UJA-Federations, sponsor programs that help Ethiopians resettle in Israel.



The Samaritans are an ethnic-religious group in Israel whose religious tradition is very close to Judaism. There are fewer than one-thousand Samaritans in the region today. They are considered an ‘Abrahamic’ faith and observe many of the Jewish holidays. They have been present in the land of Israel for some 2,500 years. Holon is the main Israeli city where Samaritans live. Samaritans also live in Kiryat Luza near Mount Gerizim in the West Bank (outside Nablus). Mount Gerizim is considered a Samaritan holy spot.

Entrance to the Samaritan synagogue in the Neveh Pinhas neighborhood in the city of Holon. (Mikel Lejarza).



Coptic Christians are a religious minority in the Middle East who live and worship in Israel freely. There are some 1,000 Orthodox Coptic Christians in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth. There are also Coptic Catholics in Israel. Copts are the largest Christian minority in the Middle East.

After parliamentary elections took place in Egypt at the end of November 2011, Coptic Christians were concerned “that their limited rights will come under greater threat,” Voice of America reported. Coptic Christians in Egypt have been attacked by radical Islamic groups. Copts have limited rights to build new churches and restore old ones in Egypt—as the government bureaucracy must grant first permission, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom 2010 annual report.

The Queen Helen Coptic Church houses a vast underground cistern that provided water to the Holy Sepulcher. (David Katz)

A Coptic Christian outside the Queen Helen Coptic Orthodox Church, which sits atop the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. (David Katz)



An Arab Mosque in Acre,
an Arab-town in northern Israel (David Katz)

Arabs are a group whose heritage and ethnic identity is Arab. They speak Arabic – the language of the Muslim’s holy book, the Koran – or belong to tribes that are part of the pan-Arab identity. Many scholars explain that Arabs pre-date Islam and that Arab identity is partly cultural, partly linguistic and partly genealogical. Most Arabs are Muslim – but the second-largest religion among Arabs is Christianity.

Israel’s Arab population in 2010 was estimated at 1,573,000, representing 20.4% of the country’s population. There are also more than 300,000 Arabs with permanent Israeli residency that live in East Jerusalem. They receive municipal services from the State of Israel and have municipal voting rights within Jerusalem.

Some 1.4 million Sunni Arabs live in Israel, mostly in the northern parts of the country. Jaffa and Jerusalem also have large Muslim populations. Approximately 16 percent of Israel’s population is Muslim—constituting the second-largest religious group in the country.

Israel funds more than 100 public mosques in the country and pays the salaries of their imams (religious leaders). In addition, government funding covers the purchase of Korans used in mosques. The Israeli government also funds Arab schools as well as numerous Islamic schools and colleges. Arab-operated schools teach Islamic studies and Arabic, in addition to the Ministry of Education’s general curriculum.

Israeli-Arab Women

Israeli-Arab women are encouraged to play a full role in society and indeed many do. Arab women serve in Israel’s parliament and hold senior positions in business, the trade union movement, arts and entertainment.

Israeli-Arab businesswomen at the Jasmine Conference in 2011 (David Katz)

Israeli programs – run by private foundations and by the government – encourage Israeli-Arabs to integrate into Israeli society and explore terms of empowerment through business. Jasmine, for example, is a group that provides women with the tools for success in small-businesses. Their motto states: “Jasmine aims to represent and promote businesswomen from all ethnic communities in Israel in the national and international business arenas. Since its establishment in 2006, Jasmine has been assisting women who own registered businesses in Israel, from all communities and all parts of the country, through organizing and running courses, events, forums, conferences and conducting advocacy and publicity in order to address these needs and improve the status of women from all communities in Israel.”

The Center for Jewish-Arab Economic Development is another Israeli NGO that focuses on Arab-Israeli integration through jobs and employment.

Delicious desserts popular in Arab culture, such as kanafeh, made from vermicelli-like pastry, soft cheese, butter and pistachios (David Katz).

Young Arab-Israelis relaxing with a waterpipe, a flavored-pipe also known as a nargilah or a hookah, in Abu Gosh, an Arab town on the outskirts of Jerusalem in Israel. While some believe the nargilah originated in the Middle East others claim it originated in India. Nonetheless, the waterpipe is popular in Israeli society. (David Katz)




The Bedouin are a semi-nomadic minority that live in Israel and Egypt. There are over 150,000 Bedouins estimated to be living in Israel—many of whom reside in the Negev Desert in southern Israel.

Many Bedouin men serve in the Israel Defense Forces with a large expansion in their voluntary draft in recent years.

Around half their number live in unrecognized villages – not part of official municipal areas. The Israeli government is currently seeking ways of persuading villagers to become part of a process that would see them being housed in official Israeli towns similar to Rahat – the Bedouin capital – and several other recognized villages. There is considerable controversy surrounding the issue.

Numerous non-profit organizations work with Bedouin – particularly Bedouin women – to help empower them both on the personal and societal levels.

Rahat (David Shankbone)


Druze is one of Israel’s main ethnic minority groups.
The Druze population is a monotheistic society whose religious tenets derive from Ismailism, an early strand of Islam and incorporate elements from other major faiths. The majority of the Druze live in Israel, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

Druze recognize all three monotheistic religions but do not believe in ritualistic and ceremonial atonement; they believe that pure faith has no fixed daily rituals. In addition, the Druze religion is secret and closed to converts. The Druze, therefore, do not proselytize.

Druze are very loyal to Israel and often place their flag alongside Israel’s. Most of the country’s 113,000 Druze live in 22 villages in northern Israel; Daliyat el-Carmel on Mount Carmel, southeast of Haifa, is the most populous Druze village with 13,000 residents.

Nebi Shu’eib, or the tomb of Jethro, father-in-law of Moses, is one of the most important sites in the Druze faith. It sits in the Galilee near the Horns of Hittin – an extinct volcano close to Tiberias and the site of Saladin’s victory over the Crusaders.


Dr. Naim Aridi, an expert on Druze society in Maghar, an Israeli-Arab town in northern Israel, has written extensively about Druze society in Israel:

The Druze community in Israel is officially recognized as a separate religious entity with its own courts (with jurisdiction in matters of personal status – marriage, divorce, maintenance and adoption) and spiritual leadership.

Their culture is Arab and their language Arabic but they opted against mainstream Arab nationalism in 1948 and have since served (first as volunteers, later within the draft system) in the Israel Defense Forces and the Border Police. [The Druze from the Golan Heights do not serve in the IDF, however.]

Worldwide there are probably about one million Druze living mainly in Syria and Lebanon, with 104,000 in Israel, including about 18,000 in the Golan and several thousands who emigrated to Europe and North and South America.

The Druze community in Israel has a special standing among the country’s minority groups, and members of the community have attained high-level positions in the political, public and military spheres.

A local shop-owner in Daliat el-Carmel, a major Druze city in northern Israel. When asked about the Druze people, he answered: “All of us, all religions, are children of God. We are peaceful people. We are very loyal to our homeland. We go in peace.” (David Katz)


An Israeli-Druze businesswoman, known as Safta Gamila, runs a popular soap company, Gamila ( The soaps are based on local products – including olive oil and fresh herbs – and then cooked in kettles for over 40 hours. Movie stars across the world have said Gamila’s soaps are the best – comparing her to a master chef.
As is common for devout, married Druze women, Safta Gamila wears a white head scarf.

Cheyr ben Nimer Chalabi, a village leader, is a devout Druze man who lives in Daliat el-Carmel. He said that the Druze believe it is important to treat all people the same – and that the Druze follow this cornerstone in their daily lives. He told The Israel Project: “I remember the day that the last British soldier departed from the Haifa port at the end of the British Mandate in Palestine.” He said the Druze live peacefully in Israel and that this is a sign of respect.
(David Katz)

Chalabi’s family tree. They are a large family, many of whom live in Daliat el-Carmel, a town of some 13,000 Druze.Chalabi shows a picture of his late father. Chalabi’s family has lived in the same house for years.



Circassians are a small Sunni Muslim minority, originally from the northern Caucasus, that settled in Israel after being expelled from the region by Czarist Russia. Like the Druze, Circassian males complete army service and hold high ranks in security positions.

Their alphabet is one of the oldest in the world – and language and tradition are of vital importance to the Circassian community. Today, Circassian Israelis are very loyal to the state. They believe in preserving their traditions in a new place and espouse loyalty and honor. Many Circassians hold high-ranks in the Israeli army – but true to their modest culture – this fact is not often bragged about.

This Circassian man exhibits “Spartan child-rearing,” explaining that the baby’s crib in Circassian tradition enabled the mother to take care of the house while rearing children. The baby was strapped into the crib with the straps and did not wear bottoms or diapers. And, there are two holes in the crib – for the times when nature called! (David Katz)

The Circassians are known for being excellent soldiers. The Ottoman Empire gladly welcomed them into their ranks when they fled from the Caucasus through the Balkans. As superior horse-warriors, they could ride for days-on-end, sustained by dried meats, cheeses and spirits, as well as an array of weaponry attached to their embroidered war outfits.

One unique Circassian tradition is that of the Bride Robbery.

Arranged marriages were not popular in ancient Circassian culture. Instead, a Circassian male would “kidnap” a woman he liked, and if she consented, the village would help the young couple enable their dream.

The man, riding on horseback, would fire shots into the air and take his beloved on horseback – while the villagers would try to “stop” them. If the woman agreed (because she could always say no!) and if they reached the outskirts of the village, he would fire another shot. The Circassian tradition stresses the idea that the woman was free to say no at any point.

The young couple would ride around the town in something akin to a victory dance – which gave the woman yet another chance to say no.

Then, the village would hold celebrations and of course, dance. Often, the young couple waited until the second night to consummate their marriage. The village would then enable the couple to have a “room,” a passing of tradition, that helped youngsters create a new life for themselves.






Circassian dances are an important part of their culture. They dance at
weddings and at other life events. (David Katz)

The village of Kfar Kama in northern Israel is home to more than 3,000 Circassians. They have lived in Israel for more than 140 years. (David katz)


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