Population 8,012,000
Jewish population 6,037,000

(as of March 2013; source: Israel Central Bureau of Statistics)

Zionism, the Jewish national liberation movement, transformed centuries of Jewish religious, cultural, and national yearning for Zion into a feasible political platform. Unremitting anti-Semitism and persecution of the Jews in exile contributed to this phenomenon. The Land of Israel is the birthplace of the Jewish people and its early history is recorded in the Bible. Independence created the need to adjust the pre-state institutions to a democratic political system. Israel was to become a Western-style parliamentary democracy, and as such, a secular entity. From a narrow legal point of view, the State of Israel is not a Jewish state in the sense of „the State of Judaism.“ However, it is clear from Israel’s declaration of independence and some of its laws, including the basic laws which are viewed as Israel’s constitution, that there is an important legal dimension to the „Jewishness“ of Israel.

Israel’s absorption of hundreds of thousands of immigrants twice set world records. In its first two years of existence (1948-1950), the fledgling Jewish state doubled its population by absorbing 687,000 immigrants. From 1989 to 1995, Israel absorbed a similar number (700,000)-primarily from the former Soviet Union and its successor states-increasing the population by 15%. The first great wave of aliya was almost evenly divided between Holocaust survivors and refugees from Arab lands. In the subsequent years, an additional 300,000 Jews came from the Arab world. This visionary process of the „ingathering of the exiles“ has brought 2.5 million Jews to Israel since the establishment of the state: 59% of the immigrants came from Europe (including the former Soviet Union), 19% from Africa, 15% from Asia, and 7% from the Americas and Oceania.

A breakdown of the aliya reveals that 900,000 came from the former Soviet Union, 380,000 from North Africa (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia), 274,000 from Romania, 172,000 from Poland, 130,000 from Iraq, 77,000 from Iran, 73,000 from the United States, 61,000 from Turkey, 52,000 from Yemen, 50,000 from Ethiopia, 45,000 from Argentina, and 43,000 from Bulgaria. Thousands more came from countries as diverse as Afghanistan and Zimbabwe.

The absorption of the immigrants was a staggering task for the newly established Jewish state, and it created enormous socioeconomic problems. In the 1950s, the immigration necessitated austerity and produced recession. Thus the benefits of this tremendous immigration were slow to reveal themselves. The aliya of the 1990s, however, led to spectacular economic growth that helped to raise Israel’s economic indices to Western levels.

Largest Cities – 1997
(in thousands)

Jerusalem 603 (Jews 422)
Tel Aviv – Jaffa 355.8 (Jews 341.0)
Haifa 252.3 (Jews 225.6)
Rishon-le-Ziyon 165.9
Holon 163.8
Petach Tikvah 153.1
Be’er Sheva 152.6
Netanya 146.4
Bat Yam 142.3
Bene Beraq 128.6
Ashdod 126.4
Ramat Gan 121.7

The relationship between Israel and the Jews abroad is unique and differs from other homeland-diaspora relationships. On the one hand, as a young country surrounded by enemies, immediately after the Holocaust Israel signified for the Jewish world a major change in the Jewish condition. It was an object of pride and identity and was worthy of active support. On the other hand, there was the Zionist dogma that implied the „negation of the Diaspora“ and fed tensions and feelings of guilt abroad. The Diaspora, especially American Jewry, provided financial, moral, and political support while Israel became a haven for oppressed Jews in the world. The Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) and the World Zionist Organization (WZO) provided the institutional bridge in this partnership between Jews in the Diaspora and the Israeli government and establishment. Every year hundreds of millions of dollars are collected by world Jewry to finance aliya, settlement, and renewal projects in Israel. The JAFI also deals with Jewish education around the world.

The officially recognized institutions in Israel are Orthodox, but in recent years, the Conservative and Reform movements, which cater to a very small minority, received more recognition in the Israeli courts and also some state subsidies.

The chief rabbinate is a continuation of the British mandatory institution as well as of the Ottoman institution of the Haham Bashi. The authority is divided between an Ashkenazi and a Sephardi chief rabbinate, as in the presidency of the Supreme Rabbinical Court. The ultra-Orthodox community does not accept the authority of the chief rabbinate and it has its own rabbis and religious courts. The Ministry of Religious Affairs maintains the holy places and, through the local religious councils, provides religious services (synagogues and yeshivot). The local religious councils and the rabbis are state employees, and in this sense, the Jewish communities in Israel have not developed the type of volunteer activities and lay leadership that characterize the Diaspora.

Israel is clearly the world’s largest center of Jewish education. There are about 1 million Jewish children in thousands of schools, with close to 100,000 teachers, in Israel. The state education system has a general stream (non-religious) with about 70% of the children, a religious stream (23%), and schools run by the ultra-religious (including a few in Yiddish). There are seven institutions of higher learning: the Technion in Haifa (founded in 1924), the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (1925), the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot (1934), Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan (1955), Tel Aviv University (1956), Haifa University (1963), and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be’er Sheva (1969). There is also an open university and more than 200 yeshivot.

The renaissance of Hebrew and Jewish studies is coupled with staggering cultural growth. Jewish dimensions are reflected in all fields: literature, music, dance, theater, plastic arts, and even sports. In every artistic medium, original Jewish and Israeli motifs have been employed. The works of Israeli writers in the reborn Hebrew language have been translated into numerous foreign languages, and one author, Shmuel Yosef Agnon, received the 1966 Nobel Prize for literature for his work.

The Israel Museum offers an outstanding collection of Judaica (several entire synagogues are specially reconstructed on its grounds), archeological artifacts (including the Dead Sea Scrolls, housed in the Shrine of the Book), as well as paintings, sculpture, and numismatics.

Other important museums in Jerusalem are the Bible Lands Museum, the Rockefeller Museum, and the Tower of David.

In Tel Aviv, the Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish Diaspora-Beth Hatefutsoth-chronicles the story of the exile of the Jewish people from ancient times until the modern day. The museum contains practically no original artifacts but features recreations of Jewish life as it was lived throughout the world. It has departments devoted to Jewish youth activities, genealogy, photography, and musicology. The Tel Aviv Museum and the Ha’aretz Museum are also among the country’s outstanding institutions.

Important theaters include the Habima (Israel’s National Theater) and Cameri in Tel Aviv, Khan in Jerusalem, and the Haifa Theater. Bat-Sheva, Inbal, and Bat-Dor, all in Tel Aviv, are the leading dance companies. The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, with its home in Tel Aviv’s Mann Auditorium, is the country’s leading symphony. There is also a symphony orchestra in Jerusalem.

Israel, the Jewish state and the Holy Land, is by definition a cornucopia of Jewish and non-Jewish sites. The major Jewish holy sites are in Jerusalem or in close proximity to it. Foremost are the Temple Mount (Mt. Moriah) and the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem. Since 1967 Israel has ensured worshippers of all three faiths unrestricted access to their holy places throughout the city. There are many other holy and historic places in the rest of the country, especially in the Galilee, and along the shores of the Dead Sea (Masada). For more information on sites and tours, visitors should consult the Israeli Government Tourist Information Centers.

*source The Jewish People Policy Planning Institute