More than one million people, comprising 18.8
percent of Israel's population, are non-Jews. Although defined
collectively as Arab citizens of Israel, they include a number of
different, primarily Arabic-speaking, groups, each with distinct
Muslim Arabs, numbering some 780,000, most
of whom are Sunni, constitute 76 percent of the non-Jewish
population. They reside mainly in small towns and villages, over half
of them in the north of the country.
Bedouin Arabs, comprising nearly 10 percent
of the Muslim population, belong to some 30 tribes, most of them
scattered over a wide area in the south. Formerly nomadic shepherds,
the Bedouins are currently in transition from a tribal social
framework to a permanently settled society and are gradually entering
Israel's labor force.
Christian Arabs, who constitute Israel's
second largest minority group of some 150,000, live mainly in urban
areas, including Nazareth, Shfar'am and Haifa. Although many
denominations are nominally represented, the majority are affiliated
with the Greek Catholic (42 percent), Greek Orthodox (32 percent) and
Roman Catholic (16 percent) churches.
The Druze, some 80,000 Arabic-speakers
living in 22 villages in northern Israel, constitutes a separate
cultural, social and religious community. While the Druze religion is
not accessible to outsiders, one known aspect of its philosophy is
the concept of taqiyya, which calls for complete loyalty by
its adherents to the government of the country in which they reside.
The Circassians, comprising some 3,000
people concentrated in two northern villages, are Sunni Muslims,
although they share neither the Arab origin nor the cultural
background of the larger Islamic community. While maintaining a
distinct ethnic identity, they participate in Israel's economic and
national affairs without assimilating either into Jewish society or
into the general Muslim community.
Arab Community Life
Arab migrations in and out of the country
fluctuated in response to prevailing economic conditions. Late in the
19th century when Jewish immigration stimulated economic growth, many
Arabs were attracted to the area by its employment opportunities,
higher wages and better living conditions.
The majority of Israel's Arab population live in
self-contained towns and villages in four main areas: Galilee,
including the city of Nazareth, the central area between Hadera and
Petah Tikva, and the Negev; others reside in mixed urban centers such
as Jerusalem, Akko, Haifa, Lod, Ramle and Yafo.
Israel's Arab community constitutes mainly a
working-class sector in a predominantly middle-class society, a
politically peripheral group in a highly centralized state and an
Arabic-speaking minority in a Hebrew-speaking majority. Essentially
non-assimilating, the community's separate existence is facilitated
through the use of Arabic, Israel's second official language; a
separate Arab/Druze school system; Arabic mass media, literature and
theater and maintenance of independent Muslim, Druze and Christian
denominational courts which adjudicate matters of personal status.
While customs of the past are still part of daily life, a gradual
weakening of tribal and patriarchal authority, the effects of
compulsory education and participation in Israel's democratic process
are rapidly affecting traditional outlooks and lifestyles.
Concurrently the status of Israeli Arab women has been significantly
liberalized by legislation stipulating equal rights for women and
prohibition of polygamy and child marriage.
Accounting for more than 10 percent of eligible
voters, the political involvement of the Arab sector is manifested in
national and municipal elections. Arab citizens run the political and
administrative affairs of their own municipalities and represent Arab
interests through their elected representatives in the Knesset
(Israel's parliament), who operate in the political arena to promote
the status of minority groups and their share of national benefits.
Since Israel's establishment (1948), Arab citizens
have been exempted from compulsory service in the Israel Defense
Forces (IDF) out of consideration for their family, religious and
cultural affiliations with the Arab world (with which Israel had a
long dispute), as well as concern over possible dual loyalties. At
the same time, volunteer military service is encouraged, with some
choosing this option every year. Since 1957, at the request of their
community leaders, IDF service has been mandatory for Druze and
Circassian men, while the number of Bedouin joining the career army
Cultural Life in the
Cultural life in the Arab sector, both within the
framework of the community itself, and as part of the country's
cultural mainstream, expresses the Arab population's affinity to the
Arab world as a whole and its status as a minority group in Israel.
In the early years of the state, the works of Arab authors and poets
were characterized by local, rural subjects popular in the
conservative, semi-closed society of those days; contemporary
literature incorporates traditional Arab influences with modern
Western trends. Arabic prose and poetry are translated into Hebrew,
and Hebrew writings appear in Arabic translation either in book form
or in one of several flourishing literary magazines. Music, theater,
dance and art focus on creative activities which tend to integrate
popular folklore traditions with various Islamic and Western art
A number of Arab authors (Anton Shammas, Michel
Haddad, Emile Habibi) and actors (Muhammad Bakri, Yusuf Abu Varda and
Mauhram Khoury) have achieved prominence among the Israeli public,
and performances by mixed Arab-Jewish folk dance and music ensembles
draw enthusiastic audiences. A 1994 production of "Romeo and
Juliet" by a troupe of Jewish and Arab actors from Jerusalem,
performing in a mixture of Hebrew and Arabic, met with national and
international acclaim and has toured widely abroad. Arabs take an
active part in the country's electronic media as producers, editors,
announcers, commentators and performers, both in general radio and
television as well as in Arabic programming.
As in the country's other ethnic sectors, Arab
cultural activities and preservation of the Arab cultural heritage
are encouraged by various government and voluntary agencies which
offer assistance, ranging from grants to writers and artists to
providing support for museums and cultural centers.
Israel's Arab citizens, who constitute one-seventh
of Israel's population and one-seventh of the Palestinian people,
exist on the margins of the conflicting worlds of Jews and
Palestinians. However, while remaining a segment of the Palestinian
people in culture and identity and disputing Israel's identification
as a Jewish state, they see their future tied to Israel. In the
process, they have adopted Hebrew as a second language and Israeli
culture as an extra layer in their lives. At the same time, they
strive to attain a higher degree of participation in national life,
greater integration into the economy and more benefits for their own
towns and villages.
Development of intergroup relations between
Israel's Arabs and Jews has been hindered by deeply-rooted
differences in religion, values and political beliefs. However,
though coexisting as two self-segregated communities, over the years
they have come to accept each other, acknowledging the uniqueness and
aspirations of each community and participating in a growing number
of joint endeavors.
As a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-religious
and multi-lingual society, Israel has a high level of informal
segregation patterns. While groups are not separated by official
policy, a number of different sectors within the society are somewhat
segregated and maintain their strong cultural, religious, ideological
and/or ethnic identity.
However, despite a fairly high degree of social
cleavage some economic disparities and an often overheated political
life, the society is relatively balanced and stable. The moderate
level of social conflict between the different groups,
notwithstanding an inherent potential for social unrest, can be
attributed to the country's judicial and political systems, which
represent strict legal and civic equality.
Thus, Israel is not a melting pot society, but
rather more of a mosaic made up of different population groups
coexisting in the framework of a democratic state.