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Minority Communities in Israel: Background & Overview

Some 2.3 million people, comprising approximately 26 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 characteristics.

In March 2012, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said:

Israel’s minorities, including over one million citizens who are Arabs, always have full civil rights. Israel’s government will never tolerate discrimination against women. Israel’s Christian population will always be free to practice their faith. This is the only place in the Middle East where Christians are fully free to practice their faith. They don’t have to fear; they don’t have to flee. In a time where Christians are under siege in so many places, in so many lands in the Middle East, I’m proud that in Israel Christians are free to practice their faith and that there’s a thriving Christian community in Israel.

Minority Communities

Muslim Arabs: Over 1.2 million people, most of whom are Sunni, reside mainly in small towns and villages, over half of them in the north of the country.

Bedouin Arabs: Also Muslim (estimated at approximately 250,000), Bedouin belong to some 30 tribes, a majority scattered over a wide area in the South. Formerly nomadic shepherds, the Bedouin are currently in transition from a tribal social framework to a permanently settled society and are gradually entering Israel’s labor force.

Christian Arabs: Some 123,000 Christian Arabs  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, Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches.

The Druze: Some 122,000 Arabic-speakers living in 22 villages in northern Israel, constitute a separate cultural, social, and religious community known as the Druze. 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 4,000 people concentrated in two northern villages, the Circassians 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 Muslim community.

The Arameans: Arameans are a small minority in Israel, with only about 200 families residing within the state.  They are Israeli Christians, and for the first time as of September 2014 they are their own individually defined ethnic group and no longer have to identify as Arabs in Israel. 

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 lives in self-contained towns and villages in Galilee, including the city of Nazareth, the central area between Hadera and Petah Tikva, the Negev, and in mixed urban centers such as Jerusalem, Akko (Acre), Haifa, Lod, Ramle, and Yafo (Jaffa).

Israel’s Arab community constitutes mainly a working-class sector in a 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 distinct identity 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.

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 can operate in the political arena to promote the status of minority groups and their share of national benefits.

Since Israel’s establishment, 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 (which has subjected Israel to frequent attacks), 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 voluntarily increases steadily.

The Israeli police force welcomed its first Muslim-Arab deputy police commissioner in February 2016. Jamal Hakroush, who since 2010 had served as the Deputy Chief Officer of the Coastal Police District, was appointed to his new position by Security Minister Gilad Erdan. Hakroush will head a new division within the Israeli police force, tasked with promoting law enforcement in Israel’s Arab sector, and recruiting fellow Muslims and/or Arabs to join the force.

Arab/Jewish Dynamics

Arab citizens, who constitute more than one-sixth of Israel’s population, exist on the margins of the conflicting worlds of Jews and Palestinians. However, while remaining a segment of the Arab 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 inter-group 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.

Pluralism and Segregation

As a multi-ethnic, multicultural, 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 low 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.

Sources: Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Saban, Itzik. “Israel Police names first Muslim deputy commissioner,” Israel Hayom (February 12, 2016)