Israel is home to more than 8 million people from a diverse array of ethnic groups. Accounting for 75.5% of the population, Jews are the largest Israeli ethnic group. In Israel, the Jewish population is comprised of two main segments: Ashkenazi and Sephardi / Mizrahi.
The majority of the world’s Jewish population are Ashkenazim, tracing their ancestry to Europe, In Israel, Sephardic Jews, who descend from communities in the Middle East and North Africa, account for just over half (52%) of the Jewish population. There is also a small population (approximately 125,000) of Ethiopian Jews who account for 1% of the Israeli Jewish population.
The next largest ethnic group is Arab, comprising 20.2% of the population. Within this Arab categorization, there are several major denominations. Each division pertains to an affiliation with a distinct religion.
The remaining 4.3% comprises several small minority groups such as non-Arab Christians and Circassians.
The Jewish people practice Judaism, which includes a diversity of religious observance. In Israel, 7% of Jews are ultra-Orthodox (known in Hebrew as Haredi). The Orthodox account for 15% of Israeli Jews, while ‘traditional’ Jews make up 32%. By far the largest segment of Jews in Israel are those identifying as secular.
Israel’s Declaration of Independence is explicit about what it means for Israel to be a Jewish state: a democracy for Jews from around the world seeking to escape historic persecution and looking to achieve national self-determination.
At the same time, the Declaration of Independence is adamant about preserving the rights of non-Jewish Israelis, vowing that the new state will:
“…foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”
Although the Arab population of Israel is made up of many religions the majority of Israeli Arabs are either Muslim, Christianity or Druze. The most populous of these groups are Sunni Muslims (the largest sect of Islam globally), accounting for 1.2 million Israeli citizens, residing primarily in the north of Israel. Bedouin Arabs (also Sunni Muslims) number more than 250,000 and belong to 30 tribes. The Bedouins are a nomadic people who have been traveling in the region for centuries. In Israel, they have traditionally lived in the Negev desert region (in the south of the country).
The Christian Arab population is made up of 123,000 citizens who come mostly from the Greek Catholic, Greek Orthodox or Roman Catholic denominations.
The Druze people number 122,000 in Israel. As part of their religion, Druze are loyal to the country in which they reside. As a result of this tenet, Druze men enter the army, like their Jewish neighbours, at age 18. Other Arab minorities do not send their males to the army and are exempt from national service, although some enlist voluntarily. Despite their small population, there have been many prominent members of the Druze community including members of the Knesset (Israeli parliament), writers and TV personalities.
Another noteworthy minority are the Circassians. Neither Arab nor Jewish, the
Circassians are Sunni Muslims and account for 4,000 citizens. This minority group settled in the land of Israel after Czarist Russia expelled them from the Caucuses, their traditional homeland. In the late 1870s they established two towns in the Galilee – Kfar Kama in 1876 and Rehaniya in 1878 – where they continue to reside. Like the Druze, the Circassians also send their young men to serve in the Israel Defense Forces.
Housing 815,300 inhabitants, Israel’s capital and largest city is Jerusalem, which has served as the spiritual centre of the Jewish people for more than 3,000 years (during which Jews have maintained a continuous presence in the city). Under Israeli sovereignty, the people of Jerusalem have thrived, enjoying unprecedented growth, prosperity, and freedoms regardless of belief or background.
While Jerusalem has religious significance to all three monotheistic faiths (holy to both Christians and Muslims, ranking third in importance to Islam after Mecca and Medina), only for the Jewish people has the city been a preeminent spiritual and political centre. Jerusalem is mentioned more than 600 times in the Hebrew Bible.
Jerusalem is not Israel’s sole metropolitan city. Tel Aviv is a bustling, burgeoning city, recognized as the country’s cultural capital. Although the population of Tel Aviv proper is 414,600, the surrounding metropolitan area comprises 1.6 million people. Tel Aviv is the business and financial hub of Israel. It houses all major Israeli banks and the Israeli stock exchange. Known for its nightlife and easygoing attitude, Tel Aviv often tops global lists of must-visit travel destinations.
Haifa is the third largest city in Israel and is home to some 270,000 citizens. It has traditionally been (and still is) a beacon of co-existence between Jews and Arabs. Haifa is also home to World Centre of the Baha’i Faith and the magnificent Baha’i Gardens.
The average age of the Israeli population is 29.5 years. 28%, well above the OECD average of 18.5%, of the Israeli population is between the ages of zero and 14. By Western standards, Israel is considered a young country. One contributing factor to the relative youth of the country is the low infant mortality rate. Similar to Canada, Israel has an average life expectancy at birth of 82 years.
Arabic and Hebrew are the two official languages of Israel; however, English is also widely spoken, taught in school and used on street signs. Although 75% of the population is Jewish, only 49% of Israelis consider Hebrew as their mother tongue. Reflective of the population, 18% of Israelis speak Arabic in their homes. 15% of Israelis speak Russian as their first language because of the large influx of Russian Jews following the fall of the Soviet Union. Because Israel has attracted people from all over the world, 18% of Israelis speak a variety of languages in their homes, among them: French, English, Yiddish, and Spanish.