A melting pot of communities: what image does that conjure up in our minds? For many of us, it would probably be New York with which it has been most frequently associated, but today it certainly characterizes Israel, that tiny country of about 7.7 million people, some 6 million of whom are Jews – but Jews of varying customs, sects and beliefs – with the rest representing differing strains of Christianity and Islam. It is a mosaic of diverse religious and ethnic communities, a heterogeneous society boasting a plethora of cultures, languages, traditions, places of worship and norms and values.
Israelis have come from the USA, America, Yemen, Ethiopia, Russia, South Africa, India, Iraq, Persia. Israelis are Moslems, Jews, Christians, Greek Orthodox, Bahai, Gypsies. Israelis live in cities, towns, settlements; in deserts, at the seaside and in kibbutzim; in apartments, in homes, in tents, in monasteries. Israel is definitely not a one-size-fits-all country – it is exciting, colourful, variegated and unconventional.
While the main distinction within the Jewish community occurs between the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim, there are countless other Jewish groups dotted around Israel, some having been there for centuries, some having arrived as refugees, and still others having been enticed by their love of the land and their immense happiness at being able finally to live in Medinat Yisrael.
As we travel through Israel, we discover three groups of Indian Jews. The Bene Israel (“Sons of Israel”) arrived in India more than 2 000 years ago, claiming to be descendents of the Kohanim, the ancient Israelite priests, who themselves claimed descent from Aaron, the brother of Moses. Having intermarried with Indians, they took on the appearance and certain customs of the non-Jewish Maratha people but still followed kashrut laws, circumcision and the observance of Shabbat. The Cochin Indian (“Black”) Jews, native to the Indian state of Kerala, were discriminated against in India, but today in Israel there is a large community of Cochin Jews in Moshav Nevatim, near Be’er Sheva. The Bnei Menashe community claimed to be descended from one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel and for generations kept up Jewish traditions until in the 19th century they converted to Christianity. In 1979 Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail converted them in the Orthodox tradition and brought them to Israel; and in 2005, Israel’s Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar recognized them as descendants of the ancient Israelites due to their exceptional devotion to Judaism.
We meet Yemenite Jews who were brought to Israel between 1949 and 1950 in Operation Magic Carpet. Their religious tradition is unique in that they, together with the Aramaic-speaking Kurdish Jews, are the only ones who read the Torah in the synagogues in both Hebrew and the Aramaic Targum or translation. And we meet Ethiopian Jews, the Beta Israel, taken to safety from Gondar in Operations Moses, Joshua and Solomon, and who for centuries had practised their Judaism in the mountainous highlands around Lake Tana.
From Iraq, from Iran and from Turkey came Israel’s Kurdistani Jews who, according to an ancient tradition, are the descendants of the Ten Tribes dating back from the time of the Assyrian exile. We meet Persian Jews, who had had a continued presence in Iran since the time of Cyrus the Great of the Achamenid Empire, who had invaded Babylon and freed the Jews from Babylonian captivity.
The same King Cyrus was responsible for freeing the Bukharan Jews who hail from Central Asia, from the former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. They have two traditions: they trace their ancestry back to the 539 B.C.E. conquest of Babylonia by Cyrus, who decreed that all Jews in exile were free to return to Jerusalem; and they are descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel who were exiled by the Assyrians in the 8th century B.C.E. Today Jerusalem is home to the majority of Israel’s Bukharan Jews.
Just as there are numerous divisions among Israel’s Jewish communities, so too is this reflected among Christians in Israel. The four basic Christian communities – Orthodox, Non-Chalcedonian (Monophysite), Catholic (Latin and Uniate) and Protestant – are divided into 20 ancient and indigenous churches, and another 30, primarily Protestant, denominational groups. Other than national churches, like the Armenian, the indigenous communities are predominantly Arabic-speaking.
There are the Greek (or Eastern) Orthodox Church and its affiliates, including the Russian and RomanianOrthodoxChurches, all of which acknowledge the honorary primacy of the Patriarch of Constantinople. Historically, this Church developed from the Churches of the East Roman or Byzantine Empire; and today their parishes are mostly Arabic-speaking, with the members following Christian rites and traditions.
Then there are the communities that belong to the Churches of the East – Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopian and Syrian – most of which, although small in number, have been in existence in Israel for many centuries, and which are headed by bishops and archbishops, with monks and nuns serving in various ways. .
While the Latin Church of Jerusalem has a community numbering about 20 000, some 7 000 Christians belong to the Maronite Church, a Christian community of Syrian origin which is entirely Catholic. The Armenian and Coptic Catholic churches; the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the Lutheran, Protestant and Baptist Churches, and the Mormon Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints all have tiny but very devout communities. .
Each religious community is free to exercise its faith, to observe its own holy days and weekly day of rest, and to administer its own internal affairs; and these Christian communities have remained the most autonomous of Israel’s various religious communities.
Of the country’s more than 1,6 million Israeli Arabs, the majority identify themselves as Arab or Palestinian by nationality and Israeli by citizenship. Many have family ties to West Bank and Gaza Palestinians, as well as to Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria; and most of them are Sunni Muslims. About 70% of these Israeli Arabs are Muslim, 20% are Christian – Greek Orthodox or Greek or Roman Catholic or Maronite – and the remainder are Druze and Bedouin.
The Druze community, while its language and culture are both Arabic, differs from the other Arab communities in that it refuted mainstream Arab nationalism at the time of independence and has since had many of its followers serve in both the IDF and Israel’s Border Police. The community, which considers its faith to be a new interpretation of the three monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – and whose members are forbidden to eat pork, smoke or drink alcohol, is one of Israel’s more influential minority groups; with some having attained high-level positions in the political, public and military spheres.
The nomadic Bedouin population currently numbers 170,000 persons, with the majority in the Negev. The community has expanded considerably since 1948, due to a high natural increase which is unparalleled in Israel, or elsewhere in the Middle East. Within a single generation, their illiteracy rate has been reduced from 95% to 25%; and many live in rural areas where they retain traditional occupations, including the raising of livestock and dry farming.
A non-Arab community that does not fit into Israeli society but which has much in common with it, is the hidden Gypsies of Jerusalem, or Domani. They are a distinct ethnic group whose various languages and dialects share India as their common origin, but they are not recognized as a separate cultural or religious group like the Druze, Bedouin, Samaritans or Armenians. Like Israel’s burgeoning gay community, they too live on the periphery of society, tolerated but not especially welcomed by many of the other communities.
With its multiplicity of colours, creeds and cultures, Israel is truly a microcosm of the macrocosm that is today’s global village.
Jewish Virtual Library