Ethnic and Religious Minorities in Israel
Although Israel, which is founded on the lands of Palestine through occupation, has a powerful outlook in military and economic terms, it faces some major social problems due to its heterogeneous social structure in respect of its internal dynamics. Contrary to the popular belief, the Jewish community in Israel is internally divided. In particular, there is a serious social dissidence between the Hispanic Sephardic Jews and Eastern and Central European-based Ashkenazi Jews. In addition, the distinction between the secular, traditional and Orthodox Jews is also very apparent. There are also differentiations within each of these groups and also between the African Beta Israel community and local people. However, Israel’s conflicts and disputes with the Arab countries keep these social divisions out of agenda. The communities who face disputes and conflicts between sub-groups also face inequalities in politics, education, social rights, and cultural life. Furthermore, when the large Arabic population in the occupied lands is taken into account, the heterogeneity of Israel becomes an even more debatable matter.
While the debates concerning the minorities were at first about whether to accept the existence of Israel or not, they gained a different dimension in the wake of the new occupations after 1967. Israel, which acts in accordance with its conviction that it no longer settled on these lands, has started to approach this matter of rights and freedom within its own body. With the influence of the Oslo Accords, a number of joint NGOs, associations, and research centers were established by the Muslim Arabs, and the minorities in general, and even by the Jews who define themselves as liberal in order to protect and guard the rights of all minorities in the 1990s and the following years. Minority issues in Israel indeed began to be shaped within the framework of determining which rights the minorities in Israel should have from among those rights determined as general minority rights in the world, rather than the existence of the state or its justification status. This research aims to identify the minorities in Israel through their populations, origins, participation in social life and structure.
In contrast with other political structures in the region, the regime called Israel has been created by the accumulation of people from different parts of world.
As Israel has been the dominant player with its expansionist and occupant behavior since its establishment on Palestine lands in 1948, it is hard to fully ascertain the terrain across which it has expanded and its dynamics. Although its borders were declared in 1948, Israel has been trying to expand these and has constantly been occupying new lands, adding to its population. Thus, examining the minorities in Israel requires a comprehensive amount of research. Moreover, it is considerably hard to discuss, conceptualize and frame these groups who have become minorities in their own native lands due to all such reasons. Therefore, the groups defined as minorities in this study are the real owners of the lands on which they live and are communities that were turned into physical minorities after the establishment of Israel, the occupying country, in 1948.
In contrast with other political structures in the region, the regime called Israel has been created by the accumulation of people from different parts of world, rather than through the struggle of the inhabitants of the region. The Jewish population in Israel consists of Jews from Europe, America, the former USSR, and a small number from some African countries. Therefore, even though Israeli Jews belong to the same religion, they have been influenced by their place of origin and are individuals and groups with local social codes, who carry the mentalities of such places, who choose professions according to such codes, and who have different social reactions. Added to this, Jewish Israeli citizens have always been shielded from public opinion due to their manner of living and practicing their religion, their demographic strategies, and the way their infringements are somehow legalized.
The Difficulty of Determining the Minority Concept in Israel
When the occupying state of Israel is in question, it is pretty difficult to discuss the concept of minorities, to present a general perspective, or even to conduct research. First and foremost, there is a distorted situation here; reducing the people who were born and raised here to become a minority in their own native lands. No one is ever interested in what these people, whose lands have been occupied, are thinking, in how these people, who have been reduced to a minority, see this newly established “state”, and to what extent they accept such a situation. Moreover, it has never been questioned how Israel sees these minorities and where it holds their position within the community. Therefore, it is necessary for a cognitive discussion framework to be determined on this matter for studies made on this subject.
Many different concepts have been being used in the literature in order to define ethnic and religious minorities in Israel. Terms such as Israeli Arabs, Israeli Palestinians, Israelis, Palestinians and Arabs vary depending on who uses them and with what political or cultural meaning.
Dr. Rafi Israel from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem addresses the Arab minority identity in four axes. Although each of the four axes has distinctive properties, they overlap most of the time. There are four major concepts that shape the identity of Arabs living in Israel. When considered in expanding circles; being Israeli, Palestinian, Arab or Muslim are the factors that overlap and that define intertwined identities. Another problem regarding the subject of minorities in Israel results from Israeli efforts to assert itself directly with religious terminology. The present government, which calls Israel “the home of the Jews” in its Declaration of Establishment and denies the existence of postmodern minorities and the principle of equal citizenship, has been challenging the international law by forcing through its own minority concept. An interesting development occurred in October 2, 2013, regarding this matter. Twenty-one Jews appealed to the Supreme Court to change their nationality from “Jewish” to “Israeli” on their identity cards. The High Court of Appeal rejected the appeals asserting that there is no proof of the existence of a uniquely “Israeli” people. The court made this decision by showing the similar appeal made by a citizen named Justice Melcer 40 years before as evidence. Therefore, this means that Israel does not give equal citizenship identity to the Arabs and other minorities as “Jews” pursuant to the law.
When the minorities in Israel are considered, another important problem is related to the determination of which borders Israel should take as a basis and what the demographic dynamics are within such borders. The officially recognized international borders of Israel are the 1967 borders. However, Israel still occupies Golan Heights, and some districts in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Therefore, it is necessary to answer this question: how did the Arab majority living in these regions become reduced to an “Arab minority”?
Population and Minorities in Israel
Although some Europeans were also included in the census of 1922; 78% of the population consisted of Arabs and 11% of Jews. The actions of the Jews during this period forced 300,000 – according to some sources 400,000 – Arabs out of Palestinian lands. David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of the occupying state of Israel, clearly revealed their intention by stating, “We will not adhere to the status quo, we have established a dynamic state with a tendency towards expansion.”
In 1948, the minority population within the borders of Israel was approximately 200,000, including Christian Arabs and the Druze people; and such number was equal to 19% of the population of Israel. Both the area and population of its lands have been increased with the newly occupied lands and today, the population of Israel is equal to 8.1 million. 74.8% of this population consists of Jews and 25.2% minorities. Among these minorities, Muslim Arabs consist of 17.6%, Christians 2%, the Druze 1.6%, while others make up 4%. In other words, approximately 1.7 million of the entire population in Israel is not Jewish. Although these people are defined as Arab citizens of Israel, they consist of different groups, each of which has different characteristics, but all of whom speak Arabic.
The annual growth rate of the Jewish population in Israel is 1.7%; this figure is 2.6% for the Arab population and 2.8% for the Muslim Arab population. Fertility rates are higher for Arabs as well. While this number is 2.88% for the Jewish, it is 3.84% for Muslim Arabs. Such a difference between fertility rates could be balanced with “aliyah”, which means bringing Jews to Palestine from different regions of world. Israel balances out the Arab population by increasing its Jewish population through constantly accepting migrants and through its settler policies. Today, in ethnic terms Palestinian Arabs in particular, and the Druze and Circassians are living in Israel. Israel divides Palestinian Arabs into three classes according to their religious identity; Muslims, Christians and Bedouins. While almost all of these Muslims are Sunni, among the Christians are Catholics, Orthodox and Maronites, who came here in 1980.
Minorities in the country are concentrated mainly in four regions: Hebron (including Nazareth), the area between Hadera and Petach Tikva, Negev and Jerusalem. Other than these, there are minorities dispersed in other cities such as Acre, Lod, Haifa, Ramla and Jaffa.
Israeli Arab or Palestinian?
The term “Israeli Arab” entered into Middle East terminology with the 1948 Arab–Israeli War and was used to define the Arabs remaining in the lands occupied by Israel. Such a term does not apply to the Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza occupied after the Six-Day War of 1967. One of these groups is known as “Jerusalem Arabs”, and their identity changes according to point of view; i.e. they are defined as “Israeli Arabs” by Israeli people and as “Palestinians” by Palestinian people.
The establishment of Israel is called the “Nakba” by Palestinian Arabs, which means “catastrophe”. The number of people who were expelled from their homes in 1948 is calculated as 750,000. Most Palestinians were forced to flee to neighboring countries such as Syria, Jordan, Egypt, and Lebanon. Palestinians who remained within the borders of Israel were converted into “Israeli citizens” after a while. In due course, the population started to increase with the return of refugees and the reunification of 40,000 Arab families in the 1950s, and a large population growth was seen thanks to high fertility rates. By 1991, the number of Arabs in Israel had increased to 875,000. Today, the Muslim population in Israel is calculated as being 1.3 million. Muslim Arabs constitute 77% of the non-Jewish population and most of them are Sunni. More than half of the Muslim Arabs live in the villages and towns of Hebron. Today, Israel controls a total of 93% of Palestinian lands and Arab citizens do not have access to 80% of these lands. Arab municipalities control only 2.5% of the total lands.
At first, the Palestinian population living in the occupying state of Israel was marginalized in socioeconomic and politic terms and then ghettoized in one region. They were not assimilated but kept separated from their relatives and were subject to military rule. Those forced to leave their native lands were from a class of society that was well-educated and had economic power. Therefore, the expulsion of these people, most of them consisting of teachers, doctors, engineers and business owners, weakened the Muslim community in social and economic terms.
Muslims living within the borders defined as Israel today are subject to a very strict military regime. Besides very strict security practices, there are economic, social, cultural and demographic arrangements that establish domination over the Muslims. While these arrangements are applied in the strictest manner possible for those who want to stay in Israel; those who fear for their lives and want to leave their land are allowed to easily pass. Demographically speaking, Israel’s aim is to keep Muslim Arabs in small and disorganized groups and prevent them from threatening the majority. Therefore, a policy of encouraging Jewish settlers from other countries to come to Palestine lands has been pursued, while a simultaneous policy of ethnic cleansing has continued in Palestine. During its establishment, Israel carried out many massacres in order to terrorize the Palestinians. While these practices, sometimes considered genocide, continued, the Zionist government prohibited the return of refugee Palestinians to their lands. Attempting to take control of Arab lands from the very beginning, the Israeli occupying regime pursued a policy of seizing private and public real estate assets, farms, factories, stores and all other assets left behind by the Palestinians and taking them into Jewish possession.
Moreover, the names of places related to Palestinian or Arab culture and part of their historical heritage, the appearances of cities, as well as anything Palestinian in nature, were changed and all traces of Arabs ever having lived in these lands were erased. In order to use their economic resources and to ensure political control, Israel promoted the establishment of political organizations among Arab communities that are loyal to Israel.
At the last stage of the first occupation period, commencing in 1965, Arab activists wanted to participate in the elections under the roof of a political institution by creating a Socialist List named Al-Ard (the Land). However, Israel declared it to be an illegal organization. The organization thus requested to participate in the elections as an Arab party of Palestinians, but this appeal was rejected too. The real aim of the group was to participate in the Israeli elections as part of the great Palestine and Arab nation collectively as an alternative to the Communist Party or Jewish-Arab Party.
One of the most important problems for Muslims living in Israel was education. Although cultural pluralism and pluralism in educational demands had legal dimensions, obstacles were created as long as such practices did not serve to benefit the sovereign (Jewish) ethnic group. The marginalization of the local Palestinian Arab community was one of the frequent non-democratic and egalitarian policies applied in such period. Israel was using the fact that the state was in its establishment phase and that there was a so-called “state of emergency” as an excuse for all these practices implemented explicitly in front of the international community. The official line was that the Arabs could not be trusted and that they would continue such practices in order to ensure national security.
With the removal of military rule in 1966, Palestinian citizens started to be able to travel freely without obtaining pass permits or military permission. In the years that followed, the Palestinians who returned to visit their native land saw that it had been greatly changed. Most of the villages in Palestine had been demolished and Palestinian cities had been converted into Jewish ones. The names of everywhere had been changed as well.
In that period, with the effects of regional and international changes, some changes in the behaviors of Israeli minorities were observed. As a result of the Six-Day War in 1967, even more Palestinian regions were taken under the control of Israel and the occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem began. Since that date, the status of the people from lands that were occupied in 1948 and the status of those whose lands were occupied in 1967 became completely separated. While the first group were able to benefit from Israel citizenship, the second group were fully categorized as enemies. Muslim Arabs in Israel were left with no choice but to accept the de facto state of affairs. From the date onward, the Palestinians understood that they would have to fight for their own political, cultural and social rights.
The right to free movement, employment, education and political organization started to be granted; and the Arab population started to be integrated in the workforce. At the same time, political and cultural organizations increased during this period. For example, an organization named “Sons of the Village” that is a supporter of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was created and started to perform Land Day protests as of 1976.
Israel’s occupation of areas intensely populated by Muslims, such as Gaza and the West Bank, in 1967, actually had the effect of easing communication between the Arab communities in Israel. While demands for rights and freedom were increasing on the one hand, Islamic and nationalist feelings became more significant on the other. In this period, Palestinian claims concerned aspects such as the administration of local municipalities, equal distribution of the budget, educational opportunities, and social and cultural equality. This period is characterized by non-governmental organizations defending equality between the two nations. The Equality Center (Musava), the Center for Defense of Arab Citizens in Israel, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel (Adalah) and the Legal Justice Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel are some of the most important organizations among these. Moreover, it can be seen that Islamic movements and groups within Israel increased in that period. These Islamic movements preferred to use equality at a pragmatic level and sometimes participated in parliament elections or protested the results of the elections.
The third stage started with the Madrid initiative in the beginning of 1990s and continued with the Oslo peace process. However, this stage created a new situation and the Palestinians who had been active in political life in Israel were separated into many parties. When the population rate is considered, the representation levels of such parties that can be qualified as nationalist, Islamic or liberal Israeli remained at a very low level. Although the population of Arabs is around 22%, they could only get 11 representatives into parliament out of 120 seats in the 2013 elections due to the disunity between the Arabs and an election system that favors large parties. This corresponds to lower than 10% in real representation. In the 2015 elections, Arabs were able to enter parliament with four parties. Today, these parties named Hadash, Raam, Balad and Taal are represented by 13 members in the Israeli parliament. Although the election threshold is low in Israel and provides the opportunity for many Arab parties to enter the Israeli Parliament (Knesset), the 32 governments formed up to this date have not even had one member of Arab origin.
During this period, while the Palestinians were claiming their political, cultural and humanitarian rights, the fight for collective rights, defended by Palestinian highbrows, Azmi Bishara in particular, attracted great attention. Israel was straddling the fence between being a “Jewish State” and a “democratic state” that stipulates equality for all its citizens. On the other hand, the Oslo Accords had legalized such bilateral identity by giving rights to Arabs in Jerusalem to participate in both Israeli and Palestinian elections. For example, the Association for the Defense of the Rights of the Internally Displaced (ADRID), which was established in 1995, raised the issue of the suffering of the Palestinians expelled in 1948 and not permitted to return. In 1997, the association declared that the establishment date of the Israeli occupational regime would be commemorated as Nakba Day.
In the 2006 parliamentary elections, the Hadash Party, mainly consisting of Arabs, demanded Israelis of Palestinian origin be recognized as a national minority and called Israel to be a state of all its citizens. In addition to this, a text named Future Vision was published between 2006-2007, again by Palestinian highbrows, containing ethical and political complaints against the policy of Jewish hegemony, and discussing models by which ethnic groups can live together and individual collective rights can be balanced.
Consequently, although Muslims living in Israel are high in number, they are not in a position to and not allowed to affect Israeli policy. Even though over the years progress has been made regarding educational and cultural rights, as well as language problems, Arabs still face serious human rights violations. Violent content frequently published in the media and newspapers, provocation and incitement of the Israeli police, investigations against Arab members of parliament and similar policies are just some of these violations.
Meanwhile, some of the anti-democratic practices against Arabs in Israel involve physical and verbal attacks, assaults by Israeli police forces during protests, excessive violence, limitation of the freedom of travel, and travel bans for some Arab politicians. Today, these kinds of Israeli practices are being heavily criticized by some Western institutions, NGOs and associations within Israel that stand up for an egalitarian system.
Putting a heavy focus on it being defined as a “Jewish State”, Israel does not recognize the existence of an “Israeli Nation” that consists of different ethnic and religious structures. Moreover, as Palestinians in Israel are not recognized as a national group by the state, Palestinian Arab national identity is officially and politically rejected in favor of Jewish national identity. As a result of these practices, although military service is compulsory in Israel, it is forbidden for Arab-origin persons to be recruited to the military. This causes Arabs to be categorized as second-class citizens most of the time.
Ninety percent of Israel’s Christians, which constitute the second largest minority group with approximately 130,000 persons, are Arab. Forty-two percent of the Christian community is affiliated to the Greek Catholic Church, 32% identify as Greek Orthodox and the remaining are Roman Catholic. This minority can be distinguished in that they are generally urban dwellers. Most can be found in key cities such as Nazareth, Shefa-’Amr and Haifa. Among the Christian Arabs are approximately 7,000 Maronites who arrived in Israel in 2000 after Israel retreated from Lebanon.
As the Palestinian territories are the lands where Christianity was born, these lands are just as important to Christians as they are to Muslims. Just like the Muslims, Arab Christians are a native people of these lands and have lived here for centuries. Christian Arabs had legal status during the era of the Ottoman Empire. In 1852, the Ottoman Empire prepared a decree named The Status Quo in the Holy Places in order to ease the affects of external powers over Palestinian Christians and recorded each and every Christian religious site within the Holy Lands and to which sect they belong. The Ottoman Empire granted official assurance that the status quo determined would not be changed. This agreement, which was executed both by and between Christian sects, the extended Christian community, and the Ottoman Empire, was accepted by the British Mandate after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, and also by the occupying Israeli state. This text is still valid without having had any major changes made to it.
Since 1948, Israel has communicated with these Christian communities through the Ministry of Religious Affairs and has officially recognized some of these communities within the frame of its multi-law system. These “recognized” communities are Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholic, Roman Catholic, Assyrian Orthodox, Assyrian Catholic, Maronite and Anglican Episcopal. These nine recognized communities are able to establish their own church courts within a legal framework coordinated by the Ministry of Religious Affairs and are able to officially provide justice to members of the church in matters covered by civil law. Recognized communities are able to create their own church education systems autonomously. They are also able to operate hospitals, schools, and nursing homes owned by the churches. This means they can structure a social security system exclusive to their congregations.
The Christian population in Israel has been constantly decreasing. The main reasons for such a decrease are the lower birth rates among Christians compared to Muslims, and constant outward migration.
Israel’s policies towards the Christian Arab minority and its relationship with them varies according to its periodical interests. During its years of establishment, Israel tried to get the Christians living in the region on side. As all the powers that were willing to help Israel become a permanent state were Christian, Israel needed to convince all the Christians in Palestine to accept its occupation. However, this was a difficult task because Christians had been living in these lands for over 1000 years. The biggest resistance was put up by the Vatican i.e. the Roman Catholic Church. The Vatican argued and intervened against the establishment of a Jewish state in the region, but when this failed, in 1947 it then tried to use a report by the UNSCOP (United Nations Special Committee on Palestine) to its advantage. Even though the Vatican was powerless to stop the partition was going ahead, it prevented the city of Jerusalem from being left to either an Arab or Jewish state, and provided for it to have international status under the governing of the United Nations. Not accepting the de facto status of Jerusalem, the Vatican insisted that Jerusalem be transferred to an international government. The Vatican problem kept Israeli diplomacy engaged for many years and many methods such as the status of church assets in Israel, the mediation of the US and etc. had to be used to get the Catholic leader to recognize Israel.
Here, Christian Arabs and Muslims acted in unison in a political sense. Israel’s strategy of pitting minorities against each other was not successful with these two religious groups.
Another extension of Israeli policy against the Christian communities is to reduce the number of different church sects. Although there are many Christian churches in the region, only the above-mentioned nine sects were recognized officially. This was done in order to reduce foreign leverage in the region and make Israel a more homogeneous state and nation. Another aspect of Israel’s relations with its Christian minorities is the status of church assets and their legal statuses. The main principle that directed Israeli policy was expropriation of church lands that have strategic and economic value, and expropriation of assets if possible. And when this was not possible, such lands and assets were taken under the control of Israel security forces and permission for them to be used in a manner that could threaten security of Israel was refused under any circumstances. Israel managed to find a way and appropriated the assets of these communities. At this point, it can be seen that Israel chose to benefit from the inner conflict between different Christian sects. The contemporary historical conflicts and disputes between Christian sects created a space for Israel to take advantage. As the existence of Israel had not been subjected to a debate in most international spheres, and Christian Western forces had accepted Israel as a part of the Middle East, there was nothing that local Christians could do and they lost their tools of resistance to a large extent.
When the distribution of Israel minorities is taken as a basis, the number of Bedouin Arabs is estimated to be around 170,000. All of them are Muslim and members of around 30 tribes. Most are dispersed across a wide area of the south. Today the Bedouins, who were nomadic shepherds in the past, are undergoing a process of transferring from a tribal structure to a settled society and are gradually being added to the workforce of Israel.
Bedouins constitute 10% of Muslim Arabs in the country. The Bedouins have started to move away from traditional tribal life at a definite rate and nowadays have started to adopt a settled lifestyle by working in fixed income jobs, living in houses, and giving importance to clothes, health and education.
Most of them (40% of those in the south and 85% of those in the north) have started to live in residential areas where standard municipality services are rendered and have gradually started to enter business fields in Israel. The professional status of the Bedouins has changed to a great extent in direct proportion to the increase in educational levels. Those who were shepherds and farmers in the 1950s and 1960s are now starting to appear in industries such as business, transportation, construction and social services. Considering that they are allowed to serve in the military, it can be said that out of all Arab minorities, the Bedouins are the most integrated within the Israeli community.
The Druze community is a separate cultural, social and religious community that lives in 22 villages in the north of Israel, speaks Arabic and has a population of approximately 117,000. The Druze religion is not open to foreigners; however, the hypocritical notion that stipulates full loyalty to the government of the country in which they are living is the most well-known element of this belief.
Although the Druze can be accepted as a subset of Arabs, they have always been estranged from Arabs. The Druze are still suffering from the results of huge unjust treatment subjected on them in the Fatimid, Ottoman and Arab Empire eras. Their villages were burnt down and they were forced to act as if they are committed to Islam. Therefore they stood on the side of Israel during the Arab resistance of 1936-1939 and the 1948 Palestine War. Because of this choice, the Druze are called murtazika (moneygrubbers) by other Arabs.
However, on the other hand, some serious problems have occurred between the Druze and the Israeli government. First of all, the Israelis seized Druze lands in Hebron, in particular. Secondly, although the state decided on an equal allocation of land share in local governments where the Druze live in 1977 and 1987, such decision was only able to be applied in practice in 1994, during the prime ministry of Yitzhak Rabin. Added to this, the Druze do not have sufficient education and settlement opportunities in socioeconomic terms. Thirdly, there is a highbrow and intellectual class among the Druze that asserts that Israel is a racist state. One dimension of such assertion regards compulsory military service. This is because the Druze are being forced to die for a nationalistic cause that is not their own.
Actually, they had good relations with Israel from its establishment phase onward in many regional conflicts, such as the Six-Day War of 1967 and the 1982 Lebanon War. As they are “a minority within a minority” (a group within the Arab minority), they have established “mostly” good relations with the Israeli Jewish community. As a result of this attitude, they have managed to receive several autonomous rights from the Israeli regime and they continue to enjoy a more advantageous position than other Arab minorities.
The Circassians are a Sunni community having approximately 3,000 members living in the two villages in the north of the country. They neither share the Arab origins nor the cultural history of the wider Muslim community in the country. This community has a separate ethnic identity and has never been assimilated to the Jewish or Muslim community. However, they do participate in Israel’s economic and national affairs.
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