Israeli Culture

Religion

As of 2018, the vast majority of Israelis identify as Jewish (74.3%), followed by Muslim (17.8%), Christian (1.9%), Druze (1.6%) and some other religion (4.4%).1 Israel is the only country where the majority of the population identify as Jewish. Approximately 41% of the global Jewish population reside in Israel.2 The country is home to a diversity of Jewish and Christian traditions, while most Muslims identify with the Sunni tradition. Conversion among the major religious groups in Israel is uncommon, with those who identify as Jewish, Muslim, Christian or Druze almost always continuing to identify with the religion in which they were raised.3

 

Religion plays a major role in Israeli culture, society, politics and legal systems. Israel’s legal structure is a complex combination of basic common laws on the one hand, and several separate jurisdictions according to religious affiliation on the other (see Social Structures in Core Concepts). In turn, religious communities self-govern personal legal matters such as marriage, divorce, adoptions and inheritance.

 

Though many people from different religious backgrounds may work together or live close by, religious communities in Israel tend to be quite socially isolated from one another. According to the Pew Research Center, the vast majority of those who identified as Jewish (98%), Muslim (85%), Christian (86%) and Druze (83%) claim that all or most of their close friends belong to their own religious community.4 In large urban areas, it is common to find separate neighbourhoods for different religious communities (e.g. ultra- Jews, Jews, Muslims and Christians).

 

The Sacred City of Jerusalem

Israel is especially popular as a destination for religious tourism, pilgrimage and education due to being situated in the historical region where many sacred sites and events are believed to have occurred. In particular, the ‘Old City’ of Jerusalem contains various historical and sacred sites that evoke strong emotional and spiritual feelings for many Jews, Muslims and Christians. The walled ‘Old City’ of Jerusalem is diverse and cosmopolitan, while simultaneously being divided into four distinct quarters: Armenian, Christian, Jewish and Muslim. Synagogues, churches and mosques in various architectural styles can be found throughout. Various sacred and spiritual sounds can be heard, such as church bells, the call to prayer from the minarets of mosques, and Jewish prayers.

 

The most sacred place for many Jews worldwide is the Temple Mount, which is where the Holy of Holies of the Second Temple once stood. The last remnant of the Second Temple – the Western Wall – continues to be the main site of prayer and pilgrimage. Two important Islamic sites are also located on the Temple Mount: the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock (a shrine marking where the Prophet Muhammad is believed to have ascended into heaven). Not far from the Temple Mount is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, sacred to Christians as it marks the site where it is believed Jesus Christ was crucified and buried. The sacred status of Jerusalem for the three major religious communities means there are competing religious, political and historical narratives of Israel as a whole.

 

Judaism in Israel

Judaism has been an influential force in Israel since the country’s inception. According to Israeli law, Israel is defined as a Jewish state.5 As such, Judaism continues to play a major role in Israel’s political and state institutions. Many of the country’s national and cultural symbols are also derived from Judaism. Aspects of Judaism pervade everyday life, such as the many restaurants, cafes and stores that observe kosher dietary practices. The Jewish legal system comprises a joint chief rabbinical council, with one Ashkenazi and one Sephardi rabbinate to represent the two largest Jewish groups. Each city or area of government has a religious council (headed by a rabbi) that regulates Jewish practices of dietary law, as well as personal legal matters.

 

Israel's Jewish Diversity

Judaism in Israel is diverse, especially in terms of practices and level of observance. Most Israeli Jews identify with one of four categories: Hiloni (), Masorti (traditional), Dati (religious) and Haredi (ultra-). According to Pew Research Center (2015), 40% identify as Hiloni, 23% identify as Masorti, 10% identify as Dati and 8% identify as Haredi.6

 

The four Jewish groups of Hiloni (), Masorti (traditional), Dati (religious) and Haredi (ultra-) may be thought of as a spectrum of religious observance, with the on one end and the ultra- on the other. For instance, the Haredi (ultra-) and Dati (religious) tend to strictly adhere to Jewish law (Halakhah) and Jewish customs, such as honouring Shabbat. The Masorti tend to be more involved in society while maintaining a level of Jewish observance. The Hiloni () usually do not observe Jewish laws and customs, but may periodically attend a synagogue and participate in major religious events.

 

Only a small number of Israel’s Jewish population follow more liberal streams of Judaism which are popular in the United States (such as Conservative Judaism or Reform Judaism). Moreover, neither Conservative nor Reform rabbis are recognised by the Israeli chief rabbinate. This means that legal matters (such as marriage and divorce) authorised by rabbis from either of these traditions are generally not recognised. There are also various Jewish sects in Israel, such as the Karaites and Samaritans. These groups maintain a separate identity, communal organisation, interpretations of core belief, and religious practices.

 

Political and social tensions sometimes occur between the strongly and highly observant Jewish factions of Israeli society. The main point of tension is the degree to which Jewish law should be state law for Israel’s Jewish population. The majority of Haredim (ultra-) (86%) and Datiim (religious) (69%) are in favour while 90% of the Hilonim () and 57% of the Masortiim (traditional) oppose the idea.7 Gender segregation is another point of disagreement. Over half of the Haredim (62%) are in favour of gender segregation of public transportation used by members of the Haredi community, while the majority of Hilonim (93%) oppose enforced gender segregation on any public transportation.8

 

It is not uncommon for an Israeli to identify with a different Jewish movement from the one they were raised in as children. For instance, only roughly half of those raised Dati (54%) and two-thirds of those raised Masorti (67%) still identify as such, while about nine-in-ten Jews who were raised Haredi (94%) or Hiloni (90%) still identify with those categories.9 In general, those who switch tend to move towards a more direction.

 

Islam in Israel

Islam is the second largest religion in Israel, with 17.8% identifying as Muslim. The vast majority of Israel’s Muslims are ethnically Arab (including Arab Bedouins). Like with Israel’s other religious communities, Muslims have considerable autonomy in dealing with personal legal matters through their own religious courts that follow Islamic law (shari’a). Israel’s Muslim population tend to be active in their religious practice. For example, most (83%) fast during Ramadan (83%),10 two-thirds claim to pray daily (61%), and nearly half visit a mosque on at least a weekly basis (49%).11 See Religion in the Palestinian profile for more information.

 

According to the Pew Research Center, roughly eight-in-ten Arabs in Israel (79%) report that Muslims face a lot of discrimination.12 Israel’s Muslim population often encounter different types of discrimination, such as being questioned by security officials, prevented from traveling, being physically threatened or attacked and experiencing property damage. In 2016, approximately 37% of Muslims claimed to have suffered at least one of these forms of discrimination due to their religious identity.13

 

Christianity in Israel

Approximately 1.9% of Israelis identify as Christian, making it the third largest religion in the country. Most Christians in Israel are ethnically Arab.14 The Christian population in Israel is diverse. The largest denominations followed are the Melkite Greek Catholic and Greek churches, followed by smaller communities of Roman Catholics, and Russian . There is also a small presence of Protestantism, such as Evangelical and Lutheran churches.

 

The vast majority of Israel’s Arab Christian population resides in northern parts of Israel, such as Nazareth. Many non-Arab Christians can be found throughout the country, but are mainly in Haifa and Jerusalem. Certain practices are very common across all denominations. For instance, nearly all of those who identify as Christian have been baptised (94%), and the majority fast during Lent (60%).15

 

Druze in Israel

There are roughly 130,000 Druze in Israel (1.6% of the population), mostly located in northern parts such as Galilee, Carmel and the Golan Heights.16 Though Druze are ethnically Arab and predominantly speak Arabic, many do not consider themselves Palestinian.17 The Druze community has its own religious courts for dealing with personal legal matters. The community has historically been committed to the state of Israel, with Druze soldiers having served in every Arab-Israeli conflict. They are also the only Arab group conscripted into the IDF.

 

The Druze religion originated as an offshoot of Islam. Although the faith is based on Islamic principles, the Druze religion diverges considerably in terms of certain beliefs and practices, such as the Five Pillars. The main characteristics of the Druze religion are various eclectic and distinctive doctrines, secretive religious practices, and a deep loyalty and close-knit community identity. For instance, conversion into or away from the Druze religion is not permitted, and marriage outside of the community is rare and strongly discouraged.

 

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1 Central Intelligence Agency, 2020
2 Pew Research Center, 2012
3 Pew Research Center, 2012
4 Pew Research Center, 2016
5 Pew Research Center, 2016
6 Pew Research Center, 2016
7 Pew Research Center, 2016
8 Pew Research Center, 2016
9 Pew Research Center, 2016
10 Pew Research Center, 2016
11 Pew Research Center, 2016
12 Pew Research Center, 2016
13 Pew Research Center, 2016
14 Pew Research Center, 2016
15 Pew Research Center, 2016
16 Pew Research Center, 2016
17 Minority Rights Group International, 2020b

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