Jul 252014

Who are Israel’s ethnic minorities? If you stopped ten British people in the street and asked them questions about Israel, they would probably not even be aware that Israel had any ethnic minorities. Most of the British media that is hostile to Israel (the BBC, the Guardian, the Independent, etc.) are so ignorant and prejudiced where Israel is concerned that their journalists are almost certainly unaware that at least every fifth Israeli citizen is not Jewish.

The term ‘ethnic minority’ has been used in Israel to refer to the resident, population of non-Jews living in Israel whose forebears or who themselves were living in the Jewish State when it was founded in 1948. There is also a tiny minority of Arabs who settled in neighbouring countries and who have since been allowed to return to join their families or local male Moslems and Druze who have married women from outside Israel (usually Jordan or Syria) and whose spouses have been allowed to join them.

This definition of ethnic minorities excludes the communities of immigrant non-Jews living in Israel and who are unlikely to return to their countries of origin. These include the African refugees foreign workers both legal and illegal (such as the Filipinos (Roman Catholics) who mainly care for the elderly and infirm) and those immigrants from the former USSR who are not Jewish according to the halakhah but who were eligible to emigrate to Israel under the Law of Return though they do not consider themselves to be Jewish by religion. These Christians, most of them Russian Orthodox, have just as much right to be classed as ‘ethnic minorities’ in Israel, however uncomfortable this may be for certain sections of Israel’s population. They are one of the reasons for the recent increase in Christian worship in Israel. The other reason is the prosperous situation of the Christian Arabs.

Foreign workers

For obvious reasons, no one knows exactly how many foreign workers there are in Israel, but the estimate is as many as 250,000 out of a total Israeli population of 7,308,800. They come from virtually every part of the third world, but mainly from Latin America, Africa and China. They include Vietnamese boat people who were allowed to immigrate from other countries after the Vietnam war and escapees from Darfur and South Sudan, who managed to reach Israel mostly on foot, crossing the Sinai Desert at huge risk to their lives.

As in the West, Israel’s foreign workers perform all of the menial tasks that Israelis shun. Despite their precarious legal status – under the constant threat of deportation from the right-wing and religious political factions – they show surprising loyalty to Israel, mainly due to the fact that they are all too aware of what it means to live under the sort of government they experienced at home. As one Chilean expatriate put it, ‘If Pinochet were in charge here, after a year there would be no ethnic minorities at all left in the country’.


Due to Israel’s antiquated laws of personal status, inherited from the British Mandate which in turn inherited them from the Ottoman Empire, only the religious authorities – Jewish, Muslim or Christian – are allowed to perform marriages and divorces. This means that there is no civil marriage or divorce. Israel has been forced to recognise civil marriage and even, to some extent, civil divorce, contracted in foreign countries, since it is one of the tenets of private international law (though these laws are flouted by the Muslim countries). Currently non-Jews who wish to marry or divorce Jews are still forced to travel abroad despite valiant attempts by the late Shulamit Aloni to perform civil marraiges. Yet they are bound by all of the requirements of the Jewish State, such as serving in the Israel Defense Forces. Since the Jewish religious authorities do not recognise them as Jews, if they die in battle – as several have – they are buried ‘outside the fence’ of Jewish cemeteries or even in Christian cemeteries.


Of the ‘veteran’ non-Jewish population, the Muslims are by far the largest religious minority, numbering some 780,000, 76 per cent of the indigenous minority population. Almost all are Sunni Muslims; there are a few Shi’ite Muslims who worship in the same mosques as the Sunnis. They call themselves Sarahni (from the surname “Sirhan”) and only number in the hundreds. They are too few to have their own mosques and usually pray with the Sunni majority.


The Israeli Muslims consist of the baladi (town Arabs), living in villages or in the mixed (Arab-Jewish) towns in the Galilee and the cities of Haifa and Nazareth. The other group is the Bedouin who constitute 10% of the Muslim Arab population. Most of the Bedouin live in the Negev but a small percentage live in Galilee as do the majority of Muslims. Although the black goat-hair tents of the Bedouin can still be seen all over Galilee, the northern Negev and the West Bank, these nomads are being encouraged to move into houses and live a settled way of life. Many have already done so, especially in Galilee. Arab Muslims are not required to serve in the Israeli army but many, especially the Bedouin, do so as volunteers.


The Circassians are Sunni Muslims who were brought to the Ottoman province of Syria-Palestine by the Turks in the 1870s. They were originally Christian converts to Islam. Most originate from the Caucasus, as their name implies, some are from the former Yugoslavia. They maintain a separate identity from the Israeli Arabs, living in their own villages, though some have moved to the towns. They speak Arabic and Hebrew as well as their own Circassian language and are fiercely loyal to Israel. Like the Jewish population, they perform compulsory military service.


A small population of gypsies lives in Israel, mainly in Jerusalem, who are believed to have arrived during the eighteenth century. They converted to Islam centuries ago and have adopted Muslim names. The Muslim Arabs do not consider them part of the Muslim community, however, so they are a separate group, only marrying among their own people. Amon Saleem, is the founder of the Domari Society of Gypsies in Jerusalem; there are three large families of gypsies and they are another ethnic minority that is doing well, having become wealthy and prosperous in recent years from a starting of abject poverty.


The Druze, a separate community of some 80,000 Arabic-speakers, live in their own villages in northern Israel, close to the Syrian border. They serve in the Israeli army as their secret religion requires them to be loyal to the country in which they live. While many assume them to be Muslims, they are, in fact, a breakaway religion from Islam. They are divided into two groups, devout and non-devout. The devout uphold the religion and ensure that it continues, worshipping in their secret places of worship that have no minarets or distinguishing external features due to persecution of the Druze in Islamic countries in previous centuries. The non-devout dress in western clothes and live to all intents and purposes like their secular Jewish neighbours. Druze villages are open to members of other faiths and have a few Jewish and Muslim inhabitants.


Christian Arabs constitute the second-largest group of Arabs. Forty-two per cent are Melkite Greek Catholic (a branch of the Catholic church that separated from Greek Orthodoxy in 1729), almost all the rest are Greek Orthodox (32 per cent), Roman Catholic (16 per cent) and Maronite. The Greek Orthodox church is headed by the Greek-born Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem.


The Maronites, of whom 8,000 live in Israel, are another Eastern Christian sect of the Catholic Church, centred in the Lebanon. They live mainly in Haifa, Nazareth and in the large mixed Christian-and-Muslim villages of Shefar’am and Jish (Gush Halav). The largest Maronite communities outside Israel are in Lebanon and Syria; the Maronites still speak Aramaic (the Semitic language related to Hebrew, in which the later books of the Bible are written; it is said to have been the spoken language in the time of Jesus) in their church services. Christian Arabs in Israel have suffered from Muslim persecution in recent years; Bethlehem and Beit Jala on the West Bank and Nazareth in Lower Galilee are mixed Christian-Muslim cities. Here the numbers of Christians have dwindled significantly until they are now in a minority there, while in Israel, Christian Arabs have a higher average standard of living and greater educational achievements than their Jewish neighbours.


In addition to the settled Christian population, the various denominations of Christian churches and institutions throughout Israel, centred largely around the Holy Places, have a transient population of visiting clerics (including Gordon Brown’s father) that number in the thousands. Although they are classified ‘temporary residents’, some clerics have lived in Israel since the founding of the state. Some are headed by locally born priests, such as the Anglican bishop of Jerusalem, the Rt. Reverend Bishop Suheil Salman Dawani, born in what is now the West Bank, who is less than friendly to Israel. His diocese also covers the four neighbouring Arab countries.


There is also a small Bahai community in Israel. The Baha’i faith was founded over a hundred years ago by a Persian named Baha’ullah. It is a universalist, liberal religion whose main world shrine is in Haifa, where the Bahais maintain a magnificent golden-domed temple surrounded by beautiful gardens. There is also a Bahai garden in Acre (Akko) that is not as well-known. The exact number of Bahais living in Israel, – almost exclusively in Haifa and Acre – is not known and probably varies. Most are temporary residents. The Bahais have made a pact with the Israeli government that they will not proselytise and make converts. Israel is the only country in the Middle East that does not discriminate against the Bahais.


Finally, there is the most problematic minority of all – the Jewish sects, problematic because it is a moot point as to whether they should be considered Jewish or not. Two Jewish sects are recognised, the Karaites and Samaritans. Both are allowed under Jewish law, to marry Jews.

The Karaites are a Jewish sect that only recognize the Bible, and reject the Talmud and Rabbinic Judaism. The Karaite movement formed in Baghdad between the seventh and ninth centuries CE. The Karaites, at one time, constituted a significant proportion of the world’s Jewish population.Before the establishment of the State of Israel, the Karaites were to be found mostly in Crimea in southern Russia (now part of the Ukraine), as well as in Egypt and Iraq. Today it is estimated that there are as many as 30,000 Karaites worldwide, of whom 20,000–25,000 live in Israel.

The Samaritans, once as powerful and numerous as the Jews in the Holy Land, have dwindled in numbers to a mere 300 or so. They have established communities in Holon in Israel and in Nablus on the West Bank. They are the only Jewish sect to have integrated fully into both Israeli and Palestinian society. For instance, one Samaritan family contains a brother working for the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah while another brother works in Jerusalem for the Mizrahi Bank, a bank affiliated to Israel’s National Religious Party. Every Samaritan family claims to be able to trace its ancestry back to the time of Moses. The Samaritan form of worship is akin to that of Judaism. The Samaritans keep strictly to the Jewish dietary laws but only recognise the Five Books of Moses and the Book of Joshua as Holy Writ.


Dealing with such a varied range of minorities has been a complex task for the Israeli Jewish administration, one with which it has not yet got to grips. While it is true that successive Israeli governments have discriminated against the Arab minority in particular in the allocation of resources (most Arab villages did not get piped water or electricity until well into the 1970s) at least the minorities have equal voting rights with Jews as well as equal access to healthcare, pensions and other services, and an equality of status as citizens not enjoyed by any other ethnic minority elsewhere in the Middle East.


© Josephine Bacon, 2010


  1. This is an interesting article. As far as I know, the Karaim are recognized as Jews in Israel. They serve as all other minorities in the IDF.

    Some time ago we visited the village of the Circassians. It was the cleanest and neatest place I have seen in Israel. They are great artists and in their art they always show their Christian heritage.

  2. Yes, the Karaites are the only true sect of Judaism and they are recognized as Jews and serve as such in the IDF. The same is true, strangely enough, for the Samaritans who are also allowed to marry Jews, because their community is also split between Holon and Nablus! Have you ever been to their Passover ceremony on Mount Gerizim? I went once but could not see anything because of the crowds!

  3. Yes, the Circassians are an interesting group, I have never visited one of their villages, they are Muslims but serve in the Israeli army as conscripts, not as volunteers like other minority groups in Israel. The women wear beautiful national costumes like those from the Circassian mountains where they originated.

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