On May 14,1948, the State of Israel declared its independence. Located in the Middle East, it is bordered by Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, and the Mediterranean Sea. Although only about 290 miles long and 85 miles wide, Israel has a varied topography, including desert, fertile valleys, forests, and a coastal plain. It also contains the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth. Primarily a country of immigrants, Israel’s population numbers approximately 6.5 million, about three quarters of which are Jews. Most Israelis live in urban centers, including the capital city of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Be’er Sheva, although 2% to 3% live in rural communities known as kibbutzim. The Israeli government is a parliamentary democracy comprising legislative (called the Knesset), executive, and judicial branches. Although Israel is most immediately understood as a geographically situated nationstate, it also refers to a concept of peoplehood shared by many Jews, for whom the notion of the “land of Israel” is indistinguishable from the “people of Israel.” Both the geopolitical limits of the state of Israel and the cultural contents of the people of Israel are subject of much debate and contestation.
The political history of Israel can be understood as on ongoing engagement with the domestic and international challenges occasioned by war and peace. Some 24 hours after declaring independence, the armed forces of several neighboring countries, including Syria, Jordan, Egypt, and Lebanon, invaded Israel. This conflict, known in Israel as the War of Independence, lasted approximately 15 months and concluded with armistice agreements negotiated under United Nations auspices. Under these agreements, Jordan took control of the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip came under the administration of the Egyptian government. Jerusalem was divided, with the eastern portion, including the Old City, going to Jordan and the western portion to Israel. However, Israel regained control of these territories after the Six-Day War of 1967, which also resulted in the Golan Heights moving from Syrian to Israeli control. In October 1973, the nations that had lost land in 1967 regained significant portions of what they had lost as a result of the Yom Kippur War (so-named in Israel because it coincided with the Jewish High Holy Day of Yom Kippur). While Israel and its neighbors have continued to do battle in the ensuing years (e.g., Lebanon in the early 1980s and Iraq in the 1990s), the greatest challenge to peace in Israel at the turn of the 21st century is that of Palestinian self-determination. In 1993, following several years of Palestinian insurrection known as the Intifada, Israel granted limited autonomy to the Palestine National Authority, led by former leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. On September 28, 2000, tensions between Israelis and Palestinians once again reached a flashpoint when Israeli leader Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest place. Muslims refer to this site as Haram al-Sharif and regard it as one of Islam’s holiest places. Since that time, Palestinians have continued to challenge Israeli authority, using both political channels and violence in an effort to obtain sovereignty.
In many ways, the ongoing disputes about the geographical borders of Israel the nation-state are directly tied to the notion of Israel as a people. While the term Zionism is usually construed to refer to the movement to establish a Jewish state, it has multiple connotations. Formally organized by Theodore Herzl in 1897, Zionism arose in the late 19th century in response to growing anti-Semitism in Europe and sought to reestablish a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Today, Zionism focuses on supporting and developing the state of Israel. However, the goal of establishing and maintaining a Jewish sovereign state necessitates a view of Jews as a people. In this view, Zionism positions Jewish history as central to the notion of Israel. Since so much of Jewish history has been characterized by persecution based on religious “otherness,” there are also Zionists who emphasize the centrality of shared religious experience to the notion of Israel. However, traditional/Orthodox Jews view the geography of the state of Israel as immutable. In the Torah, Judaism’s holiest text, Eretz Israel (“the geography”) is the Promised Land, given to Israel (the people) by God. The belief in Israel as a people undergirds the state of Israel’s “Law of Return,” under which Jews from any nation can claim and qualify for Israeli citizenship. Under the Law of Return, large numbers of Soviet Jews immigrated to Israel in the 1970s and 1980s, as did many Ethiopian Jews in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The latter of these, in particular, have had difficulty assimilating into Israeli culture, provoking many questions domestically about the limits of Israel as a people.
The limits and challenges to defining Israel as a people are also reflected in the conflicts between religious and secular Jews in Israel. In the eyes of some scholars, the divide between religious and secular Jews in Israel is even deeper than the divide between Israeli Jews and Arabs. According to Sandler, the divide can be defined in “the postmodern language of the politics of identity,” with each side looking at the other side and defining itself as the other’s opposite. The challenge presented by the secular-religious divide is not merely symbolic, however. This conflict in the definition of Israel as a people also has implications for Israel as a nation-state. The question of Palestinian sovereignty, for example, is inextricably connected, since the notion of Eretz Israel is biblically revealed, and therefore not negotiable, to those on the religious side of the divide. There is a reciprocal relationship between Israel as a geopolitical phenomenon and Israel as a group identity, and the challenges faced in one sphere also inform the course taken in the other.
- Bright, J. (1981). A history of Israel. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.
- Goldscheider, C. (2001). Israel’s changing society: Population, ethnicity, & development. Boulder, CO: Westview.
- Isaac, R. J. (1976). Israel divided: Ideological politics in the Jewish State. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Karsh, E., & Mahler, G. (1994). Israel at the crossroads: The challenge of peace. London: British Academic Press.
- Sandler, S., Freedman, R. O., & Telhami, S. (1999). The religious-secular divide in Israeli politics. Mideast Policy Council Journal, 6(4).