If you want to know the basic facts about Israel, you’ll find them in our Israel 101 primer! Here you can learn the fundamentals about Israel’s history, geography, language, government and society.
People and Society
Since Israel’s birth in 1948, its population has grown fivefold. Its 6.5 million inhabitants come from various ethnic backgrounds, religions and traditions. Jews make up 77.2% of the population, while non-Jewish citizens, mostly Arabs, account for about 22.8%
School attendance in Israel is mandatory from age 5, and free through age 18. Many of Israel’s universities are recognized worldwide as important centers of scientific research.
Most Israeli citizens are required by law to serve in the military once they have reached age 18. For men, service lasts three years, for women, two years. With its high level of motivation and professionalism, the Israeli military ranks among the best in the world.
The history of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel goes back some 3,500 years, as recorded in the Bible. Jewish cultural, national and spiritual identity was formed in Israel, where there has been an uninterrupted presence of Jews, even after the majority were forced into exile 2,000 years ago. No nation can claim more solid religious, political and legal rights to a country than the Jewish people can to Israel.
In 1948, after millennia of persecution culminating in the Holocaust, the modern state of Israel was formed. Despite enormous challenges, Israel became a vibrant democracy, a scientific and cultural capital, a military power and a global force for progress and peace.
Most of the tyrannical Arab regimes that surround Israel never have accepted its existence and, time and again, have rejected its peace overtures. Israelis have been forced to defend themselves in repeated wars, and against a merciless onslaught of terrorism from groups sponsored by these hostile regimes. Yet Israel has persevered, defending its right to exist while maintaining a profound yearning for peace.
Hebrew and Arabic are the official languages of Israel, but many other languages, especially English, can be heard in the country’s streets. Hebrew, the biblical language long limited to Jewish liturgy and religious literature, was revived a century ago.
Learn Hebrew in the Rabbi's Study
Government, Politics, & Symbols
The State of Israel is a parliamentary democracy with legislative, executive and judicial branches. Israel’s head of state is the president, whose duties are mostly ceremonial. The Knesset, or legislature, is a 120-member parliament. Its members are elected every four years in nationwide elections. The cabinet of ministers, headed by the prime minister, administers internal and foreign affairs.
All Israeli adults, regardless of gender, religion, or ethnicity, are eligible to vote. Israel has many political parties, the two largest being Likud and Labor. A variety of smaller religious and ethnic groups are also represented in the Knesset and in local government.
Israel maintains diplomatic relations with more than 160 countries. However, most Arab and Muslim states have boycotted Israel politically and economically. These countries wield power because they control large amounts of the world’s oil. Since they tend to vote as a bloc in international bodies such as the United Nations, Israel is criticized unfairly in and excluded from global forums.
Israel’s national symbols are deeply rooted in the history and heritage of the Jewish people. Its blue-and-white flag, with the Star of David in its center, is based on the design of the Jewish prayer shawl (tallit).
Israel’s official emblem depicts two olive branches, representing its yearning for peace, and the candelabrum (menorah) that was lit in Jerusalem’s ancient Holy Temples.
Finally, Israel’s moving national anthem is “Hatikva” (The Hope). Hear it!
Frequently Asked QuestionsFeatured Question
The famous Western Wall in Jerusalem, sometimes referred to as the "Wailing Wall," is all that remains of the Jewish Temple destroyed by the Roman armies under Titus in the siege of the year 70. Constructed of massive stones, it is nearly 150 feet long and derives its name from its original identity as the western wall of the Temple courtyard.
From 1947 to 1967, the area of Jerusalem in which the wall is located was under Arab control, and Jews were denied access to this holy place of Judaism. But Israel gained control of this area of Jerusalem during the Six-Day War of 1967, opening the way for Jews from around the world to come to the Western Wall and pray.
The Western Wall is a powerful symbol of Jewish faith and unity. It is also a reminder of the suffering the Jewish people have undergone over the centuries, and of God's presence in the Temple.
The Jews' link with the land of Israel and their love for it date back almost 4,000 years. Biblical accounts show God telling Abraham to leave his homeland, Ur Kasdim, and go "to a land that I will show thee." Abraham had such great faith and trust in God that he left his home and community, reassured by the divine promise, “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse.” (Genesis 12:3).
God promised Abraham that he and his descendants would inherit the land of Israel as an eternal possession. Biblically, Jewish rights to the land of Israel are eternal and unconditional not just a divine promise, but part of the very fabric of Creation.
Palestinian claims to sovereignty over portions of Israel, and particularly over Jerusalem, are illegitimate not only in light of biblical history, but in light of centuries of history in the Common Era.
Jewish identification with the land of Israel goes back almost 4,000 years to the time when God told Abraham to leave his homeland of Ur Kasdim and go "to the land that I will show you" (Genesis 12:1). Israel became a nation 2,000 years before the rise of Islam in the seventh century CE, and has had a continual presence in the Holy Land for many centuries.
The insistence that Jerusalem must be the capital of an independent Palestinian state is especially ludicrous. Jerusalem has been the Jewish capital since the time of King David. Even when Jordan occupied Jerusalem, it never sought to make it their capital. Jerusalem is mentioned 700 times in the Hebrew Scriptures, but not once in the Koran. Mohammed never visited Jerusalem. The holy city is the rightful capital of the Jewish State.
In the modern era, it is important to note that the overwhelming majority of Arabs who fled Israel following Israeli independence were not forced out by Israelis, but left of their own accord or were encouraged to leave by Arab leaders who promised to purge the land of Jews. When this failed, these refugees were refused entry into neighboring Arab states which had created the problem by attacking the nascent state of Israel in the first place despite a vast territory into which they could have been settled.
Sadly, the world community as a whole has sided with the Arabs. The United Nations has issued hundreds of declarations against Israel, but is generally silent when Israelis are murdered and synagogues destroyed. Today, more than ever, Israel needs the support of its loyal friends.
Israel is the biblical and historic homeland of the Jewish people their land of promise. We must remember that Jews did not leave the Holy Land willingly; the Diaspora (dispersion) by which the Jewish people were scattered to the ends of the earth was forced. Israel was invaded and Jews deported into exile by conquerors such as the Assyrians, Babylonians and Romans. It was under the Roman general Titus in 70 CE that Jerusalem was razed and Israel effectively ceased to exist as a nation. Yet these cataclysmic events and the countless persecutions that have happened since have not stifled Jewish longing for a home in the Holy Land, nor negated God’s promise to bless Abraham and his offspring.
To fulfill their vow never to forget the Promised Land during their exile, the Jews introduced the theme of Israel into virtually every aspect of daily life and routine. This enduring feeling of attachment to the land of Israel is beautifully expressed in the words of the Psalmist: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy." (Psalm 137:5-6)
To this day, Jews everywhere face toward Jerusalem when reciting their daily prayers. A prayer for return to Zion is part of the standard Jewish blessing over meals. The High Holy Days services and the Passover seder meal conclude with the fervent hope and promise of, "next year in Jerusalem!"
The restoration of Israel and the ingathering of the exiles are at the heart of all Jewish prayers for redemption and for the coming of the Messiah. Jews commemorate the destruction of the First and Second Temples and the exile from Jerusalem with an annual day of fasting and mourning. It is customary for the groom to break a glass with his right foot at the conclusion of a Jewish wedding to symbolize the destruction of the Temple. Through these customs and rituals, Jews demonstrate their trust in God's faithfulness and keep alive their hope of “returning to Zion.”
The Gaza Strip is a piece of land on the Mediterranean coast where Israel and Egypt meet. The vast majority of its people are Palestinian Arabs, including many who left Israel when the Jewish State was formed in 1948. At one time Egypt ruled the Gaza Strip, but it has been part of Israel since the Six-Day War of 1967.
The Arabs want Israel to surrender the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, which they term the "occupied territories," to their control. But at this point, the future of the Gaza Strip is an open question.
Geographically, the West Bank refers to the area west of the Jordan River, an area historically referred to as Judea and Samaria part of the biblical land of Israel. It comprises about 2,300 square miles and has a population of over a million people, most of whom are Palestinians.
Israel took over the West Bank during the Six Day War in 1967, and the region remains under Israeli control to this day. While some point to this as the source of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, this simply belies the facts. From 1950 until 1967, Jordan occupied the West Bank, and yet there was no international outcry about “occupation,” or attempts to explain away Palestinian-Arab aggression as resulting from “despair” over being ruled by an occupying power.
In 2004, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon unveiled a plan to pull out of the West Bank, while retaining key settlements of strategic importance. Whatever happens, this region likely will remain a source of great tension between Jews and Palestinians.
The flag of the State of Israel was largely the design of David Wolfsohn, who succeeded Theodor Herzl as president of the World Zionist Organization, a group that seeks to establish a home for the Jewish people in Israel that is secured under public law. The flag was introduced in 1891 as a symbol of the Zionist movement. Wolfsohn wanted to create a flag that would capture the essence of the problems faced by the Zionist movement and the Jewish people in the decades before the Jewish state was brought into being in 1948.
He decided to mirror the traditional design of the tallit, the Jewish prayer shawl, represented by two blue bars on a white background. Placing the Star of David between the blue bars completed the symbolism of the Jewish people and their struggle for national identity. The flag that Wolfsohn designed was first displayed in Basel, Switzerland in 1897 at the First Zionist Congress, and was officially adopted as the symbol of the State of Israel in 1948.
There is something ineffable about our feelings toward Israel -- they can never be fully captured or articulated. Only the person who experiences this love and attachment can understand it. Eretz Yisrael, or Israel, is more than just the land God promised to Abraham and his descendants, the promised land at the very center and core of all Jewish beliefs and practices.
What does Israel mean to the contemporary Jew? It means that God has not abandoned His people, that He is true to His Word. Israel’s existence for over half a century gives us our very will and determination to continue the heritage of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to go forward, through God’s provision, as Jews.
After the Holocaust and the loss of 6 million Jews, two million of them children, many Jews wondered whether it was possible to continue believing in God's covenant with Israel. Like Ezekiel overlooking the valley of Sheol, they stood in the ashes of Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Treblinka and asked, "Can these dead dry bones live again?"
Then, a miracle occurred with the birth of the State of Israel in 1948. God breathed life into those bones and they came together, sinew to sinew, bone to bone. They took on flesh and spirit. They arose and were reborn in Jerusalem as the Lord comforted His people and redeemed Zion.