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The State of Israel

The State of Israel

By Dr. Victor Mirelman

The State of Israel is a parliamentary democracy in the Middle East. Founded in 1948, it is the first Jewish State in the Holy Land since the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70 CE. It borders Lebanon and Syria to the north, Jordan and the West Bank to the east, and Egypt and the Gaza Strip to the southwest. The Mediterranean lies to its west, and the Gulf of Eilat (also known as the Gulf of Aqaba) to its south.

The name "Israel" comes from a Biblical passage in which the patriarch Jacob is given this name after struggling with an unnamed assailant. The passage, in Genesis 32:28, explains it to mean "One Who Wrestles with God."


The return of Jews to their ancestral home during modern times has been associated with Zionism, a political movement founded by Theodor Herzl in the late nineteenth century in support of a Jewish national state in the region then known as Palestine. This concept is based on influences throughout Jewish tradition and history, including the Jewish religious importance of Jerusalem and the Holy Land, and the themes of exile and return.

Another important source for Zionism is the Jewish tradition of Messianism—the belief in a Redeemer who would rescue Jews from captivity or exile and restore them to the Promised Land. In the nineteenth century, under the impact of modernity and European nationalism, Jews began to transform the messianic concept from religious redeemers to secular ones. At the time there were many problems affecting Jews that required "redemption." Throughout the Pale of Settlement in Russia, as well as in other areas of Eastern Europe, Jews were victims of poverty, repression, discrimination, and, after 1881, also violent anti-Semitism. In Central and Western Europe the hopes Jews harbored with their emancipation were partially shattered by renewed Jew-hatred, as exemplified by the Dreyfus Affair in France and the rise of political leaders and parties unsympathetic to Jewish rights in Germany and Austria.

In response to this increasing anti-Semitism, Herzl advocated that Jews had to have a country of their own. He founded the World Zionist Organization in 1897 for that purpose. In 1917, the Balfour Declaration was issued by the British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour viewing "with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people." In 1920, the League of Nations placed Palestine under the role of the British in what was called the British Mandate of Palestine.

In the meantime several waves of Jewish emigration to Palestine took place. During the last two decades of the nineteenth century up to the early 1930s, most of these Jews came from Eastern Europe. With the rise of Nazism, German Jews began to arrive.

In 1939, however, this wave of immigration was curtailed when the British issued a White Paper drastically reducing the numbers of Jews who could enter Palestine. In 1947, following increasing levels of violence by militant groups, the British Government requested that the United Nations find an appropriate solution to reconcile wishes of the Jewish and Arab populations. The United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, formed for that purpose, proposed the partition of Palestine into two states, one Arab and another Jewish. This was approved by the United Nations General Assembly in an historic vote on November 29, 1947.

The Jewish community generally accepted the plan; the Arabs rejected it. Local Arab militants, aided by volunteers from Arab countries, launched attacks against the Jewish community in an effort to frustrate the partition resolution and prevent the establishment of a Jewish state. After months of violent fighting, the Jewish defense organizations eventually took control of the area that had been allocated for the Jewish state. On May 14, 1948, the British Mandate came to an end, and Israel declared its independence as a state.

War and Conflict

Throughout its history, Israel has lived with wars and conflicts. When Israel became a state, the neighboring Arab nations refused to recognize it, and immediately launched a war to destroy the new country. The Jews resisted successfully and a cease-fire was negotiated in 1949.

Over the years the continued refusal of Arab nations to recognize Israel has been a source of wars and conflicts with Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. The major wars, besides the War of Independence (1948-9), include the Sinai Campaign (1956), the Six Day War (1967), and the Yom Kippur War (1973). As results of the Six Day War, Israel occupied the West Bank, the Golan Heights, the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip. The hostility among the Arab extremist groups is reflected in the intifadas, or uprisings that terrorized the Israeli population, especially civilians, during the late 1980s, and again during the 2000-2004 period. Nonetheless Israel has managed to end the state of war with some of its neighbors. The Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty was signed on March 26, 1979. The end of war with Jordan was agreed upon on October 26, 1994. In the summer of 2005, Israel unilaterally disengaged from the Gaza Strip.


Israel is a parliamentary democracy based on universal suffrage and proportional representation. Its legislative branch is a 120-member parliament called the Knesset. The President is the head of state, serving as a largely ceremonial figurehead. He selects the leader of the majority party, or ruling coalition, in the Knesset, as the Prime Minister or head of government. The first Prime Minister was David Ben-Gurion and the first President was Haim Weizmann.


The Jewish population at the time of Partition was approximately 600,000. Since the founding of the state, the major source of population growth has been Jewish immigration (aliyah) from other countries. As political and economic conditions in various countries have deteriorated, Jews from all over the world have found a haven in the Jewish state.

Once independence was declared, moving to Israel became a viable option for displaced survivors of the Holocaust, whose immigration before 1948 had been severely curtailed. In addition, the very existence of a Jewish state made Jewish residence untenable in most Arab countries and brought about a major population shift from those countries to Israel. Whole communities of Jews living in Arab countries were either expelled from or fled their countries, and the State of Israel organized special operations to bring these Jews to Israel and help them settle. Over the following decades, additional waves of immigrants arrived, primarily from Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and Ethiopia, as well as other countries around the world. By 2005 there were 6.3 million inhabitants, of whom approximately 80% (5 million) were Jews, representing approximately 38% of the world’s Jewish population. Somewhat over 200,000 Jews live in the West Bank, and 180,000 in East Jerusalem, which came under Israeli law after the Six Day War of 1967. About 8,500 Jewish Israelis who lived in the Gaza Strip were evacuated by the government in the summer of 2005 as part of the Israeli unilateral disengagement plan.

The Military

The military plays a major role in the life of Israel, mainly to protect its borders from enemy attacks, but also as a vehicle for the absorption of immigrants. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF), known in Hebrew by its acronym Tzahal, is considered one of the strongest in the Middle East. Male and female Israelis are drafted at the age of eighteen. Men serve for three years and women for 30 months. Arab Israelis are exempt from mandatory service, as are confirmed pacifists and women who declare themselves religiously observant.

The Economy

Israel originally had an economy based on agriculture and services. Today it is a technologically advanced market economy. It depends substantially on imports such as crude oil, gas, coal, grains, beef, raw materials and military equipment. Among its leading exports are diamonds, high technology, military equipment, software, pharmaceuticals, and agricultural products such as vegetables and flowers.


Israel has two official languages. Hebrew is the major and primary language and is spoken by the vast majority. Arabic is spoken by the large Arab minority and by some of the Jews who migrated from Arab lands.



Nahlat Shiva pedestrian mall in Jerusalem

The Knesset

Banana Harvest


Images courtesy of the State of Israel Ministry of Tourism.