Often times when I talk to people from abroad (meaning outside of my home country of Israel) about those topics, or when I see comments on news sites or forums, I read and hear a lot of things that are twisted, weird and sometimes just bizarre.

So, I was inspired to write this page in order to clear up some common misconceptions and try to help you understand the complex place that is Israel by someone who was born in this country.

  • Why the country is called Israel, the people are called Jews, but they speak Hebrew?
  • What is a Zionist?
  • What is an Ashkenazi or a Sepharadi?
  • And much more…

Before I answer the questions above, I have dedicated some pages to some of the lesser known groups and minorities in Israel: Druze, Samaritan, Christians, Circassians

Minorities in Israel

Before I answer the questions above, I have dedicated some pages to some of the lesser known groups and minorities in Israel: Druze, Samaritan, Christians, Circassians

Jews, Israelites, Israelis, Hebrews…… is it all the same?

Well yes and… not exactly.

In the Bible Abraham, Jacob and Joseph identify themselves as Hebrews.
After a drought in the land, Jacob and his 12 sons went to Egypt. Jacob was given a new name “Israel” by God, which in Hebrew means “struggled with God.” . In Egypt, the population grew over the years and became divided into 12 tribes, a tribe from each son. This small nation became known as “Children of Israel”(בני ישראל) or Israelites in English.

As the Israelite population grew they became slaves of the Egyptians until the arrival of Moses. Which brought about the story of the Exodus and the Israelites return to the Promised Land in which each tribe got its own territory. Later creating the kingdom of Israel under kings Saul, David, and Solomon.

Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt. A paint by Jozef Molnar.
The 12 tribes Map Translated by Kordas 1: by user:Janz derivative work: Richardprins (talk, CC BY-SA 3.0

Splitting into Two Kingdoms

After the reign of King Solomon, there was a split in the kingdom. Ten of the tribes created their own kingdom in the northern region of the land. Its capital, known as “Samaria” was located in the center of the region. This kingdom was called the “Kingdom of Israel.” The kingdom in the southern region included the remaining two tribes (Benjamin and Judah), and it was called the “Kingdom of Judah.”

map of the 2 kingdoms. Oldtidens_Israel_&_Judea.svg: FinnWikiNo derivative work: Richardprins.CC BY-SA 3.0

The lost Ten Tribes

The kingdom of Israel was occupied by the Assyrians in  725-720 BCE. As a population control method, the people of the Kingdom of Israel were expelled and other people were brought instead. To this day it is unclear what happened to these ten tribes. There are a lot of theories, folk stories, and Discovery Channel programs that attempt to explain what happened to them. Where they are now is unknown — they are gone in history.

There are communities around the world with Jewish-like traditions and stories, including the Lemba tribe in Africa, and the Bnei Menase in India, in addition to other communities that claim they are the descendants of the lost tribes.

A clock with the 12 tribes in the Western Wall.

Kingdom of Judea

The Kingdom of Judea survived longer than the “Kingdom of Israel” until it was occupied by the Babylonians in 597 BCE. Jerusalem was occupied, and the Jewish Temple was destroyed. Using the proven technique of expelling people, they were expelled to Babylon.

A few decades later, the Cyrus Charter was declared by the Persian king, allowing the people of Judea were allowed to return to the land and build their temple.

There were remaining people from other tribes that assimilated into the tribe of Judah. From this point forward, I will refer to those people as….. Jews—named after the tribe of Judah. They re-established the Kingdom of Judea with the second temple in Jerusalem until the arrival of the Romans who expelled them, again.

Those people kept their traditions to this day and that’s why the people here are called Jews, speak Hebrew and live in a state called Israel.

Close up of relief showing Jewish prisoners carrying spoils from the Siege of Jerusalem. Arch of Titus in Rome.

So why the country is called the “State of Israel” and not the “State of Judea”?

First, because they didn’t want the people who weren’t part of the Jewish people like they didn’t belong. Also, Judea is the name of part of the West Bank (also known as Judea and Samaria) which was historically the area of Judah tribe. When the state established this area wasn’t under Israel control. Israel captured the area only after the six-day war in 1967.

Jewish People

Jewish boys on their Bar-Mitzva ceremony. Photo by the Jewish agency, from pikiwiki.

The Jews see themselves as a distinct nation. By Jewish law, a Jew is someone who was born to a Jewish mother. No matter what this person will do, he was born as a Jew and will die as a Jew. He can convert to Christianity, become a priest, an imam or a Buddhist monk, but is still technically a Jew. That individual may be seen as a Jew goofing around, who would still be allowed to participate in Jewish ceremonies and prayer.

The Jewish religion is not a preaching missionary religion, it was meant to be practiced by the Jewish people. According to the Jewish law,  can’t convert to Judaism. BUT! like anything about Judaism, it’s tricky…

There is a commonly told story about conversion in Judaism and it goes as follows:

If a non-Jewish person goes to a Rabbi and requests to convert to Judaism, Judaism the Rabbi would say no. If this person returns a second time to the Rabbi requesting conversion, the Rabbi will say “But I told you can’t!”. On the third time the person returns yet again to the Rabbi, the Rabbi will believe that the individual is serious. And he will say ”maybe we can do something..”

It will be the beginning of a long hard process. Conversion requires learning the complicated aspects of Judaism and the process can take up to two years. (Unlike the Samaritans or the Druze which really don’t accept new believers, even if you’ll come back after 100 times..)

What is Zionism? A zionist?

In the 19th century as the national movement spread around the world it affected the Jews in 2 ways. The nations in which among them the Jews lived started seeing them more and more like others. The Jews always saw themselves as a people and a nation connected to the holy land. The rise of nationalism made them think of being active and create a sovereign Jewish state. A place Where they won’t be seen as others, strangers and can live their lives according to their believes and traditions.

What is the meaning of the word Zion?

The holy land was the land of choice because of the historical connection and the national movement got the name Zionism. Zion is just another name for Jerusalem (Jerusalem has more than 70 names) they chose this name because if the Jews are connected to the holy land, Jerusalem is the heart of the holy land.  I guess jerusalemionizm sound less catchy…

Stop waiting, take action!

What used to be the classic Jewish religious approach see the establishment of a Jewish state as a sin. The Jews were expelled as a punish by god and only god will build the state again. Combine it with the fact that most of the Jews were Haredim which are conservative in their approach to such a breaking through ideology and you will see that the first Zionists were secular people.

Pioneers paving a road in the 1920's. Sarid Kibbutz archive, from Pikiwiki.

The Kibbutzim that were established at the beginning of the 20th century were a socialist communal group. As a result, they were against religion but with respects to the Jewish traditions. so Zionism is not about religion yea?

So a Zionist means someone who supports the establishment of a Jewish homeland in the holy land, That’s it. Nothing about the character of the state, borders or religion. It can be a socialist state, religious state, democratic state, dictatorship… as long as it will be a Jewish homeland.

Zionist none-Jew and Jew who is an Anti-Zionist?

So from this definition, you can understand that in order to be a Zionist you don’t have to be a Jew. There are none minorities in Israel which are Zionists and there are none Jews Zionists around the globe for various reasons.

It works also the other way around, there are Jews who are not Zionists. There are few Hasidim groups which are against the state of Israel. They see it as a sin. The Jews got punished by God and only God will establish the state. You will see some of them in anti-Israel demonstrations. And sometimes it’s funny because the reasons why they are against Israel is inner Jewish politics and not what the demonstrators believe in. but it looks good to have some “classic Jew” on a demo supporting your cause…

Druze in Israel, Zionists, but not Jews.

What is Sephardi, Ashkenazi, Mizrachi, Russians, Ethiopians and so…

Those names refer to the origin of the Jewish community that an individual belongs to. It refers to the cultural background of the community. for example  Jewish communities in Europe were in touch with each other more often than with communities in Iran, so their cultural background and traditions will be more similar. In that big definition, there is a smaller separation according to a country or a community.

What is an Ashkenazi?

Ashkenaz in ancient Hebrew refers to the area of central Europe. As the Jews spread around the world after the exile of the Romans some of them settled around the Rhine River. They were flourishing until the crusades when they got massacred and expelled all over Europe. The distinctive sign of hose Jews is the Yiddish. A language that is mostly ancient German mixed with Hebrew and Aramaic.

The Jews who were living in Western Europe have affected Western Europe culture and were living in urban areas. The Jews in eastern Europe were living in small towns and villages. As they were affected by the Age of Enlightenment the communities became either more secular to a complete blend in the society around them. Some became more conservative to avoid modernism.

Today in modern Israel Ashkenazim refers to all the Jews who came from Europe even if historically it’s not correct.

A famous German Jew.
Jews from Poland in TLV.

What is a Sephardi?

Sfarad in Hebrew means Spain. There are evidences of Jews settling in Spain from the 3rd century and on. The Jews there had ups and downs with the rulers until the 8 century when the Muslims conquered Spain. It was the beginning of the “Golden Age” of the Jewish culture in Spain.  The Jews had high official jobs in the ruler courts and the communities were thriving. There were a lot of great Jewish rabbis, philosophers and more with the most famous one the RAMBAM. The golden age has ended towards the end of the 11th century as the Muslim rulers changed and started to persecute the Jews.

Expelled from Spain

With the re-occupation of Spain the by the Christians their situation became even worse until the year of 1492 where the king of Spain decided that it is not allowed to Jews to live in the kingdom and they shall all leave or accept Christianity. The Jews were expelled and some who converted but kept their Jewish identity in secret were tortured by the Spanish inquisition. Most of the Jews moved into North Africa and spread across the Middle East. Some of them went to Holland, Italy and turkey. They influenced the communities that already were in North Africa and the Middle East.

Today in modern Israel the Jews from Arab countries are called Sephardim although it’s not historically correct. People who have roots in Spain call themselves espanoles sometimes. Recently Jews from Arab countries are called “mizrachim” which mean eastern.

Moroccan Jews celebrating with the US ambassador. by U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv.

Relations between the communities

Most of the people who established the state came from Europe. They were secular, socialist and educated by Europe standards (people from Eastern Europe where less educated for example) as the state of Israel was established it had a population of 600,000 people. In a bit less than 2 years the population was doubled by mass immigration of Jews from all over the world and mainly from Arab countries.

The Mizrachim had different mentality and habits from the Jews who came from Europe. In general were less educated and had more children per family (Jews from Iraq and Iran were more educated for example)

The country was poor and under constant security problems and didn’t had facilities to support all of the new immigrants. Most of the immigrants were settled in camps and remote villages and cities and got labor jobs. A lot of the Mizrachim felt as they being used by the Ashkenazi elite and seen as inferior to them. The people in power said they had to, there was a state to build, security threats, wars and mass immigration.

As the time is passing there is more and more mix and marriage between the 2 communities.  Today it is barley matter as the younger generation less they care. Today there are Mizrachim as generals, presidents and successful lawyers and business man.
The tension is part of the past.


After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 91′ a mass immigration from the former union lands. It is estimated that until the year of 2000 more than a million came. A lot of them had barely any connection to the religion as living under communist regime banned any practice of religion. Most of them were Ashkenazi Jews but also Bukharan Jews.

There was a lot of marriage between Jews and none Jews. It is estimated that 30% of the immigrants were not Jews. These immigrants were highly educated and not all the times could work in jobs that suited their education. Engineers were working in cleaning or at supermarket but like all the previews immigration with time it goes to balance and the young people are more integrated.

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Beta Israel which means in Hebrew house of Israel, is how the Ethiopian Jews were calling themselves in Ethiopia. their Christian neighbors which were known as beta Christian.

Since the times of King Solomon, it is known that there was trade connection between the kingdom of Israel and the kingdom of Shewa (which was in what is today Ethiopia). Because of their isolation from the main Jewish world in Europe, their religion is called “Hayamot” which means in Aramaic belief.

It’s a bit different and unique. It has a lot of similarities with the rabbinical Judaism but also some distinct features. The scriptures are written in the Ge’ez language. They have a unique holiday which is called Sigd which is a day of fasting and remembering the connection with god. It acts as a second phase for Yom Kippur, They use to climb a high mountain which resembles Mount Sinai, pray and read the scriptures.

In the 20th century they were affected more and more by the rabbinical Judaism and as the community immigrated to Israel they accepted the rabbinical Judaism. The Sigd holiday is still being celebrated and is officially recognized by the state.

Watch the amazing story of the Mossad operation to rescue the Jews of Ethiopia.

A Diverse Society

So as you understand the Israeli society is very diverse. There are many looks, foods, type of music and more. All those people from different cultures and backgrounds got mixed in such a short time, is it working?

A funny sketch from the 70’s about the immigration waves. Each time the locals and the ones who already assimilated see the newcomers as weird and outsiders until they get integrated and when the next wave is coming to the previews wave already feel like a veteran and see the new wave as weird and outsiders. Too bad the subtitles are horrible and don’t give you the full experience:


But on the long run, it seems to work. Maybe because all the people who came here had a common vision of how they want to see this place in the future, together with all the others, seeing themselves as the Jewish people coming back to build a common home.

maybe they all might agree with this song that in gives the bigger vision:

Minorities in Israel