The New Tribes of Modern Israel

Israel is very tribal. But here, we’re not talking about the twelve tribes of the Bible… we’re talking about the way our society has formed into “tribes”. Some of the social divisions in Israel today—such as between the religious and secular—may be clear to see. Others are less visible, for example, you might be surprised to hear that a marriage between a Sephardic (Middle Eastern background) and Ashekenazi (European background) couple can be frowned upon, or even forbidden in religious circles. So here's a bit more information about the people and communities living in Israel today, and how to pray for them. 

The religious ones

The first “tribe” to introduce are the Jewish Israelis who can be described as “religious”.  The scope of this sector can stretch from the loosely traditional (who typically wear a knitted kippah) to the most stringent ultra Orthodox (wearing the black suits and hats). There is not one version of “Judaism” but many streams, including Breslev, Chabad, and Karaites all with their own traditions and apparel. Last year, according to the Jewish Virtual Library, 22% of Israeli Jews over age 20 described themselves as traditional but not very religious, 13% as traditional-religious, 11% as religious and 10% as ultra-Orthodox.

A fifth of Israel’s Jews are religious /orthodox. However, this sector of society has a huge influence in Israel and population growth due to a very high birth rate.

Religious Jews follow rabbinic rulings from the Oral Torah, but depending on the sect or denomination have vastly different associated traditions or interpretations of traditions and Torah. Many have genuine love and devotion to God and his word, and are trying to please God in the best way they know how. However, it’s a sad fact that the majority study the Talmud rather than the Bible, and blindly follow rabbinic traditions that have very little to do with what God’s word actually says. This “Oral Law” of the Talmud and other Rabbinic writings is a major stumbling block for our people as the rabbis have exalted themselves and the Talmud above God. For this “tribe”, Yeshua or Jesus is a curse word, and choosing to follow him is a serious betrayal. Those from Orthodox circles who choose to follow Yeshua face serious implications as it often means being cut off from the family and community.

The majority of the Ultra Orthodox community are entitled to state welfare and are exempt from mandatory army service, though not all choose to take advantage of these privileges. However, many secular and traditional Jews feel they are doing all the heavy lifting, and are increasingly frustrated with the situation. The ultra Orthodox have also enjoyed a lot of political power at the highest levels and large aspects of our country are run according to rabbinic Jewish dictates.

The secular ones

The great majority of Jewish Israelis are secular, but even within this broad category, there are several “tribes”. While becoming religious is termed “returning to the answers”, leaving the religious community to become secular is referred to as “returning to the questions”. Some secular Israelis are ardent atheists, and the Holocaust certainly left an entire generation bewildered about who God is or whether He even exists. Many of the Kibbutzim and communal farms established around Israel were built upon atheist and socialist ideals, with some even banning God from the premises. The Jewish feasts are still celebrated, but it is possible to celebrate the holidays as tradition and heritage without any faith at all. For example, some see the Passover as a spring festival of renewal instead of a historical story of divine deliverance. 

Within the blossoming areas of hi-tech and science in our start-up nation you’ll find many Israelis who doubt the existence of God but not necessarily with the same animosity – more an intellectual scepticism – while many others are agnostic. Tel Aviv is the economic center of Israel and was ironically built upon sand, which is the same Hebrew root word for secular. It is a notoriously hedonistic city, known as the gay capital of the world, and many are far more interested in Tinder than the Bible.

A large number of Israelis are into New Age mysticism and Eastern spirituality, believing in reincarnation, karma, and many ways to God. Meditation and yoga are very popular and it is common to hear the Bible verse from Habakkuk 2, “The righteous shall live by faith” distorted to mean, “each person has his own version of faith and that’s fine.” Much of the comfortable middle class who would describe themselves as secular fall into this category. 

Almost all secular Israelis still celebrate the Jewish festivals and have a Shabbat meal on Friday night, just as many in Western nations also enjoy Christmas, Easter, and Sundays with family without any relationship with God at all.

Although we learn about the Bible and Israel’s history at school, God tends to feel very distant to many, if not most, Israelis.  Despite all of this, even in the most secular families, there’s still a lot of hostility towards the messianic faith. We've heard many testimonies of people who come to faith in Yeshua facing pressure from their atheist parents, who then often bring a Rabbi to counsel them away from the faith.  

The new(er) arrivals

Israel is home to immigrants from all over the world, but in the 1990s there was a great influx of Jewish people from the former Soviet Union. Today there are one million Russian speakers in Israel, and while many have integrated into society, such a large number in such a small country has made a significant cultural impact. Many Russian speakers have more of a cultural Christian or atheist background, with less attachment to rabbinic Judaism due to persecution under Communism. ONE FOR ISRAEL has designated Bible courses and outreach resources entirely in Russian, to help build up believers from these backgrounds whether they are brand new believers or pastors needing training.

Another significant wave of “aliyah” (immigration) was that of Ethiopian Jews. After several daring missions to bring thousands to Israel covertly, many Ethiopian Jews found themselves in an extremely different culture and situation. Although second and third generation Ethiopians tend to speak more Hebrew, Amharic is the Ethiopian language. Adjustment has not been easy as they have faced significant differences in culture, religious practice and lifestyle, along with a lot of racism. However, there are a good number of Ethiopian background Jewish believers and congregations, most of which are in the Amharic language. 

There are also Jewish people who come from India and Africa, as well as South America and all over the world. Interestingly, over half of Israel's Jewish population came from Middle Eastern, Muslim countries like Morocco, Iran, Iraq and the Yemen.

Arab Christians

One in every five Israelis is Arab, mostly likely either Muslim (some 80%) or Christian. However, it is more accurate to say that they are Arabic speakers, since there are several different ethnicities within this broader group or “tribe” who share the Arabic language as their mother tongue, even though their roots may not come from the Arabic Peninsula. It has been found that the DNA of many Palestinians reveals Jewish heritage! Some may have converted to Islam during the Arab conquests centuries ago. Others come from families from neighboring Egypt (Egyptians) Lebanon, Greece, Jordan, and so on, while others have been in the land for millennia.

Arabs in Israel have full equal rights by law, but there is still a lot of discrimination.

Arabic was recently dropped as an official language and declassified to having “special status” and Arab schools tend to receive less funding, to give two examples. There are many Arab villages and towns around the country, and the city of Nazareth is almost exclusively Arab. Other cities like Haifa, Acre, and Jaffa are more mixed, and it is common to see Arabs and Jews studying together at university, traveling on the bus beside each other and hospitals almost always have a mixture of both Arabic and Jewish patients and staff. Some Arabic speakers prefer to identify themselves as Palestinian, but many are content to be called Israeli, appreciating the quality of life and freedoms that Israel affords. 

Just as most Italians are Catholic but not necessarily born again, so most Arab Christians are Christian by culture rather than by faith. Many are Catholic while others are Maronites, Armenians, and other denominations.

Even within these traditional Christian communities, actually putting faith in Jesus and deciding to follow him can be very controversial and has been known to split families. Only a small proportion of Arab Christians actually read their Bibles and follow Jesus in faith. We estimate that there are some 5,000 evangelical Arabs in both Israel and the Palestinian Territories put together. They are a minority within a minority – within a minority!

As a result, many feel they are very much swimming against the tide.

Muslims and other faiths

Within the Israeli Muslim community there is a wide spectrum of beliefs and lifestyles, from one extreme of radical Islamists who want to destroy the state of Israel to the other extreme of super liberal Muslims who favor gay rights and cannabis—and of course everything in between! There are sectors of peace loving Muslims like the Circassians and the Ahmadi who are committed to peaceful co-existence, there are many nominal Muslims for whom the religion itself barely features at all. For many, the Muslim culture and lifestyle is what defines their identity, but statistics show the majority are happy to live in the state of Israel. 

The Bedouins are also Muslim by religion, but a “tribe” all to themselves. Originally a nomadic people, the Bedouin have lived in the land as long as anyone can remember and are famous for their tents, camels and hospitality. The community is in general more impoverished and largely unreached with the gospel.

The Druze people also speak Arabic but their religion is more focussed on Jethro as a key prophet. It is a closed and secretive religion, involving the writings of the three main faiths.

The Druze can be found in other Middle Eastern countries and are loyal to the state they live in. This means that, unlike other Arabic speakers who are exempt from serving in the army, the Druze enlist willingly in military service.

It is common for Druze soldiers to reach high rank and they are known for their faithful defence of Israel. Attempts have been made to share the gospel within Druze communities, but there has not been much response so far.

The Domari gypsies who settled in Jerusalem many years ago may speak Arabic but are neither Jewish nor Arab. Many are Muslim, but not all are. They came originally from India, about 100 years before the Romani gypsies of Europe left for the West. The Domari are marginalized and disadvantaged as a community within Israel, and outreach to bring practical help and the love of Jesus is much needed.

There are some 800 Samaritans who live on Mount Gerazim and typically speak Arabic. They hold only to the law of Moses, so keep traditions like Passover very differently to Jewish people. The animosity of the Bible times is long gone, but this closed community is also yet to hear much about Jesus.

There are a number of other minority groups in Israel such as the Baháʼí, people who come from places like the Philippines or Thailand for work such as carers or agricultural workers, there are refugees from countries like Sudan, and others… but God sees them all. They are all equally precious to Him, and in need of our prayers!


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