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Israel History, Language and Culture

History of Israel

The Jewish people trace their ancestry to Abraham who settled in the land of Canaan in 17th century BC. They controlled much of Palestine despite clashes with the neighbouring Assyrians and Philistines, until being overrun by Alexander the Great in the fourth century BC. By AD100 the country was under Roman rule before being occupied by Arabs then retaken during the First Crusade. The Christians established several states, including the Kingdom of Jerusalem, which survived until 1291 when the area fell under the Mamelukes and subsequently the Ottoman Empire.

The country then fell into a lengthy decline as the Jews continued to spread across Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and, later, the Americas. Most countries today have a community descended from Jewish settlers and few have not suffered some form of persecution. As the Ottoman years ended the country saw great numbers of Jews arriving to create a Jewish homeland.

The aspirations of the Zionist movement to re-establish a separate Jewish nation were recognised by the British government in 1917, following Britain's occupation of Palestine.

A League of Nations mandate entrusted the region to the British who granted Jews and Arabs the right to run their own affairs, but the British struggled to balance their commitment to the two populations. After World War 2 the UN favoured the creation of a separate Jewish state in Palestine. The Arabs refused to accept this, but the expiry of the mandate and pressure from Jewish immigrants – many of which had moved to Palestine after the war – forced the British to withdraw. In May 1948, the same day the British Mandate ended, Israel declared independence, sparking the Arab-Israeli War in which it took control of three-quarters of Palestine leaving the West Bank between Jerusalem and the River Jordan occupied by the Jordanian army. In 1964 the Palestine Liberation Organisation was formed and three years later the Six Day War saw Israel capture Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, Gaza, the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights. In October 1973 the bloody Yom Kippur War between Israel, Syria and Egypt erupted leading to the return of Sinai to the Egyptians.


Many thousands of Palestinians were displaced and although, since 2012, the United Nations recognises the legal existence of the State of Palestine comprising the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the area remains under Israeli control.

Did you know?

• Both Hebrew and Arabic are official languages, although English is still widely used, appearing on road signs, for instance.

• Israel consistently rates low in the Global Peace Index. In 2015 it ranked 148th out of 162 countries.

• Israel's top literary award, the Sapir Prize is made each June during Hebrew Book Week.

Israel Culture

Religion in Israel

76% Jewish, 17% Muslim, with small Christian, Druze and other minorities.

Social Conventions in Israel

Israelis are usually very informal but with the European style of hospitality. Israelis are typically blunt and direct in speech, which should not be misinterpreted as rudeness. Visitors should observe normal courtesies when visiting someone's home and should not be afraid to ask questions about the country as most Israelis are happy to talk about their homeland, religion and politics. The expression shalom (peace) is used for hello and goodbye.

Dress is casual, but in the holy places of all religions modest attire is worn. For places such as the Western Wall, male visitors are given a smart cardboard yarmulke (skull cap) to respect the religious importance of the site. Businesspeople are expected to dress smartly, or at least in smart casual style, although ties are often not worn. The most expensive of restaurants and nightclubs may expect a similar standard. If formal evening wear is required this will be specified on invitations.

It is considered a violation of Shabbat (Sabbath, on Saturday) to smoke on that day. There is usually a sign to remind the visitor of this, and to disregard the warning would be regarded as discourteous.