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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 around the 17th century BCE. They controlled much of the area despite clashes with the neighbouring Assyrians and Philistines, until being overrun by Alexander the Great in the fourth century BCE. By 100 CE Jerusalem was under Roman rule, before it was occupied by Arabs and then retaken during the Christian First Crusade. The Christians established several states, including the Kingdom of Jerusalem, which survived until 1291 when the area fell under the Mamluks and subsequently the Ottoman Empire.

The country then experienced a lengthy decline as the Jews spread across Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and, later, the Americas. Most countries today have a community descended from Jewish settlers and most have suffered some form of persecution. As the Ottoman years ended after the British conquest, the country saw great numbers of Jews arriving to create a Jewish homeland.

The aspiration of the Zionist movement to re-establish a separate Jewish nation was 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 II 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, Israel declared independence, sparking the Arab-Israeli War. Israel 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 anti-Zionist Palestine Liberation Organisation was formed and three years later regional tensions erupted into the Six Day War, which ended in Israel’s capture of Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, Gaza, the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights. After the bloody Yom Kippur War in October 1973, Sinai was returned to the Egyptians.


Many thousands of Palestinians were displaced during these conflicts. Since 2012, the United Nations has legally recognised the existence of the State of Palestine within the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, but the area remains under Israeli occupation.


Did you know?

• Israel’s official languages are Hebrew and Arabic, although English is still widely used on road signs and by speakers.

• Israel consistently rates low in the Global Peace Index. In 2017 it ranked 144th out of 163 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 numbers of Christians, 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.

Language in Israel

Hebrew and Arabic are the official languages of Israel. Other languages include English, French, Hungarian, Polish, Russian, Spanish and Yiddish.

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