Israelis are the citizens and nationals of the State of Israel. The Israeli people do not represent a single ethnic group. They also do not correspond to the Jewish people living in Israel. Israelis are a diverse population of people whose ancestries trace back to various regions of the world and heritages stemming from different ethnical origins. Understanding the origins of Israelis is also a critical element of understanding the history of modern Israel.
Where Did Israelis Come From: Framing the Origins of Israeli People as the Creation of National Identity of the State of Israel
In 1948, following the end of the British Mandate for Palestine, the State of Israel was declared and created. This marked a pivotal moment in Jewish history and it drew Jews from around the world to migrate to Israel. Jewish citizens and nationals in the country are labeled Israelis but not all Israelis are Jews. It is important to highlight the fact that all recognized citizens and nationals of the State of Israel are considered Israeli people.
Current Ethnographic Composition
Understanding further the origins of Israelis or the ancestries of the modern Israeli people requires understanding the ethnographic composition of the population of the State of Israel. Take note that the Jewish ethnoreligious population accounts for about 75 percent of the entire Israeli population. The Arabs form the largest ethnic minority representing about 25 percent of the entire population. The remaining 5 percent is composed of other ethnic and religious minorities and residents with no distinct ethnic or religious categorization.
The current Jewish population of Israel came from several waves of immigration of Jewish communities from different parts of the world. The first wave involved immigration back to British Palestine from Europe, Western Asia, and North Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These Jews shaped early Israeli culture. Subsequent immigrations from Ethiopia, the territories and countries of the former Soviet Union, and North America brought new cultural elements to Israel and had a significant impact on modern Israeli culture.
Israeli Arabs represent the largest minority population in the country. There is no single and definitive answer as regards the origin of these people because of the long and complex history of migrations, conquests, and interactions. Ancient historical roots trace back some of them to ancient people in the Levant while modern historical roots also trace the others to the spread of Islam from the Arabian Peninsula, the rule of the Ottoman Empire, and modern migrations. Studies show genetic similarities and distinctions with people in the Levant region.
The population of Israeli Arabs includes Muslims and Christians. There are also Israeli Arabs with other religious and cultural identities. These include the Bedouins, Druze, Maronites, Arameans, and Assyrians. African Hebrew Israelites are of modern African descent but they believe that they are descended from the Lost Tribes of Israel. The Samaritans are another group that originated from ancient Israelites. There are also small populations of Armenians, Caucasians from various non-Slavic ethnic groups, and non-Jewish Eastern Europeans.
It is worth mentioning that the Samaritans or Israelite Samaritans are a notable ethnoreligious group within the greater Israeli population. Remember that they originated from ancient Israelites and are native to the Levant region. They practice an Abrahamic religion called Samaritanism. Several genetic studies have traced the origin of this group back to 3 of the 12 Tribes of Israel. These include the tribes of Levi, Manasseh, and Ephraim. Other studies have revealed a common ancestry with modern Israeli Jews.
Relationship with Ancient Israelites
Some modern Israelis trace their origins to ancient Israelites. The Israelites were a group of Semitic-speaking tribes in the ancient Near East who specifically inhabited a region in the Southern Levant called Canaan during the Iron Age. They followed a religion centered on a god called Yahweh. The consensus among archeologists is that these groups branched out from the Canaanites through the development of Yahwism and spoke an archaic form of the Northwest Semitic language. These are the historical descriptions of the Israelites.
It is important to note that the Hebrew Bible uses the term “Israelites” to refer to the members of the Twelve Tribes of Israel or people who descend from a religious figure named Jacob who was later named Israel. Converts to Yahwism were also called Israelites. The biblical account noted that Israel fled to Egypt with his 12 sons during a period of severe drought in Canaan and later formed the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The descendants of Israel were later enslaved by the Egyptians but were eventually led out and brought back to Canaan by Moses.
The Hebrew Bible also mentioned that the Twelve Tribes of Israel later formed the United Kingdom of Israel in the 10th century BCE and was later divided into the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah. Modern scholars have agreed that the biblical narratives of Israelites had some historical core but do not provide an authentic and accurate account of the origins of these people. Even the historicity of a united monarchy has been heavily debated. The biblical accounts are considered more of a national myth with little historical value.
Nevertheless, as mentioned, some modern Israelis trace their ancestry to the ancient Israelites, either through the Jewish or Samaritan traditions. Neither the Jews nor Samaritans recognize each as legitimate heirs of Jacob or Israel. The former trace their lineage mainly to the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Levi, who formed the Kingdom of Judah after the split from the Kingdom of Israel. The latter claim their origin from the remaining tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh, and Levi, who were not exiled by the Assyrians after the fall of the Kingdom of Israel.
The relationship between historical Israelites and modern Israelis is complex and multifaceted. Other modern Israelis do not have a direct genetic link to the ancient Israelites. It is also important to highlight the fact that some citizens of the State of Israel descended from groups unrelated to Judaism but later converted and became Jews. There are also Israelis who do not consider themselves as Jews and belong to other ethnic and religious groups that coexist in the region. The modern Israeli people are a modern social construct.
Origins of Modern Israeli Jews
Even the composition of the modern Israeli Jewish population comes from diverse ethnic subdivisions due to the dispersal of ancient Israelites or earlier Jews from the Levant and subsequent settlement to other regions or areas in the Middle East, around the Mediterranean, and other parts of the world. This global dispersion is called the Jewish diaspora and it is a result of various conflicts. These conflicts include the first exile due to the Assyrian invasion beginning in 733 BCE and the second exile due to Babylonian invasion beginning in 597 BCE
More recent conflicts and political developments in the region further extended the Jewish diaspora. These include the Jewish-Roman wars from 66 CE to 135 CE and the expansion of the Byzantine Empire during the 4th century. The Muslim conquest of the Levant that began in 638 allowed Jewish communities to flourish once again but new restrictions imposed on non-Muslims beginning in 717 compelled the Jews to emigrate due to socioeconomic discrimination. The Jewish population declined significantly by the end of the 11th century.
The First Crusade of Pope Urban II that began in 1096 and the subsequent Crusades in Jerusalem resulted in the further reduction of the Jewish population. Some Jews became slaves in Italy and Egypt while others fled. The defeat of the Crusaders by the Ayyubid Sultanate of Saladin in 1187 allowed Jewish migration back but the arrival of the Mamluk Sultanate in 1250 resulted in another large-scale emigration. The Ottoman Empire took control of the area from the Mamluks in 1517. The estimated Jewish population around this time was about 5000.
Nevertheless, because of the series of emigration over the centuries, several ethnic subdivisions have emerged based on the geographic areas where the ancestors of each group settled. These include the Ashkenazi Jews from Central and Eastern Europe, the Sephardim Jews of the Iberian Peninsula, and the Mizrahi Jews of the Middle East and North Africa. Studies have revealed that most of these groups are genetically related to one another and have originated from a common ancient Israelite population that underwent geographic branching and evolution.
More than 70 percent of Israeli Jews of today were born in Israel. Most of these individuals come from the second or third generation of their family in the country. The rest are modern Jewish immigrants from Europe, the Americas, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa who acquired Israeli citizenship. It is also important to underscore the fact that about half of Israeli Jews are descended from immigrants from the European Jewish diaspora while another half are descended from Jewish immigrants from Arab countries, Iran, Turkey, and Central Asia.
Relationship with Modern Palestinians
The longstanding conflict between Israel and Palestine has strained the social and political relationships between Israelis and Palestinians. The conflict is territorial in nature, although there is a misconception that it is anchored in ethnic and religious differences. Nevertheless, despite the seemingly irreconcilable relationship between the two, most Israelis and Palestinians are considered blood siblings because of their similarities. The two are related genetically to a certain extent and both have come from two separate but intertwined ancestries.
Hence, because of the aforementioned, discussions intended to explore the origins of Israelis tend to overlap somewhat with discussions about the origins of Palestinians. Both can trace some of their lineages to the ancient people who inhabited Canaan in the Levant region. The area now roughly corresponds to present-day Israel, Palestine, Syria, and Jordan. The two still have diverging lineages originating from different events such as the Hewish diaspora, the Muslim conquest, the European Crusades, the Ottoman rule, and modern migrations.
Several elements of the respective Israeli and Palestinian cultures also have commonalities. The Hebrew and Arabic languages belong to the same Semitic family of languages that developed and spread in the Near East, Middle East, and Asia Minor. The two groups also share some aspects of cuisine, music, arts, and literature that were influenced by Mediterranean and Middle Eastern civilizations. There are also some notable distinctions that are reflected in different religious beliefs, national identities, political ideologies, and social norms.
The dominant religions of both groups, which include Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, are considered part of the Abrahamic religion. These three share some common narratives, prophets, ideologies, and rituals that were derived from the ancient Israelites and their god Yahweh. However, for the sake of differentiation, it is important to note that these three dominant Abrahamic religions also have different religious doctrines, practices, and positions that reflect their divergent interpretations of the Supreme Being and spirituality.
Several genetic studies have been conducted to trace the origins of Israelis and Palestinians. The collective results have shown that the two groups have a complex and mixed ancestry that reflects their long and turbulent history. Some studies have suggested that both have some amount of genetic similarities with each other and with other populations inhabiting the Levant region. However, because of the two have branched out from various lineages, each has distinct genetic markers that distinguish them from other Levantine populations.
Conclusion and Takeaway: Understanding the Origins of Israelis and the Creation of the National Identity of the Modern Israeli People
The origin of Israelis cannot be traced back to a single ethnic group or specific ethnoreligious and ethnolinguistic groups. It is also a misconception that all of the entire Israeli people are descendants of historical and biblical Israelites. The population of the State of Israel is diverse and its composition is a product of a long history of emigration and immigration patterns and other interactions within and around the region. The Jews might be the dominant ethnic group but even the Israeli Jewish population is ethnically diverse.
Remember that the term “Israelis” refers to the citizens and nationals of Israel and it does not represent a single ethnic group. It was created to supplement the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 and to promote further the national identity of a new nation. It is still important to note that the name “Israel” was adapted as an approach to legitimize the territorial rights and memorialize the history of the Jewish people. Discussions about the origins of Israelis or the modern Israeli people are inevitable part of discussions about the creation of modern Israel.
FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES
- Atzmon, G., Hao, L., Pe’er, I., Velez, C., Pearlman, A., Palamara, P. F., Morrow, B., Friedman, E., Oddoux, C., Burns, E., and Ostrer, H. 2010. “Abraham’s Children in the Genome Era: Major Jewish Diaspora Populations Comprise Distinct Genetic Clusters with Shared Middle Eastern Ancestry.” The American Journal of Human Genetics. 86(6): 850-859. DOI: 1016/j.ajhg.2010.04.015
- Falk, R. 2015. “Genetic Markers Cannot Determine Jewish Descent.” Frontiers in Genetics. 5. DOI: 3389/fgene.2014.00462
- Gordis, D. 2016. Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn. First ed. Ecco. ISBN: 978-0062368744
- Nebel, A., Filon, D., Brinkmann, B., Majumder, P. P., Faerman, M., and Oppenheim, A. 2001. “The Y Chromosome Pool of Jews as Part of the Genetic Landscape of the Middle East” The American Journal of Human Genetics. 69(5): 1095-112. DOI: 1086/324070
- Ostrer, H. and Skorecki, K. 2012. “The Population Genetics of the Jewish People.” Human Genetics. 132(2): 119-127. DOI: 1007/s00439-012-1235-6
- Peres, S. 2017. No Room For Small Dreams: Courage, Imagination, and the Making of Modern Israel. Custom House. ISBN: 978-0062561442
- Purwanta, H. 2021. “National Identity in Israel History Lessons. In International Journal of Multicultural and Multireligious Understanding.” 8(12): 21. International Journal of Multicultural and Multireligious Understanding. DOI: 18415/ijmmu.v8i12.3133