Community in Israel - World Jewish Congress

In recent years, the Jewish population of Israel has become the largest of any nation, reaching just under 6.4 million in 2020, according to recent statistics. The fabric of Jewish Israeli society is composed of immigrants and their descendants from every Jewish community in the world.

Since the establishment of the state, 3.2 million Jews have made aliyah, the majority in two large waves: the first lasted from the establishment of the state until the mid-1950s, bringing nearly 700,000 Jews to Israel, mainly from Muslim countries, and the second in the early 1990s brought nearly 900,000 Jews to Israel, mainly from the former Soviet Union.

The WJC affiliate representing Israeli Jewry is the World Jewish Congress-Israel, an autonomous Israeli non-profit organization. In addition, the WJC (Global) maintains a representative office to carry out activities, initiatives, and programs of the WJC.

WJC Affiliate
World Jewish Congress-Israel

: +972 2 633 3000
+972 2 659 8100

Director: Dr. Laurence Weinbaum

The history of Jews in the Land of Israel goes back to Biblical times. According to tradition, there was an Israelite presence in the Land as early as the 13th century BCE. Centuries of autonomous rule followed in the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, at times independent and at other times living within the framework of larger empires. After more than a millennium, the majority Jewish presence in the Land came to an end after Rome destroyed the Second Temple, razed the Judean capital of Jerusalem, and began the major Diaspora. During the 18 centuries of Diaspora, the Jews who remained in the Land (toward the end concentrated in Jerusalem, Hebron, Tiberias, and Safed) lived under the rule of a succession of empires. This began with Rome and then the Christian Byzantines, under whose rule the rabbis remaining in the Land of Israel compiled and redacted the Jerusalem Talmud (likely in the Galilee). Following the collapse of the Byzantine Empire in the seventh century, Israel was ruled by Muslims for 1,300 years, interrupted by the Crusaders that ruled from the 11th to the 12th centuries.

At that time, the region was governed by six significant Muslim empires. The last of them was the Ottoman Empire, which rose to power in the 16th century and ruled for 400 years before being ultimately overthrown by the British in World War I. This would bring an end to total Muslim rule in the Land of Israel and begin thirty years of British rule under the mandate of the League of Nations. In the centuries of Muslim rule, the Jewish inhabitants of the land (as the descendants of the Judeans came to be called) were awarded the status of dhimmi, a special protected class of non-Muslim residents who were seen as members of the wider community but of an inferior status and religion that did not provide them the same privileges enjoyed by Muslims. In the first few centuries of Muslim rule, Jewish communities expanded in coastal towns from Rafah to Caesarea, where they were treated as a tolerated minority. Throughout the centuries, Jerusalem and the other holy cities maintained their status as pilgrimage sites for Jews around the world, and those who had the means would send their dead to be buried in the cemeteries directly outside Jerusalem's walls.

Toward the end of Ottoman rule, romantic nationalism began to sweep across Europe, both exacerbating existing antisemitism and inspiring a minority of European Jews to envision a national renaissance for themselves in the Land of Israel. This manifested in the first two waves of Aliyah to Ottoman Palestine at the end of the 19th century and up to the start of World War I. At the same time, 20 years before the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Theodore Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress with the aim of establishing a legally recognized home for the Jewish people in Palestine. Jewish philanthropists, like the Baron Philippe de Rothschild, purchased plots of land in Ottoman-controlled Palestine for Eastern European Jewish immigrants, studying both agriculture and the Hebrew language, to work while preparing for their immigration. Three more major waves of immigration followed in the interwar years. All together, these five waves of Jewish immigration brought over four hundred thousand Jews to Palestine from Central and Eastern Europe, Yemen, and elsewhere.

As the Jewish population of Palestine continued to grow under the British Mandate, conflict with the local Arab population intensified. In an attempt to appease the Arabs, the British closed Palestine to Jewish immigration just before and during the Holocaust, leading to Jewish resistance and clandestine attempts to bring Jews in from Europe. After World War II, the United Nations voted to partition the land into an Arab state and a Jewish one. The British withdrew from the Mandate, and on May 14, 1948 (5 Iyar, 5708), the establishment of the State of Israel was declared. The ongoing violence that had persisted between the Jews, the British, and the local Arabs erupted into a full-scale war between Israel and the Arab states of the region, most of which had recently gained independence themselves. After the horrors of the Holocaust made obvious the need for a Jewish state, most Diasporan Jewry, which had always considered the Land of Israel as its spiritual homeland, committed itself to working toward the establishment and, later, the wellbeing of the State of Israel.

The Years of the Holocaust

During the Holocaust, the British ruled in the Mandate of Palestine, and they continued to strictly enforce the immigration quota they had set in their 1939 White Paper, allowing only 75,000 Jews to enter Palestine over a period of five years. This was stiffly opposed by the Yishuv and by Zionists abroad. There were many covert attempts to bring Jews into Palestine by sea without the knowledge of the British; these immigrants, referred to as maapilim, numbered around 115,000. The British intercepted many of these ships, interning their passengers in detention facilities. Many ships sank in accidents or as a result of attacks, leading to the deaths of hundreds of Jewish refugees.

The British restrictions on Jewish immigration into Palestine during the Holocaust no doubt cost hundreds of thousands of lives. At the same time, there was cooperation between the British and the Yishuv (the Jewish community in pre-state Palestine) in some respects during World War II. As David Ben-Gurion, the Zionist leader who would become the State of Israel’s first prime minister, famously said, "We will fight the White Paper as if there is no war, and we will fight the war as if there is no White Paper." The Jews of the Yishuv were not unaffected by the war itself. When Italy joined Germany and declared war on Britain, several air raids were carried out on Haifa and Tel Aviv. As Rommel and the Afrika Korps were making their way across Egypt, the Jews in Palestine were terrified that the Germans might succeed in conquering the country. After the war, researchers discovered German plans to slaughter the Jews in Palestine. It was during this time that the Haganah formed its special strike force, the Palmach, with the aid of the British. Moreover, toward the end of the war, the British allowed for the formation of a Jewish brigade from Palestine that would fight in Europe under the British military (an offer the Yishuv had extended for years, which the British only accepted in 1944).

In the aftermath of the Holocaust, hundreds of thousands of survivors were held in displaced persons camps in Europe, and the British still would not allow them entry into Palestine. The underground Irgun and Lehi waged a fierce campaign to compel the British to leave the country. On November 29, 1947, after the British decided to withdraw, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution to partition Palestine into two independent Jewish and Arab states. However, only after the establishment of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948, did free immigration begin. The Arab countries surrounding Israel immediately mobilized to attack the newfound state in order to completely dismantle it.


According to the Israel Bureau of Statistics, as of 2018, the Jewish population of Israel stands at 6,738,500, which comprises 74.5% of the population of the state. Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola estimated the Jewish population of Israel at 6,336,400 as of 2016.

The major sociocultural groups among Israeli Jews today may be sorted along religious lines: Haredi (ultra-Orthodox), Dati-Leumi (national religious-Orthodox), Masorti (traditional-non-Orthodox), and Hiloni (secular). There are also distinctions between large olim (immigrant) groups (e.g., Ethiopian, Russian, French, and native English-speakers), who are more noticeable among olim and their immediate descendants.

The Jews in Israel show relatively high rates of involvement in religious life, with 25% reporting that they attend synagogue weekly and another 39% report that they attend at least infrequently. 51% describe themselves as observant of Jewish ritual to at least some extent, with a third of secular Israeli Jews keep kosher in their home. Living among descendants of Jews from all over the world in the ancient Jewish homeland gives the Israeli people a strong sense of identity.

Community Life

As the world's only Jewish state, where the majority Jewish population's interests are inseparable from the national interest, communal organization takes on a different form than anywhere else. In Israel, religious organizations formed by the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) take on a political nature in representing their specific communities' interests in the Knesset as formal parties. The subdivisions within the Jewish populace, however, do not require any structured liaison between themselves and the government since the government is democratically elected and directly represents the interests of the voters.

Religious and Cultural Life

The population of Jews can be roughly divided into four subgroups based on religious affiliation: Hilonim (secular Jews) make up 45% of the population; Masortim (conservative Jews) comprise 25%; Dati Leumi (Orthodox) comprise 16% of the population; and the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) make up the remaining 14%.

Orthodoxy is the only officially recognized stream of Judaism in Israel. The Chief Rabbinate is the state body that regulates public religious life in the state, including standards of kashrut as well as personal status issues with implications in the private sphere (e.g., marriage, divorce, burial, and conversion). Its decisions have force of law in the areas in which it enjoys jurisdiction. The Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities each have a chief rabbi, who together supervise the Rabbinate. Yitzhak Yosef is the current Sephardi chief rabbi, and David Lau is the Ashkenazi chief rabbi, both serving 10-year terms that began in 2013. The Orthodox enjoy a plethora of educational institutions and yeshivots across the land.

Progressive streams of Judaism exist in Israel, but their institutions do not receive state funding (aside from a few exceptions, which receive funding from the Ministry of Sport and Culture rather than the Ministry of Religions).

The Jewish calendar sets the rhythm of public life in Israel. Jewish holidays are celebrated with festivals, and public celebrations take place in every city, town, and village across the country. The symbols of holiday festivities fill the streets each season, from the traditional booths that pop up on balconies and gardens across the country after Yom Kippur in advance of the Sukkot festival to bakeries stocking sufganiyot (doughnuts) for weeks leading up to Hannukah.

Additionally, most businesses and public transit lines close every Shabbat in Jewish areas.

Jewish Education

Jewish parents in Israel enjoy the benefit of having their tax dollars fund state-operated schools, which offer Jewish education in three major categories. The most widely attended variety of school is the mamlachti, or state, school. There, required subjects comprise three-quarters of the curriculum, including the subjects standard in secular schools around the world, in addition to Jewish studies (taught from a cultural, not religious perspective). The remaining portion of the curriculum leaves room for each individual school community to decide how to supplement the students' experience. Some schools, like those in the TALI network, have chosen to put extra emphasis on Jewish studies.

The next category is referred to as mamlachti-dati, or state-religious, schools, where secular subjects are covered and Jewish studies are given special emphasis in the curriculum. The school, staff, and students are Torah-observant (at least during school hours), and Orthodox religious life (including daily prayer and dress codes) permeates the environment. The haredi community, per the status quo agreement struck with Ben-Gurion at the time of the establishment of the state, has its own state-funded school system devoted to Torah study, in which the government does not determine curriculum or involve itself in the hiring process. There is also the option to send students to private schools that the government has accredited but which teach the state curriculum according to their own philosophy. The Ministry of Education also determines the curriculum in the Israeli-Arab school system. Other religions maintain schools of their own. The variety ensures that parents can find the form of Jewish education most suited to their children, but also prevents much interaction between students in the different categories of schools.

The Masorti movement (Israel's equivalent of the Conservative movement) supports over 70 congregations and minyanim (prayer quorum) throughout the country, as well as a rabbinical school, alongside the Israeli Reform movement's 35 congregations and eight schools. Likewise, the Masorti movement maintains the Schechter Institutes in Israel, including the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary, the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, the TALI Education Fund, and the Neve Schechter Center for Jewish Culture.

The Reform movement's rabbinical seminary, Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion, operates a campus in Jerusalem that serves as the center of HUC-JIR’s Israel experience for stateside students, including the Year-in-Israel Program, and prepares Israeli students for leadership in the Israel Rabbinical Program, M.A. Program in Pluralistic Jewish Education with the Melton Centre of Hebrew University, and the Blaustein Center for Pastoral Counseling’s Mezorim Program.


There are 13 youth movements in Israel that receive funding from the Ministry of Education, several of which were founded nearly a century ago in Jewish communities across Europe and were involved in the founding of the State of Israel. They are intended to provide an informal educational atmosphere where Israeli youth are taught core principles that prepare them for responsible citizenship in Israeli society, including identification with the values of the Declaration of Independence, human rights, involvement in civil society, and respect for others.

The youth movements range in theme, with some organized around political ideologies such as HaNoar HaOved V'halomed, Hashomer Hatzair, and Betar; and religious practices, like Bnei Akiva, the religious-Zionist youth movement founded in 1929, and Ezra, founded in 1919 in Germany by Haredi Zionists. 

The Reform stream has a youth movement called Telem, which is currently regarded as the Israel branch of Netzer Olami—the youth movement of the World Union for Progressive Judaism—and a partner of NFTY, the youth program of the North American Reform movement. The Masorti youth movement is acronymized NOAM, which stands for No'ar Masorti, or "Masorti youth." Telem, which is now considered the Israel branch of Netzer Olami—the World Union for Progressive Judaism's youth movement—and a partner of NFTY, the North American Reform movement's youth program.

Additionally, there are youth groups based on non-Jewish ethnic and religious identities for Muslim, Orthodox Christian, Druze, and Arab youth.

jewish media

In the Jewish State, all Hebrew media might be considered "Jewish media." The major print media publications with the widest readership are Yediot Ahronot and Yisrael Hayom, followed by Haaretz and Ma’ariv, with Globes and The Marker focusing on economic matters. The Jerusalem PostHaaretz, and the Times of Israel serve Israel's English-speaking community and allow readers from around the world to stay up-to-date on current events in Israel. There are newspapers in a number of other languages, especially Russian, spoken by immigrants. However, over time, many of these publications have closed down as the Israeli-born progeny of immigrants integrate into the Israeli mainstream.

There are also several main television and radio news stations that appeal to the broad public, with the Haredi communities producing news publications and radio shows for their internal consumption. 

Information for Visitors

Israel is replete with sites of extraordinary historical and religious significance for Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Its topography is astonishingly varied, given its small area. Tour guides in Israel are certified through a rigorous program that equips them to educate visitors on the history of the Land of Israel from the perspectives of the three monotheistic faiths, as well as on Zionism, architecture, archeology, and botany.  Israel is a land of contrasts—a country at the forefront of technological innovation with a modern infrastructure that exists alongside material evidence of ancient cultures.

Museums: With the highest number of museums in the world per capita, Israel offers an impressive variety of museums dedicated to the heritage of the Jewish people. Two of the most significant are Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People, in Tel Aviv, and Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, in Jerusalem. Former World Jewish Congress President Nahum Goldman founded Beit Hatfutsot in 1978; it tells the collective story of the Jewish people from antiquity to today and acts to strengthen the identity of Jewish visitors from around Israel and the Diaspora. In addition, Israel boasts countless museums preserving the memory of Jewish diaspora communities whose members' descendants make up the fabric of the Jewish population of Israel. Several examples include the German-speaking Jewry Heritage Museum in Tefen, the Museum of North African Jewry in Jerusalem, the Memorial Museum of Hungarian-speaking Jewry in Tzfat, and the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Museum in Or Yehuda.

Holocaust Memorial Sites: Yad Vashem is the world's leading Holocaust research institute and serves as the museum and memorial of the Jewish people to the victims of the Shoah, working to commemorate and preserve their memories and to transmit them to future generations. Alongside Yad Vashem are several museums throughout Israel dedicated to the study and memorialization of the Shoah. The oldest is Beit Lohamei Hagetaot (the Ghetto Fighters' House Museum), located in the Lohamei Hagetaot Kibbutz. Survivors of the Holocaust wanted future generations to remember the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising's resilience, so they founded the first Holocaust museum in the world. The Yad Mordechai Museum located in Kibbutz Yad Mordechai tells the story of European Jewry in the first half of the 20th century, also with a focus on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Lastly, the Massuah Institute for the Study of the Holocaust, located in Tel Yitzhak, offers programs in Holocaust education and memorialization, focusing on promoting discourse concerning the significance of the Holocaust in today's society.

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