A Travellerspoint blog

The People

It's Complicated

sunny 80 °F
View Israel and Jordan on paulej4's travel map.

Slightly fewer than nine million people live in the State of Israel, the world’s only nation with a majority Jewish population: three of four residents are Jews. Densely populated around where we are in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and the Sea of Galilee, the country is more wide open in the Negev Desert and Eliat in the south.

Jerusalem, only recently named as being the capital city, hosts over 1 million in the metropolitan area, much smaller than the economic center of Tel Aviv which is home to nearly 3.5 million.

Of Israeli Jews, just under half describe themselves as “secular” while about 12% self-describe as ultra-Orthodox. The remainder are “religiously” somewhere in between.

Today--beautifully warm and not hot--is Shabbat, the Sabbath, a day of rest, observed from a few minutes before sunset on Friday evening--and last evening's Shabbat Dinner--until the appearance of three stars in the sky tonight, just after sunset (7:38pm). For observers, no work is done and the operation of machinery--including driving automobiles--is forbidden for the religious. Witness the coffee machine in the Vista Lounge at the Hilton Hotel. Rest easy, however, coffee is available from a more typical urn but, admittedly, one must operate a lever on the valve to retrieve it. Or, you can ask one of the many servers here to get it for you.


Observant Jews should not push the call button on the elevator (they may ride in it) but, no worry; I am told that one "lift" is set to Shabbat mode and runs continuously, stopping on every floor. The Orthodox can enter and exit without forbidden "work."

The population of Jews here who are ultra-Orthodox (we are in contact with no ultra-Orthodox on this journey) and who currently control sixteen seats in the 160-seat Israeli Knesset, is growing rapidly with an average of seven or eight children per family. Nearly 60 percent are 19 or younger. Because of that, voter roles over the next twenty years are in for a significant impact. As evidence, ninety-one-year-old ultra-orthodox Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky is asked in a popular on-line video about secular Jews. “They will have children like that,” he says. Today’s children, everyone agrees, are tomorrow's electorate. Kanievsky knows: those who produce the most voters would seem to control the political destiny of this nation.

But, many of the ultra-Orthodox, according to a recent New York Times piece, “are ambivalent about the Jewish state or reject it outright because they believe it should come into being only after the arrival of the Messiah. And yet, many have pursued secular higher education over the last decade, and more men have joined the work force instead of remaining in seminaries—and on welfare. Several thousand serve in the military.” That is certainly not the majority, however.

Today, my thoughts are far from the military or religion. I am off on a morning walk from the Hilton north along the Mediterranean shore to Jaffa and back; seven miles or so of crowds, paddleball players, Lime and Bird riders, surfers, bikers, bathers, strollers with no security to be seen but promises that they are about. We are told but cannot verify that underwater sensors off the coast alert authorities to unauthorized traffic larger than a medium sized fish.


Returning to the hotel in the nick of time to clean up, there is a wedding luncheon at the Carlton next door. The weather is sublime (in the shade) and the breeze is perfect. B4 and I enjoy a seat at the family luncheon table on the deck and engage in unrivaled conversations with Nicky, Jane, Nicky's nephew's mother-in-law and Sam, Nicky's brother-in-law. Should you ever have the opportunity to visit with any of these people, take it. You'll be simultaneously enthralled, entertained and educated. Rags to riches is personified among them; against all odds, nothing to something and something to nearly everything in a single generation. To be merely inspired is to miss the point. Nicky came from Russia as a teenager with his entire immediate family; $60 between them. They spoke no English. And yet, against all odds, the Yakubovich family has gained great success. Under our proposed merit system they, like my ancestors and those of B4 would not have been allowed to immigrate at all. Think of what America would have lost.

A wonderful afternoon for us is followed by a night off--which we need before tomorrow's wedding day.


All of those lunchtime folks live in the U.S. but, if they desired, they could have Israeli passports. (so could B4) The country’s “Law of Return” grants all Jews and those of Jewish ancestry the right to Israeli citizenship. Even so, three quarters of the Jews living here were also born here. Half of Jews here boast ancestors from Europe and the former Soviet Union. Globally, one authoritative source reports that the world over there are only around 14.5 million Jewish people alive today; an estimated 46% of them live in Israel. Please remember that six million were murdered around the time of my birth. (Yesterday, Shlomo lamented the fact that too few American Jews even visit Israel)

The Pew Forum on Religion and Pubic Life estimates that one in four Jewish individuals currently live in a country other than the one in which they were born. One in twenty Christians and one in twenty-five Muslims live in the country of their birth. Jews, therefore, are the planet's “top migrants.” Casual conversations we have held here--an admittedly tiny sample size--indicate that people identify by saying from where they, or their parents, immigrated.

To qualify for citizenship under the “Law of Return,” one must have at least one Jewish grandparent, a Jewish spouse or have undergone a conversion in a recognized Jewish community—not necessarily an Orthodox one. That is different than qualifying as a Jew under “religious law” whereby an individual must have been born to a Jewish mother (it does not matter if she was or is secular or religious) or have undergone an Orthodox conversion. Note that having a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother does not qualify a child as being Jewish. “It’s complicated.”

Daily, 451 babies are born, 124 persons die and twenty-seven people legally migrate here. The population grows by one person every four minutes; that’s 354 each day. As a frame of reference, the much larger United States grows at a much higher number (but a much slower rate) of about 9,000 per day. Israel will most likely be home to 10,000,000 souls by 2024.

Like most of the rest of today’s world of displaced minorities, “illegal” migrant workers have also arrived here. The estimate is that around 200,000 migrant workers from China, Romania and South America are here; 60,000 more come from Africa. Migrants represent about three percent of the population, about the same as is estimated in the U.S.

It’s a youthful country; more than half of the people here are under thirty. My observation confirms that; numerous young people on electric scooters are everywhere, zigging and zagging so as to not run over old people. Life expectancy here is 8th highest in the world (81 for men and 84.5 for women), better than in the United States, Canada, France, Russia and other “highly-developed” nations. (Monaco is far and away the highest at just under 90 while Angola is far and away the lowest at under 39)

Remember that the State of Israel had just been born in 1948 when only 800,000 people—only about 100,000 of them Jewish—lived here. The fact that the total population doubled within a year was due to Jewish migrants flocking to their first homeland. The majority of the early settlers were among the few survivors of the Nazi extermination camps located in Europe. By definition, they arrived with nothing but hope. Simultaneously, 850,000 self-identified Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews either fled or were expelled from Arab countries, Iran and Afghanistan; 680,000 of them to Israel. It wasn’t until 1990 that a great number of Jews arrived from what was then the Soviet Union.


(Sephardi Jews originated in Spain, Mizrahi Jews from the Middle East. Ashkenazi Jews (B4's ancestors) come from what might be called the Holy Roman Empire and subsequently northern Europe). All Jews trace their ancestry to the Kingdom of Israel in the 720s BCE (Before Common Era or BC—before Christ) and the Kingdom of Judah in 586 BCE. Military defeat of those kingdoms meant disbursement for the people.

In the State of Israel today, the majority Jewish population is growing but at a slower rate than is the minority Muslim population. That trend would indicate that the overwhelming Jewish majority in Israel would decline over time. What that would mean for a “One State Solution” (discussed in an earlier post) is problematic.

Service in the military, the Israeli Defense Force or IDF, is mandatory for all Israeli citizens over the age of 18; two years for women and two years eight months for men. Arab citizens are exempt. Exceptions are made on religious grounds as the “Tal Law” exempts ultra-Orthodox Jews from service. Controversial “Haredim” recruitment centers offer ultra-Orthodox men “women-free and secular-free” recruitment opportunities. Over a third of Israeli women claim religious exemptions. Israel is one of 24 nations around the world that allow openly gay individuals to serve; its first transgender woman served in 2013. Reserve service availability calls for one month’s active duty annually for training and “ongoing military activity” but most people do not perform annual reserve duty. There are no exemptions, however, when reservists are called up in “time of crisis.”

There is a schism among the ultra-Orthodox apparent in the coming showdown over new laws which would subject more yeshiva students to mandatory military service, limiting their current exemption status. (Yeshiva is a Jewish educational institution that focuses on the study of traditional religious texts, primarily the religious texts, the Talmud and the Torah)

Israelis are industrious. The Uzi machine gun was invented here as was drip irrigation and rooftop solar hot-water systems (ubiquitous and obvious as you drive around), USB flash drives, cherry tomatoes and the ubiquitous smartphone apps Waze and Viber. Israeli cows produce 10% more milk than do American cows and 50% more than German cows partly due to air conditioning and “constant monitoring and pedometers to tell when the animals are getting fidgety.” The country is believed to have possessed nuclear weapons since at least 1967. We saw none; nor did we see evidence of the "Iron Dome" missile/rocket defense system.

Primary, Middle and Secondary education in Israel mirrors what occurs in the United States but the school year is much longer: 219 days per year rather than 186 days back home in Kansas or a mere 174 days in Missouri.

Healthcare is “a fundamental right” for citizens but not for “non-tourists that stay in Israel for long periods.” That would include some of the aforementioned migrant workers, mostly from Africa, who entered Israel “illegally.” Otherwise, healthcare is “universal” and participation in one of four not-for-profit medical insurance plans is mandatory. That can and often is supplemented through further optional purchase of more extensive private insurance. The health care system is “ranked fourth in efficiency” among the countries of the world. However, 75% of the population takes out secondary health insurance because of long “waiting lists” for treatments.

Individual income taxes here are "high" with a top rate of 47% on incomes over a half-million dollars and 35% on incomes over a quarter-million. If you earn over $650,000 there is an additional 3% surtax--taking half your income in exchange for government services and national defense. Here, national defense takes on a more urgent status than what most Americans feel on U.S. soil. Social Security taxes claim an additional 3.5 to 12% from employees plus an additional 3.5 to 7.5% from the employer.

Biotech, medical and clinical research is big business here and new pharmaceuticals, medical equipment and treatment therapies originate here. Israel has the second highest number of startup companies in the world (after the United States). IBM, Google, HP, Cisco Systems, Facebook and Motorola all have R&D centers here. Corporate taxes are 23%.

Closer to B4’s sphere of influence and only partially related to the reason we’re here: The Israeli diamond industry is one of the world’s centers for diamond cutting and polishing for very high grade diamonds. Many if not most of her many personal friends here are in the diamond and jewelry industry.

The IDE (Israel Diamond Exchange) located near Tel Aviv consists of four interconnected high-rise buildings that amount to a “virtually impenetrable fortress” where 15,000 people work surrounded by two trading halls, restaurants, and intensive care room and a synagogue. We did not visit. Israelis cut and polish a higher percentage of larger and more expensive stones while the majority of smaller stones are cut and polished primarily in India and to a much lesser degree in China, Botswana, and a few other places. Cut diamonds represent almost a quarter of Israel’s exports and amount to 12% of the world’s total production of mined diamonds.

Over a third of those precious and beautiful exported stones come to the U.S. and some unknown percentage of those amazing gems can be purchased by you at HDS. Come on in and make sure you visit the “Diamond Room” where your socks will be blown off by what you learn from highly trained and knowledgeable HDS diamond professionals.

That won’t be complicated.

Posted by paulej4 12:11 Archived in Israel

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Another fun and informative travel blog! I feel like I’m there with you. I especially enjoy the cultural, historical and political elements of your journal!

by Becky Pruett

Wow... a great overview of The People and the history. Mazeltov!

by Chuck

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