The Many Faces of Israel’s Jews

When you visit Israel, you see Jews with a wide range of skin and hair colors and with varied facial features and styles of dress, and the cuisine and music have a dizzying range of influences. That’s because Israeli Jews have returned from their diaspora around the world. We learn to identify as one nationality in school and during our national service. We discuss Arab Israelis, both Christian and Muslim, in this article.

Jews are not a “race,” but constitute a people or nation. Traditionally, Jewish texts often refer to the Jewish people as “Israel.” Although there is a distinct cluster of genes associated with Jewish heritage, many individuals possess these genes without being of Jewish descent, while others lacking these genes identify as Jewish. Therefore, it is important to emphasize that one’s DNA does not determine their Jewish identity.

DNA studies and archaeological evidence show that the Jewish people originated in the Middle East. Owing to Jews’ historical dispersion around the world however, Jews also belong to several Jewish ethnic groups, all of which are represented in the modern state of Israel.

A 2008 survey showed that at the time, 70.3 percent of us were “sabras,” born in Israel, 20.5 percent were “olim,” immigrants, from Europe and the Americas, and 9.2 percent were olim from Asia and Africa.

The following population breakdown (2019) did not identify those with Sephardic roots whose ancestors came to Israel from countries identified with the Mizrahi but whose communities had in some cases remained distinct. Current numbers are not available.

According to a 2006 study on Adult Multiethnics by Barbara S. Okun and Orna Khait-Marelly, “Intermarriage between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim is increasingly common in Israel and by the late 1990s 28 percent of all Israeli children had multi-ethnic parents (up from 14 percent in the 1950s).”

Ashkenazi Jews were a large population in Western, Central, and Eastern Europe, and in Russia, until the Holocaust. The early community spread east from France and Germany. Most American Jews are Ashkenazi. In the 1880s, when Israel was under Ottoman rule, and there were just 25,000 Jews here, Ashkenazi idealists began to arrive, building up the Jewish Yishuv (settlement) to 630,000 in 1948 when they founded the State of Israel based on their ideals of secularism, socialism, and European-style government. The first immigrants to reach the new state were survivors of the Holocaust. The Ashkenazi achieved success in business, founded the city of Tel Aviv, and dominated the government, labor unions, and the arts and culture until the growth of Mizrahi power in the 1980’s.

Mizrahi Jews are descended from diverse communities in the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia and parts of the Caucasus, who lived for generations under Muslim rule. After the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent Arab-Israeli War, some 900,000 Jews were forced to leave these countries and emigrated to Israel. Today, there are only a few very small Jewish communities remaining in Muslim countries. They arrived speaking many languages and learned Hebrew here while moving out of the socioeconomic periphery and toward the center. The term Mizrahi (Eastern) was invented by the Ashkenazim to identify people of very broad backgrounds, and was initially derogatory. Eventually the Mizrahi embraced the term with pride.  In the world of popular music, singers from the Mizrahi-music genre usually lead the list of the most-played artists on Israeli radio. Many of the stars of the reality TV shows are also Mizrahim. They are shaping the arts and literature. Their foodways are apparent in some of the most popular foods here, like grilled kebabs, stuffed vegetables, salads, and pita bread. The Moroccan Mimouna holiday has gained great popularity here. Today’s Mizrahi Jews are descendants by paternal lineage of Iraqi, Moroccan, Tunisian, Libyan, Algerian, Yemenite, Iranian, Egyptian, Afghan, Pakistani, Indian and Turkish Jewish communities.

Sephardic (Spanish) Jews began leaving due to oppression as early as the mid-12th century, such as the great Maimonides who moved to Egypt. The Jews were exiled from Spain in 1492 and scattered broadly. Most contemporary Sephardic Jews hail from Turkey, North Africa and the Middle East, places that were largely unscathed by the Holocaust. Many of the Sephardic exiles and their descendants proudly clung to the beautiful culture they had developed in Spain. Thus, even 500 years later, there are still Sephardim who speak Ladino, the Jewish version of Spanish, which contains many Hebrew words.

In Israel, the term Sephardi is often used to refer to those, mostly Mizrahi, who use a Sephardi-style liturgy. For more information, see this video. Israeli Jews with Sephardi roots may refer to themselves as “Sephardi Sephardi.” Jewish liturgy has the same basics, but differences between Ashkenazim and Sephardim include music, synagogue design, some food rules during Passover, and wedding customs.

Beta Israel (Ethiopian) Jews immigrated here en masse in the late 1970’s to early 1980’s. Two major covert operations brought nearly the entire tribe over to Israel. This video describes them well:

Russian and Ukrainian Jews under the U.S.S.R. were not allowed to practice their religion, and many were denied the right to emigrate during the Cold War. Because of anti-religious sentiment in the Soviet Union, many were raised in secular homes and nearly a third were not considered Jewish under Rabbinic law, though they were able to immigrate under the Right of Return. Under the more liberal government of Mikhail Gorbachev in the early 1990s, Jews were allowed to emigrate and they did so en masse: nearly 1 million moved to Israel in the 1990s. In 2022, more came from Russia to avoid conscription in the war against Ukraine. Since the final years of the Soviet Union, about 1 million people with Jewish roots have immigrated to Israel from Russia and the former Soviet bloc countries. They and their children now make up about 15 to 18 percent of the Israeli population.

Other groups of Jews include the Bene Israel of India; several groups of Kavkazi, or Caucasus Jews, referring to their origins in the Caucasus region of Central Asia; Bukharan Jews of Uzbekistan; and Italian Jews.

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