It feels a bit strange to say this, especially of a country that was founded on the basis of a common ethno-religious identity, but it could definitely be argued that Israel is the most multicultural country in the world. Given that Zionism as an idea is only a bit over 100 years old, and the state of Israel a bit over 50 years old, essentially everyone in Israel, other than the 20% or so minority that is Arab, is an immigrant or descended from relatively recent immigrants. Even if mostly Caucasian in race, and Jewish in religious culture, the citizens of the state of Israel come from all over–Western and Eastern Europe, Russia, the Middle East, the Maghrib, the United States and even India and Africa–taking advantage of the Law of Return, which allows automatic Israeli citizenship to anyone of Jewish descent. Israel is, in many senses, giving the idea of nation-building a whole new meaning–newly acquired territory, a new language (modern Hebrew having been developed from an ancient liturgical language not in vernacular use), a new national identity.
It would be fascinating to visit different ethnic communities in Israel, and to learn how they were integrated and to what extent they are assimilated, into Israeli society. Israel must benefit from such a wide range of programs, both public and private, to acculturate newly arrived immigrants into Israeli society. From our brief visit, some pictures showing the pluralism of Israel:
The Old Bukharan Synagogue, in the Bukharan Quarter, Jerusalem. Bukharan Jews include not only those Jews from the city of Bukhara itself, in now Uzbekistan (see post of 6.11), but Jews from other parts of the Near East, such as Iraq and Iran.
Russian delicatessen, Allenby Street, Tel Aviv. The greatest current immigration into Israel is from Russia, and evidence of this Russian population is easy to find in Tel Aviv, with Cyrillic advertising everything from restaurants to bookstores. We were told by some sources, admittedly Palestinian-leaning in political orientation, that many of these newest immigrants are not Jewish at all, and that Israel was overlooking the faulty Jewish credentials on the part of some immigrants (who are presumably economically motivated), figuring that it was good enough for them to be willing to say they are Jews and to raise their children as Jews in order to expand the future Jewish population of Israel as a bulwark against the growing Arab populations of Israel and Palestine.
Francophone Yeshiva, Jerusalem. Many Israeli Jews claim American and Western European origin. We were repeatedly told that Americans in particular are among the most vehement Zionists and the most aggressive “settlers” (see post of 10.21).
Ethiopian Restaurant, Jerusalem. We had heard about the Ethiopian Falasha Jews and their mass emigration to Israel when we were in Ethiopia in 2005, but were surprised to see so many people of Ethiopian descent in Israel. If anyone can offer me an explanation, please do!
Unfortunately, we did not have time to track down the Cochin Jews (see post of 3.2). Next time!