Arabs in Israel: A Minority in the Jewish State

Reference: My Jewish Learning

By Maya Kroitoru

After the State of Israel was established in 1948, its Arab residents suddenly became a minority in a state designated for Jews.

The extremists among them referred to Israel as maz’uma, meaning the “so-called,” and spoke of a time when they would become the majority again. Yet, as the political and demographic conditions altered, this dream gave way to their daily realities.

Now, decades later, most Arab-Israelis have accepted Israel and are working within the Israeli political system to obtain greater rights. As a movement they have improved at navigating the political system and integrating into Israeli institutions.

The Arab Population of Israel

In 2010 there were over 1.5 million Arabs living in Israel, representing about 20% of the total population. The vast majority of Arabs in Israel are Sunni Muslims (including Arab Bedouins). Christians (including Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, and Roman Catholic) comprise about 10% of the Arab population.

The Druze, a community that split off from the Shi’a Ismaili sect of Islam in the 11th century, comprise another 10% of the population. Although not officially defined as ethnically Arab by the Israeli government, they do share some common cultural and ethnic characteristics with the Arab population.

Arab-Israelis reside in three main geographical areas: the Galilee in northern Israel, where they comprise approximately half of the population; the area referred to as the “Little Triangle” that runs along the Green Line; and the Negev desert region in southern Israel. Most Arab-Israelis live in predominantly Arab cities or towns, with heavy concentration also in the major cities of Jaffa/Tel Aviv and Haifa. Arab Bedouin villages are spread over both the northern and southern regions.

Arab-Israeli Rights

The principle of equal rights for all Israeli citizens–including minorities–is expressed explicitly in the Israeli Declaration of Independence. According to the Judicial Foundations Law of 1980, the Declaration of Independence formally serves as the foundation for the entire system of Israeli law; however, it is not binding.

The only major legal distinction made between Jews and Arabs in Israel relates to military conscription. Israel does not require Arab citizens of Israel to serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). This is designed to prevent Arab-Israelis from having to fight their brethren serving in neighboring armies.

This, in effect, also negatively impacts the Arab community’s economic position since Arab-Israelis do not have access to the many social benefits and economic subsidies provided to veterans. While Arab-Israelis can volunteer for service and receive these benefits, they are generally discouraged from doing so by the negative social and political implications that the Arab-Israeli community associates with the Israeli army.

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Maya Kroitoru is a writer at the Joint Distributon Committee.