According to the Bible, Israel is the name given by God to Jacob. The
modern country of Israel includes two distinct nationalities, the
Palestinian and the Jewish. Each nationality is inextricable from its
religious identity. The Palestinians are Arabs whose traditions are
founded in Muslim culture; the Jews define their culture in large part
around their religion as well. Each group identifies as part of a
larger, international religious and cultural community, and each has a
history in the region that goes back to ancient times.
Israel is in the Middle East on the Mediterranean Sea, bordering Egypt,
the Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and the West Bank. Its total
area is 8,019 square miles (20,770 square kilometers), slightly smaller
than New Jersey. The Negev Desert covers the south of the country.
Mountains rise in the central region from the low coastal plain along
the Mediterranean. The Jordan River stretches 200 miles (322 kilometers)
from Syria in the north, emptying into the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea
(technically a lake) is, at 1,312 feet (400 meters) below sea level, the
lowest inland sea on earth.
Israel's population in 2000 was 5,842,454. This includes an estimated
171,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank, 20,000 in the
Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, 6,500 in the Gaza Strip, and 172,000 in
East Jerusalem. The population is roughly 80 percent Jewish; of the
total population, 32.1 percent were born in Europe or America; 20.8
percent in Israel; 14.6 percent in Africa; and 12.6 percent in Asia.
Most of the 20 percent who are not Jewish are Arab.
Hebrew is the nation's official language. The modern Hebrew language was
designed by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, a Lithuanian Jew who moved to Palestine
in the 1880s. Previously, biblical Hebrew had been the language of
prayer, whereas the vernacular of most Jews was Yiddish (Ladino for
Spanish and Portuguese Jews). David Ben-Gurion's vision of a national
language, which would allow Jews from different parts of the world to
communicate with each other, was an important element of the Zionist
movement. Arabic is the official language of the Arab minority. English
is studied in school and is the most commonly spoken foreign language.
Immigrants from various countries also bring their languages with them,
and Spanish, Italian, African dialects, and especially Russian are often
The flag consists of a blue six-pointed star on a white background, with
a horizontal blue stripe above and one below. The star, called a Magen
David, or Shield of David, is a symbol of the Jewish faith.
The Israeli national anthem, Hatikva , is over one hundred years
old. Its melody is of unknown origin, although some believe it comes
from an Eastern European fold song. Its lyrics are explicitly Zionist,
extolling the return of the Jews to their holy land. The song was banned
from the airwaves during the British mandate, and it continues to be
somewhat controversial today; there has been some debate as to whether
its Zionist message is still valid.