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Country of the Week: Israel

In Countries by Continental StaffLeave a Comment

This week we’ve arrived in the Middle Eastern country of Israel. While it’s often in the news for prolonged conflicts with its neighbours, there’s a lot more to this fascinating country than meets the eye.

  • Capital (and Largest City): Jerusalem
  • Population (2015): 8,419,700 (96th)
  • Total Area: 20,770/22,072 km² (153rd)
  • Official Languages: Hebrew, Arabic
  • Currency: Israeli new shekel (ILS)
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Sunrise over Masada fortress

History

In ages past, the ‘Land of Israel’ was an important and sacred place to the Jewish people. The BC years were characterized by different kingdoms and powers – from the Babylonians to the Persians. At one point there were two different kingdoms – Israel and Judah – that controlled the area. The point is that many different peoples and civilizations fought, traded, ruled, and lived in the region we know today.

Persian rule didn’t last either. Like large parts of the known world – the Romans eventually came calling in 63 BC. The Jewish people came into conflict with the Romans, resulting in the devastating Jewish-Roman Wars. While the revolt was quelled, small pockets of Jewish people were able to remain and survive in the region.

Fast-forward to the 7th century, and Arab peoples who had recently come under the banner of Islam took control of what is now Israel. What followed was over a millennium of Muslim rule – punctuated periodically by the Christian Crusaders. This clearly established the area (and particularly Jerusalem) as a holy place to all three of the major monotheistic faiths. Eventually, the area fell into the hands of the Ottoman Empire, who ruled until their defeat in the First World War. This meant that Israel now found itself under the jurisdiction of the British.

While Jewish communities were now dispersed across the world, many still yearned for a return to their ancient homeland – particularly journalist Theodor Herzl (who is often seen as one of the fathers of the Jewish State). Throughout the early 20th century, some Jewish people immigrated to the region. It wasn’t until the rise and fall of the Nazi’s in Germany and intense persecution of the Jewish people that the population began to dramatically increase.

Tensions began to boil over between the Arabs, the Jewish community, and the British (who soon pulled out of the region). In December 1947, a conflict broke out between the Arabs and the Jewish people. An Israeli Declaration of Independence was declared and, after heavy fighting, so was a ceasefire in 1949.

Since independence, Israel has been involved in a great many regional disputes and wars including the Suez Crisis, 1967 Six Day War, 1973 Yom Kippur War, as well as recent conflicts with the Palestinians. The country spends a large proportion of its GDP on defense and tensions remain high both within and without the country. Regardless, Israel is highly developed, and has managed to carve out its place in the world despite constant regional tensions.

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View over old Jerusalem

Culture

While Israel is largely a Jewish nation, the country has many characteristics of a melting pot. This is due to how dispersed the Jewish community was before traveling to Israel. All these disparate groups brought regional and national traditions and cultural characteristics from their previous country of origin. In addition, the Arab minority has made a large impact on Israeli culture – including architecture, food, and more.

Hebrew and Jewish tradition are very important in many aspects of life. The country adheres to the Hebrew calendar, Jewish holidays determine work and school schedules, and Hebrew is the national language (even taught in Arab schools). British influence is also felt; with English the de facto national language and one that is widely spoken throughout the country today.

Israeli cuisine is mostly kosher and uses many elements of nearby regions – including Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine. This includes staples such as falafel, hummus, couscous, and more.

Sports are also important in Israel, with soccer and basketball among the most keenly followed. Despite its geographic location, the Israeli soccer team and league competes against European opposition due to regional political conflicts. Chess is also very important amongst Israelis of all ages.

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Falafel is a popular dish in Israel

Geography

Israel resides on a strip of land next to the Mediterranean Sea on the east while it also borders Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Jordan, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip (the latter two of which remain a huge point of contention in regional and international affairs). While small, the country is home to deserts, mountains, fertile valleys, and more.

The two largest cities in the country are Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Jerusalem remains one of the most holy cities in the world in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. At the centre of events that have shaped the history of both the West and East, its importance cannot be understated. On the other hand, Tel Aviv is renowned for its all night party atmosphere and coastal location.

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Israel features a variety of different landscapes

Did you know?

  • The Dead Sea is so salty that people can float on it easily – it’s also the lowest place on Earth
  • Tel Aviv is home to more than 100 sushi restaurants
  • The country has the most museums per capita
  • Stamp glue is kosher
  • The country’s missile defense system – The Iron Dome – has achieved international renown
  • Albert Einstein was once offered the presidency of Israel – though he turned it down
  • Jericho, in the West Bank, is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world
  • Military service is mandatory for men and women
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The Dead Sea is renowned for being incredibly salty

Last Word

Despite being in the news for regional and local disputes quite often, there’s something quite fascinating about both the Israeli state and the storied region as a whole.

Stay tuned to the Current for our Country of the Week. We’ll explore the familiar and the foreign, plus uncover some hidden gems (see them all HERE). 

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