Capital City: Jerusalem
Israel(Hebrew: מדינת ישראל Medinat Yisra-el; Arabic دولَة إِسرائيل Dawlat Isrā'īl) is a small yet diverse Middle Eastern country with a long coastline on the eastern Mediterranean Sea and a small window on the Red Sea at the Gulf of Eilat (Aqaba). Israel is bordered by Egypt and the Gaza Strip to the southwest, by Jordan and the West Bank to the east, and by Syria and Lebanon to the north. It shares borders to the Jordan River and the Dead Sea with the West Bank and Jordan. The West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip have been under Israeli de-facto rule since 1967. In addition to the majority Palestinian Arab populations living in these regions, the Israeli Government has built many Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as well as in the annexed Golan Heights.
Although Israel was established specifically for the Jewish people, following the Second World War, Israel is considered part of the Holy Land (together with areas of Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Territories). The three major monotheistic religions -Judaism, Christianity, and Islam- all have historical ties to the region. Israel thus contains a vibrant modern history and culture, based in part on the diverse, immigrant origins of its inhabitants returning from the Jewish Diaspora. These aspects make Israel a fascinating destination for many travelers and pilgrims. As a result of this vast mix of culture, in addition to the official languages of Hebrew and Arabic, Russian and Yiddish are also spoken by a significant minority of Israelis. English in many ways acts as second language. Within Israel's recognized pre-1967 borders, about 80% of Israelis identify themselves as Jewish, the remainder classify themselves as either as Arab and or Palestinian, Bedouin or Druze.
Israel is a highly urbanized and economically developed society and is therefore best divided for the traveler into its main cities and towns, followed by the regions and other sites.
The most obvious division in Israel's society is between Jews - who make up 77% of the population in Israel proper and 15%-40% in areas captured by Israel during the Six-Day War (West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan) - and non-Jews (mostly Israeli-Arabs), who make up nearly all of the rest. As well, some 350,000 people who emigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union are not considered Jews according to halacha (Jewish law) though they largely identify with the Israeli mainstream. In terms of religious backgrounds, 77% are Jewish, 16% are Muslim, 4% are Christian Arabs and 2% are Druze (a Muslim offshoot considered heretical by mainstream Islam). While equality is theoretically guaranteed, in practice there are many restrictions on the Arab population, both legal and 'de facto' (difficulty in obtaining building permits, increased security checks, lack of freedom of movement, etc).
There are also deep divisions within Jewish society. First is the ethnic division between the 'Ashkenazim', who lived in Europe for nearly 2000 years and are generally considered wealthier and politically better connected, and the 'Sephardim' and 'Mizrahim', who immigrated from the Middle East, Yemen and North Africa (Sephardi and Mizrahi immigrants from Europe tend to match the socio-economic profile of Ashkenazim.) In recent years, the divide between these ethnic groups has, however, grown much less acute and intermarriage has become common.
While ethnic divisions have weakened as the native-born population has increased, religious tensions between 'secular' and 'Orthodox' Jews have increased. The spectrum ranges from the stringently-orthodox 'haredim', only 15% (2008 est.) of the population but able to wield a disproportionate amount of power thanks to Israel's fractious coalition politics, to 50% who are 'modern orthodox' and finally 45% who consider themselves secular, although still adhere to some traditions. While secular Jews are widespread throughout all of Israel, orthodox Jews tend to concentrate mostly in certain cities such as Jerusalem, Bnei Brak and Ashdod.