Israel is a Jewish nation, but its population is far from a monolith

The Israel-Hamas conflict is putting a spotlight on all of the different people affected by the war, including Israel soldiers from Ethiopian, Filipino and Bedouin backgrounds.

By Jessica Trisko Darden Published on Feb 09, 2024.
Israeli soldiers attend the funeral of Staff Sgt. Emanuel Feleke, an Ethiopian Israeli who was killed in Gaza in December 2023. Ohad Zwigenberg

As the toll of the Israel-Hamas war continues to mount, Israeli military casualties are shedding new light on a topic that rarely gets international media attention – Israel’s ethnic diversity.

In Israel’s single largest casualty event since the Gaza invasion began in October 2023, 21 Israeli soldiers were killed in an explosion on Jan. 22, 2024.

Among the dead was reserve soldier Sgt. 1st Class Cedrick Garin, a 23-year-old Filipino-Israeli whose mother came to the country to work before he was born.

Earlier in the war, Staff Sgt. Aschalwu Sama, an Ethiopian Jew, saved his comrades after being fatally wounded in an explosion at the entry to one of Gaza’s tunnels.

Other Israeli soldiers killed in Gaza include reserve Sgt. Maj. Rafael Elias Mosheyoff, born in Colombia, and reserve soldier Sgt. 1st Class Yuval Lopez, who moved to Israel from Peru at the age of 6.

I am a scholar who examines the roles of minority groups in armed conflict. I find the ethnic diversity of people fighting in and otherwise affected by the Israel-Hamas war exceptional.

Hamas’ roughly 240 hostages, for example, were nationals of 25 different countries, including Thailand, Nepal, the Philippines and Tanzania. Hamas kidnapped Muslim citizens of Israel alongside Jewish Israelis, Americans and other dual nationals.

A woman screams and cries as she kneels down and people reach out to touch her. She appears to be looking toward the ground.
The mother of Israeli-Filipino soldier Cedric Garin, killed in Gaza on Jan. 23, 2024, grieves during his funeral in Tel Aviv. Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images

Israel’s diversity

Israel has close to 9.7 million residents. About 75% of these people identify as Jewish. Almost 80% of Israeli Jews were born in Israel. Much smaller groups of Israeli Jews were born in Africa and Asia, in countries including India and Uzbekistan.

Roughly 20% of Israelis are Arab, including Muslims, Christians and Druze, a group of people who observe a distinct monotheistic religion.

Israel is also home to Muslim ethnic minority communities. This includes the Bedouins, formerly nomadic Arab herdsmen who have lived in the area for centuries, and the Circassians, Muslims who were expelled from the Caucasus region of the Russian Empire during a period of ethnic cleansing in the 19th century.

Another 5% of Israeli residents are neither Jewish nor Arab, including more than 25,000 African migrants who live in Israel.

Military service requirements

Israel has different rules for military service for its citizens, depending on their background.

Every Israeli citizen over the age of 18 who is Jewish, Druze or Circassian must serve in the military, unless they are religiously observant and/or married when conscripted. Israeli Arabs are not required to serve but can volunteer to do so. Women serve for a minimum of two years, while men must serve for 32 months.

The Israel Defense Forces has long been considered the central institution that unifies Israeli society. Mandatory service brings together Israelis of all backgrounds, forces them to work together and instills a sense of obligation to the broader society.

While military casualty figures are not broken down by religion or ethnicity, my analysis of death notices shows that Israel’s minorities, both Jewish and non-Jewish, are prominent among those killed fighting for the world’s only Jewish state.

A large group of men, some of them wearing dark jackets and white hats, surrounding a coffin that has an Israeli flag draped over it.
Relatives and friends attend the funeral of Maj. Jamal Abbas, an Israeli-Druze soldier killed in Gaza in November 2023. Amir Levy/Getty Images

Minorities in Israel

Ahmad Abu Latif, a Bedouin Israeli who previously served in the military as a sergeant major, wrote a social media post in October 2023 highlighting Israeli Arab contributions to the war effort.

“Unfortunately, among the casualties of war are Bedouin and Druze soldiers, Muslims and Christians, who fell as heroes during the defense of the country,” Abu Latif wrote.

Abu Latif, who was called up as a reserve soldier, was killed in the Jan. 22, 2024, blast in Gaza.

The vast majority of the 370,000 Bedouins in Israel are citizens and identify as Muslim. Thousands of Bedouins also live in neighboring countries such as Jordan and Lebanon but do not have citizenship there. Their tribes failed to officially register with these countries when they became independent in the 1940s.

Unlike Jewish Israelis and Druze men who are required to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, Bedouins volunteer. In 2020, a record number of 600 Bedouins joined the Israel military. They are typically placed in scouting or tracking units because of their familiarity with the Negev Desert.

Another minority group in Israel, the Druze people, have a long history of Israeli military service.

Twenty-three-year old Jamal Abbas, a major in the military and a member of the Druze community, was killed in combat in southern Gaza on Nov. 18, 2023. Abbas’ grandfather was one of the first Druze soldiers to attain the rank of brigade commander.

Another Israeli Druze soldier, Lt. Col. Salman Habaka, responded to Hamas’ Oct. 7, 2023, attacks. When Habaka was killed in Gaza only a month later, the 33-year-old was the highest-ranking Israeli soldier killed in the war.

Although they make up only 1.5% of Israeli households, roughly 40 Druze civilians have been killed since the start of the war, representing roughly 3.5% of Israeli deaths (including the Oct. 7, 2023, victims). One reason is that their community’s traditional location near the Lebanese border has made them vulnerable to incoming fire from the Hezbollah militant group.

Jewish minorities

Even the deaths of Jewish soldiers reflect the complexity of Israeli society. In all, Jewish soldiers killed in the conflict have ties to at least 12 countries other than Israel.

Soldiers killed in Gaza include Staff Sgt. Yonatan Chaim, an American who converted to Judaism after taking a college course on the Holocaust and then moved to Israel.

Fallen members of Israel’s 170,000-person Ethiopian community include Staff Sgt. Alemnew Emanuel Feleke, a 22-year-old commando who was wounded on Dec. 5, 2023, in southern Gaza and died the following day. Staff Sgt. Birhanu Kassie died in an explosion in late December.

Equal in war?

The visible presence of Israel’s minority communities in the military is partly a result of a long-standing military policy called the Haredi exemption. This exempts ultra-Orthodox Jews, who make up approximately 13% of the country, from military service. Women as well as men studying at a yeshiva, a Jewish religious college, are excused from service so they can follow strict religious observances and study religious texts.

In 2017, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled this policy was discriminatory and unconstitutional. But the ruling has not been enforced because of pressure from religious conservative political parties. In August 2023, only 9% of eligible ultra-Orthodox men served in the military, compared with an 80% national average among other Jewish Israelis.

Yet even the Haredi exemption is being undermined by the war. More than 2,000 Haredi men have volunteered for service since the war began. At least 150 have been formally drafted. War continues to shape the relationship between Israel’s citizens and the military that protects them.

Jessica Trisko Darden is Director of the (In)Security Lab at Virginia Commonwealth University and Director of the Security & Foreign Policy Initiative at William & Mary's Global Research Institute.

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