Israel is one of the tiniest countries in the world, only slightly larger than the state of New Jersey. Yet the nation’s small size belies its rich diversity and history — a beautiful tapestry of different people and ethnicities like nowhere else on the planet.
Take Jerusalem. It’s one of the world’s most ancient cities and plays a central role in the three major monotheistic religions. The Old City is divided into four distinct quarters, each with their own unique flavor and history. The Armenian quarter is home to about a thousand Armenian Christians who have a proud history as the first nation to accept the Gospel.
To the north is the Christian quarter, where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has existed since the time of Constantine. Millions of Christians from a variety of denominations gather here each year to celebrate Holy Week, walking in the footsteps of the Word made flesh.
To the east are the Muslim and Jewish quarters. Despite housing adherents of the world’s oldest religion, the Jewish quarter is the newest: restorations to the neighborhood were completed as recently as 1983.
A key moment in modern Jewish history occurred in the mid-19th century, when British entrepreneur Moses Montefiore built a Jewish community just outside the Old City walls. Since that time, Jews from all over the world have continued to find a home in the land.
Talia Spear, a Jewish woman raised in Chicago but living in Tel Aviv-Yafo, is one of them. She chose to make aliyah – a phrase which translates “to go up” and names the formal practice of immigrating to Israel. Spear is an Ashkenazi Jew, which means she is a Jew of German or northern European descent.
While the majority of the world’s Jews share this ethnic heritage, there are many other Jewish subgroups that have also made aliyah. These include Sephardic Jews, who come from the Iberian peninsula, Mizrahi Jews, who come from various nations in the Middle East, and Beta Israel, who come from Ethiopia.
From Talia’s perspective, to practice aliyah is an act of hope. Many Jews came to Israel after their homes and families were destroyed in the Holocaust, when they found themselves having to fight for their right to exist yet again. That fight continues, fueled by optimism about Israel’s potential for good.
But Jews aren’t the only people group living in Israel. The majority of Israeli citizens in the north of the country are Arabs, many of whom live in Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown and the largest city in the north. While the vast majority of Arab Israelis are Muslim, some – like the Rev. Azar Ajaj – are Christians.
Rev. Ajaj, an evangelical minister, is optimistic about opportunities for Arabs in Israel. He points out that many of them have distinguished themselves in the technology and medicine spaces. His hope is that the Arab community will seek peace in Israel, while maintaining their own cultural – and, for Arab Christians – religious identity.
Another group of Christians in Israel are Maronite Catholics. Spread across Lebanon, Syria, Cyprus and Israel, they worship in Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. Shadi Khalloul, a Maronite Catholic, says that this regional and linguistic link to Christ is deeply important to these believers. He runs a summer camp to teach kids about their unique Christian heritage and build them up in the faith.
Perhaps most mysterious of all the religious groups in the north are the Druze. Claiming descent from the Midianite Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, they are well-represented in Israeli government, business, and military.
Women in the Druze community have started to carve out their own unique space. Nasiba, a chef and trendsetter, broke with tradition and became the first woman in the community to earn her driver’s license and has since taught other young women how to drive.
Her son, Amjad, is equally adventuresome. Thanks to a partnership with the Syrian government, young Druze men were permitted to come study in Syria after finishing high school. He took the opportunity at age 18 and went to Damascus to study medicine. War broke out during the latter half of his studies, and seeing the trauma and unrest made Amjad decide to return to Tel Aviv-Yafo for his residency in psychiatry.
This is the Israel that the headlines don’t show you – a rich kaleidoscope of different people with different histories and traditions, each of whom has a remarkable story to tell. Traveling to the land and getting on the ground reveals a nation far more complex than the limited stories we typically see.
It’s a journey well worth taking, and you can embark through the new travel video series from Passages Israel, “Israel Explored.” Access the full six-part series at passagesisrael.org/explored/.