Located in Southwestern Asia, the small country of Israel has had a big impact on world history. An important location in several major world religions, it is also a political, economic, and military power in the Middle East, and plays a central role in many international political issues.
The modern State of Israel has its roots in the 18th century, when a generation of Jewish immigrants sought to resettle in their ancestral homeland. The territory came under British control after World War I, and the nationalist movement was strengthened by new waves of immigrants hoping to escape the worsening political climate in Europe. The country declared its independence in 1948, but immediately encountered conflict with the ethnic Palestinians who had inhabited Israel prior to the influx of Jewish settlers and were dissatisfied with plans to partition the country into separate Palestinian and Israeli states. Neighboring Arab countries sympathized with the Palestinian cause, and Israel faced numerous wars and terrorist attacks throughout the 20th century.
Tensions remain high between Israel, ethnic Palestinians, and other Middle Eastern states. The peace process has made slow progress, but has faced many setbacks, most recently in the form of attacks from Lebanon-based Hezbollah and armed conflict with the Hamas government of the Gaza Strip. Despite these problems, Israel has emerged as a regional leader in economic, industrial, and scientific development. Agriculture, military technology, and information technology lead the export market, and Israel tops the world in water conservation and geothermal energy research. An increasing number of multinational corporations are attracted by the country’s favorable investment environment and educated labor pool. Tourism is an important industry as well, particularly due to the large number of sacred sites in Israel. As the birthplace of Judaism and Christianity and the land where the prophet Muhammad is said to have ascended to heaven, Israel holds religious significance for much of the world’s population, and millions travel there each year to visit its many holy monuments.
Israel is an immigrant nation, with Jewish immigrants and their descendants comprising the majority of the population. Israeli law grants all Jews and their immediate families the right to assisted immigration and settlement, and most Israeli immigrants today are of Jewish heritage. The large number of Jews returning to Israel from all over the world have made the country culturally diverse. Aside from ethnic and religious reasons, many Western expatriates arrive to conduct business in Israel, and the country has also seen a surge in foreign workers arriving during the past decade from countries including Romania, Thailand, and China.
Hebrew and Arabic are Israel’s co-official languages. Once considered a literary language, Hebrew was revived with the country’s foundation as the spoken language of most Israelis. Arabic is spoken mostly by the country’s Palestinian and Druze minorities; most government publications are issued in both languages. English is widely understood, and the country is also home to many speakers of Jewish diaspora languages, such as Ladino and Yiddish, which have all but disappeared in their former ranges.