The modern state of Israel was founded in 1948 and, in the early twenty-first century, has a population of over 6 million people. Of these 6 million, over 2 million (36.7 percent of the population) are children. However, the history of childhood in Israel, like the history of Israel itself, extends to earliest days of human civilization.

In the land of Israel, part of the ancient "fertile crescent," one can find some of the oldest evidence of agriculture and early signs of town life. The Biblical figures of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the forefathers of the Jewish people, lived in the area about 2000 B.CE. and later the twelve tribes of Israel settled the land. Judea prospered under King David and his successors between 1000 and 600 B.CE. After being conquered and dispersed by the Babylonians, Persians, and Greeks, Judea again became independent under the Hasmonean Jewish Kingdom from 165 to 63 B.CE. Then, within a century, the land was occupied by the Romans. Rome suppressed revolts in 70 and 135 C.E., and renamed Judea Palestine, after the Philistines who had inhabited the coastal land before the Hebrews arrived. The Romans dispersed Jews to all parts of the Roman Empire.

Arab invaders conquered the land in 636. Within a few centuries, Islam and the Arabic language became dominant and the Jewish community reduced to a minority. During the eleventh to thirteenth centuries, the country became a part of the Seljuk, Mamluk, and Ottoman empires, although the Christian Crusades provided a temporary break in the dominance of Islamic culture between 1098 and 1291.

As the Ottoman empire collapsed in World War I, Britain took control of the Palestine Mandate (comprising present-day Israel and Jordan). The Balfour Declaration in 1917 pledged support for a Jewish national homeland in that area, but the British gave 80 percent of the land to Emir Abdullah in 1921, and Jordan was created. Jewish immigration, which began in the late nineteenth century, swelled in the 1930s as Jews fled the rise of Nazism in Germany. After the turmoil of World War II, the United Nations General Assembly voted to partition what was left of Palestine into separate Arab and Jewish states. In 1948, Britain withdrew from the country and Israel declared itself an independent state. The Arab world rejected the new state and Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia invaded, but were defeated by Israel. In separate armistices signed with the Arab nations in 1949, Jordan occupied Judea and Samaria (sometimes called the West Bank of the Jordan) and Egypt occupied the Gaza Strip, although neither granted Palestinian autonomy. Subsequent wars expanded Israeli territory but created recurrent tensions with Arab states and with the large Palestinian minority within Israel's borders.

Conditions for Childhood

Childhood in Israel has been shaped by several factors. From Jewish tradition came, among other things, a strong emphasis on education that was maintained even by secular Jews. Following the experiences of the Jewish people in Europe, where Jews had sometimes been seen as unduly passive victims of outside attacks, many Israeli leaders developed a desire to alter some aspects of the traditional socialization of children, particularly to create a greater emphasis on physical prowess and assertiveness. These qualities also fit the role of agriculture in Israel, with its demand for physical labor, and the need to maintain military service and preparedness. Childhood in Israel was also quite diverse, as Jewish immigrants not only from Europe but also from North Africa and the Middle East brought different customs and habits (including different levels of religious commitment) and as substantial Muslim and Christian minorities also coexisted. Finally, particularly amid mounting internal violence after 2000, fear and insecurity played a growing role in children's experience in both Jewish and Arab communities.


The Jewish faith does not claim that the Jews were the first to worship one God. The Jewish tradition is based on the lawof the sons of Noah, the law that is the foundation of an universal ethical religion (including the worship of God; bans on murder, theft, INCEST and sex aberrations, eating "the limb of the living" or cruelty to animals, and blasphemy; and the establishment of justice, i.e., courts, judges, and a system of equity).

The ten commandments, an expansion of the above, were given by God at Mount Sinai to the Jewish people to guide them in their everyday life. Historically, JUDAISM never separated belief from performance, so in the Torah (the written law, or Bible, and the oral law, or Talmud) gives the Jew vision and purpose in life, a feeling of supremacy and special purpose in life for the superior mission he must accomplish. With the superior strength of Torah he overcomes failures during his lifetime. From this it can be seen that the Torah, rather than a history book, is the guidebook for life from which Jews must draw their power. A great sage of Judaism, Rabbi Hillel, who lived in the second century B.CE., put it very plainly to a convert who asked to be taught all the Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel told him: "Love your neighbor as yourself. All the rest is commentary. Go now and learn."

Childhood in Judaism is considered a period of joy and purity that should be valued. The Talmud describes childhood as "a garland of roses." For every Jewish boy, childhood lasts from birth to the age of thirteen years, but after his BAR MITZVAH at age thirteen he is considered a man. At this age he begins to be responsible for his own actions and obliged to perform and fulfill mitzvot (good deeds). For a Jewish girl the age of reason begins at the age of twelve years.

Childhood in Israel

The educational system was established in 1948 in the new state of Israel in order to serve the Jewish population returning to their homeland. The system focused on culture, language, and ideology in order to create a new and strong Jew. In this period the kibbutz movement, which focused on the group and not the family, was very important. Growing from socialist theories, the kibbutz downplayed the traditional family. Children lived by themselves in children's houses, grew up collectively, and had very little family life. Long seen as the most distinctive aspect of Israeli childhood, the kibbutz movement was designed to instill strong community values and to promote hard work and efficiency, particularly in commercial agriculture. Children socialized in the kibbutzim were found to have less individualism and emotional fervor than children raised in traditional families, but their combination of schooling and work activities helped build the Israeli economy in the nation's early decades. Growing urbanization and the spread of more individualistic and consumer-oriented values increasingly undermined the kibbutz movement. In the early twenty-first century only 2 percent of children live in kibbutzim and even on remaining kibbutzim, children often live with their parents and have an increasing array of consumer items such as televisions. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries Israeli society has changed from agriculture to high-tech industry and the kibbutz population has declined. The kibbutz childhood was an experiment that got the attention of many important researchers in child development in the twentieth century, but has been mostly abandoned as an idea in the twenty-first century. This change can be seen in the draft of soldiers to elite units. Years ago the best soldiers came from the kibbutz population, but in recent years the elite has shifted to the modern Orthodox population and the child of the kibbutz is no longer in demand.

Israeli society is mainly Western oriented with many contacts and relationships with the United States. This consumer-oriented society has influenced children growing up in Israel. TELEVISION, Burger King, and whatever is the hit in America will quickly be introduced to the Israeli child. Israeli children have been avid consumers of MTV and other Western fads and fashions. But even with that influence, childhood is not the same for every child. The religious Jewish child in a settlement or in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem (where children grow up without television at all) will live a life integrated with the history of Israel, a life different from that of a secular Jewish child in Tel Aviv living the life of Western civilization, which again is different from that of a child in a Druze village or an Arab village.

CHILD ABUSE, family violence, and school violence, while always a part of life, have only emerged as a concern in Israel in the 1990s.With massive immigration from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, rates of reported family violence have risen. The increasing internal conflict and terrorist action that started in 2000 has killed more than one thousand persons (including children, mothers and fathers and grandmothers and grandfathers). The experience will have long-term effects and psychological consequences on children growing up in Israel. Terror has been part of the scene in Israel for many years, but the latest period has brought the terror closer to home, with many more victims.

Research and clinical experience have shown that in Israel today four groups of children are at a disadvantage: children living in poverty (25 percent of the children in the Israeli population), the Arab minority, immigrant children, and disabled children. In these areas the government will need to focus in order to make childhood in Israel better for all children.


Aburbeh, Myriam, Ronit Ozeri, Ethel-Sherry Gordon, Nechama Stein, Esther Marciano, and Ziona Haklai. 2001. Health in Israel. 2001 Selected Data. Jerusalem: Ministry of Health.

Ben-Arieh, Asher, Yaffa Tzionit, and Zoe Beenstock-Rivlin. 2001. The State of the Child in Israel. A Statistical Abstract. Jerusalem: Israel National Council of the Child.

Efrat, Galia, Asher Ben-Arieh, John Gal, and Muhammed Haj Yahia. 1998. Young Children in Israel. Jerusalem: Israel National Council of the Child.