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Title: Israelite  
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Subject: Arab people, Book of Judges, Book of Malachi, Brit milah, Demon, History of ancient Israel and Judah, Isaac, Joshua, Jeroboam, Jewish eschatology
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For citizens of the modern State of Israel, see Israelis.
"B'nai Israel" redirects here. For synagogues of that name, see Congregation B'nai Israel (disambiguation). For other uses, see Israelites (disambiguation)

The Israelites (בני ישראל, Standard: Bnai Yisraʾel; Tiberian: Bnai Yiśrāʾēl; ISO 259-3: Bnai Yiśraʾel, translated as: "Children of Israel" or "Sons of Israel") were a Semitic Hebrew-speaking people of the Ancient Near East, who inhabited part of the Land of Canaan during the tribal and monarchic periods (15th to 6th centuries BCE), later evolving into the Jews and Samaritans, inhabiting the territories of Judea and Galilee, and Samaria respectively. In modern Hebrew usage, an Israelite is, broadly speaking, a lay member of the Jewish ethnoreligious group, as opposed to the priestly orders of Kohanim and Levites.

The word "Israelite" comes from Hebrews is sometimes used synonymously with "Israelites".

The biblical term "Israelites" (also the "Twelve Tribes" or "Children of Israel") means both the direct descendants of the patriarch Jacob (Israel) as well as the historical populations of the United Kingdom of Israel.[4] For the post-exilic period, beginning in the 5th century BCE, the remnants of the Israelite tribes came to be referred to as Jews (tribes of Judah, Simeon, Benjamin and partially Levi), named for the kingdom of Judah. This change is explicit in the Book of Esther (4th century BCE).[5] On the other hand, Samaritans (tribes of Menasseh, Ephraim and partially Benjamin and Levi) became named for Samaria. It replaced the title Children of Israel.[6]


Prior to a meeting with his brother Esau, the biblical patriarch Jacob wrestles an angel on the shores of the Jabbok river and is given the name Israel.[2][3] Throughout the rest of the Torah, Jacob is referred to at times as both Jacob and Israel, depending on which aspect of his character the text means to convey.

In modern Hebrew, B'nei Yisrael ("Children of Israel") can denote the Jewish people at any time in history; it is typically used to emphasize Jewish religious identity. From the period of the Mishna (but probably used before that period) the term Yisrael ("an Israel") acquired an additional narrower meaning of Jews of legitimate birth other than Levites and Aaronite priests (kohanim). In modern Hebrew this contrasts with the term Yisraeli, a citizen of the modern State of Israel, regardless of religion or ethnicity (English "Israeli").

The Greek term Jew historically refers to a member of the tribe of Judah, which formed the nucleus of the kingdom of Judah. The term Hebrew, perhaps related to the name of the Habiru nomads, has Eber as an eponymous biblical patriarch. It is used synonymously with "Israelites", or as an ethnolinguistic term for historical speakers of the Hebrew language in general.

Ancient times

Biblical Israelites

The following is a summary of pages 18-20 of Stephen L. Wylen's "The Jews in the Time of Jesus: An Introduction"[7]


The Israelite story begins with some of the culture heroes of the Jewish people, the Patriarchs.

The Torah traces the Israelites to the patriarch Jacob, grandson of Abraham, who was renamed Israel after a mysterious incident in which he wrestles all night with God or an angel. Jacob's twelve sons (in order of birth), Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph and Benjamin, become the ancestors of twelve tribes, with the exception of Joseph, whose two sons Mannasseh and Ephraim become tribal eponyms.

The mothers of Jacob's sons are:

  • Leah: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun
  • Rachel: Joseph, Benjamin
  • Bilhah (Rachel's maid): Dan, Naphtali
  • Zilpah (Leah's maid): Gad, Asher (Gen 35:22–26)

Jacob and his sons are forced by famine to go down into Egypt. When they arrive they and their families are 70 in number, but within four generations they have increased to 600,000 men of fighting age, and the Pharaoh of Egypt, alarmed, first enslaves them and then orders the death of all male Hebrew children. The god of Israel reveals his name to Moses, a Hebrew of the line of Levi; Moses leads the Israelites out of bondage and into the desert, where God gives them their laws and the Israelites agree to become his people. Nevertheless, the Israelites lack complete faith in God, and the generation which left Egypt is not permitted to enter the Promised Land. Those events are memorialized in the Jewish and Samaritan holiday of Passover, as well as the Jewish holiday of Shavuot.

Former Prophets

Following the death of the generation of Moses a new generation, led by Joshua, enters Canaan and takes possession of the land in accordance with the curse placed upon Canaan by Noah. Eventually the Israelites ask for a king, and God gives them Saul. David, the youngest (divinely favored) son of Jesse of Bethlehem would succeed Saul. Under David the Israelites establish the kingdom of God, and under David's son Solomon they build the Temple where God takes his earthly dwelling among them. Yet Solomon sins by allowing his foreign wives to worship their own gods, and so on his death and reign of his son, Rehoboam, the kingdom is divided in two.

The kings of the northern kingdom of Israel are uniformly bad, permitting the worship of other gods and failing to enforce the worship of God alone, and so God eventually allows them to be conquered and dispersed among the peoples of the earth; in their place strangers settle the northern land. In Judah some kings are good and enforce the worship of God alone, but many are bad and permit other gods, even in the Temple itself, and at length God allows Judah to fall to her enemies, the people taken into captivity in Babylon, the land left empty and desolate, and the Temple itself destroyed.


Yet despite these events God does not forget his people, but sends Cyrus, king of Persia as his messiah to deliver them from bondage. The Israelites are allowed to return to Judah and Benjamin, the Temple is rebuilt, the priestly orders restored, and the service of sacrifice resumed. Through the offices of the sage Ezra, Israel is constituted as a holy community, bound by the Law and holding itself apart from all other peoples.

Historical Israelites

The prevailing opinion today is that the Israelites, who eventually evolved into modern Jews and Samaritans, are an outgrowth of the indigenous Canaanites who had resided in the area since the 8th millennium BCE.[8] The name Israel first appears c. 1209 BCE, at the end of the Late Bronze Age and the very beginning of the period archaeologists and historians call Iron Age I, in an inscription of the Egyptian pharaoh Merneptah. The inscription is very brief and says simply: "Israel is laid waste and his seed is not". The hieroglyph accompanying the name "Israel" indicates that it refers to a people, most probably located in the highlands of Samaria.[9] Over the next two hundred years (the period of Iron Age I) the number of highland villages increased from 25 to over 300[10] and the settled population doubled to 40,000.[11] There is general agreement that the majority of the population living in these villages was of Canaanite origin.[10] By the 10th century BCE a rudimentary state had emerged in the north-central highlands,[12] and in the 9th century this became a kingdom. The kingdom was sometimes called Israel by its neighbours, but more frequently it was known as the "House (or Land) of Omri."[13] Settlement in the southern highlands was minimal from the 12th through the 10th centuries BCE, but a state began to emerge there in the 9th century,[14] and from 850 BCE onwards a series of inscriptions are evidence of a kingdom which its neighbours refer to as the "House of David."[15]

Transition into modern ethnic groups

Classic period: Jews and Samaritans

The Jews (Hebrew: יְהוּדִים, Yehudim), also known as the Jewish people, are an ethnoreligious group who mainly trace their origins to the ancient Israelites of the Levant, as well as other contributory peoples/populations. The Samaritans consider themselves to be the remaining population of the Northern Kingdom of Israel who were not expelled during the ten tribes exile, and who joined with the incoming Assyrian populations to form the Samaritan community. Some biblical scholars also consider that parts of the Judean population had stayed to live in their homes during the exilic period and later joined the returning Israelites from Babylon and formed the Jews of the classic and Hasmonean era.

After the Persian conquest of Babylon in 539 Judah (Hebrew: יְהוּדָה Yehuda) became a province of the Persian empire. This status continued into the following Hellenistic period, when Yehud became a disputed province of Ptolemaic Egypt and Seleucid Syria. In the early part of the 2nd century BCE, a revolt against the Seleucids led to the establishment of an independent Jewish kingdom under the Hasmonean dynasty. The Hasmoneans adopted a deliberate policy of imitating and reconstituting the Davidic kingdom, and as part of this forcibly converted to Judaism their neighbours in the Land of Israel. The conversions included Nabateans (Zabadeans) and Itureans, the peoples of the former Philistine cities, the Moabites, Ammonites and Edomites. Attempts were also made to incorporate the Samaritans, following takeover of Samaria. The success of mass-conversions is however questionable, as most groups retained their tribal separations and mostly turned Hellenistic or Christian, with Edomites perhaps being the only exception to merge into the Jewish society under Herodian dynasty and in the following period of Jewish-Roman Wars. While there are some references to maintaining the tribal separation among Israelites during the Hasmonean period, the dominant position of the tribe of Judah as well as nationalistic policies of Hasmoneans to refer to residents of Hasmonean Judea as Jews practically erased the tribal distinction, with the exception of the priestly orders of Levites and Kohanim (tribe of Levi).

The Babylonian Jewish community, though maintaining permanent ties with the Hasmonean and later Herodian kingdoms, evolved into a separate Jewish community, which during the Talmudic period assembled its own practices (the Babylonian Talmud, slightly differing from the Jerusalem Talmud. The Babylonian Jewry is considered to be the predecessor of most Mizrahi Jewish communities.

Post-Israelite groups during the Middle Ages

Ashkenazi Jews

Ashkenazi (from the medieval Hebrew word for "Germany", as some medieval Jews believed that the Germanic peoples descended from Gomer's son Ashkenaz, while other Jews place all Europeans as the descendants of the biblical Edomites, a Hebrew tribe that bordered the ancient Israelites in the Levant) is a general category of Jewish populations who immigrated to what is now Germany and northeastern France during the Middle Ages and until modern times used to adhere to the "Yiddish-culture" and the "Ashkenazi" prayer style. There is evidence that groups of Jews had immigrated to Germania during the Roman Era; they were probably merchants who followed the Roman Legions during their conquests. To a larger degree, modern Ashkenazi Jews are the descendants of Jews who migrated into northern France and lower Germany around 800–1000 CE, later migrating into Eastern Europe. Many Ashkenazi Jews also have mixed Sephardic origins, as a result of exiles from Spain, first during Islamic persecutions (11th-12th centuries) and later during Christian reconquests (13th-15th centuries) and the Spanish Inquisition (15th-16th centuries). In this sense, the modern term "Ashkenazi" refers to a subset of Jewish religious practices, appropriated over time, rather than to a strict ethno-geographic division, which became erased over time.

Genetic analysis of Ashkenazi Jews

In 2006, a study by Doron Behar and Karl Skorecki of the Technion and Ramban Medical Center in Haifa, Israel demonstrated that the vast majority of Ashkenazi Jews, both men and women, have Middle Eastern ancestry.[16] Ashkenazi Jews share a common ancestry with other Jewish groups and only 5%-8% of the Ashkenazi Jews were found to have genes which possibly originated in non-Jewish European populations.[17] According to Hammer, the Ashkenazi population expanded through a series of bottlenecks—events that squeeze a population down to small numbers—perhaps as it migrated from the Middle East after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, to Italy, reaching the Rhine Valley in the 10th century.

However, Dr. David Goldstein, a Duke University geneticist and director of the Duke Center for Human Genome Variation, has noted that the work of the Technion and Ramban team served only to confirm that genetic drift played a major role in shaping Ashkenazi mitochondrial DNA, explaining that the Technion and Ramban mtDNA studies fail to actually establish a statistically significant link between modern Jews and historic Middle Eastern populations. This differs from the patrilineal case, where Dr. Goldstein said there is no doubt of a Middle Eastern origin.[16]

Sephardic Jews

Sephardim are Jews whose ancestors lived in Spain or Portugal, where they lived for possibly as much as a millennium before being finally expelled in 1492 by the Catholic Monarchs (the Alhambra decree); the Sephardic communities subsequently migrated to North Africa (Maghreb), Christian Europe (Netherlands, Britain, France and Poland), throughout the Ottoman Empire and even the newly discovered Latin America. In the Ottoman Empire, the Sephardim mostly settled in the European portion of the Empire, and mainly in the major cities such as: Istanbul, Selânik and Bursa. Selânik, which is today known as Thessaloniki and found in modern-day Greece, had a large and flourishing Sephardic community as was the community of Maltese Jews in Malta.

A large population of Sephardic refugees, who fled via the Netherlands as Marranos eventually settled in Hamburg and Altona Germany in the early 16th century, eventually appropriating Ashkenazic Jewish rituals into their religious practice. One famous figure from the Sephardic Ashkenazic population is Glückel of Hameln. Others among those who settled in the Netherlands, were some who would again relocate to the United States, establishing the country's first organized community of Jews and erecting the United States' first synagogue. Other Sephardim remained in Spain and Portugal as Anusim (forced converts to Catholicism), which would also be the fate for those who had migrated to Spanish and Portuguese ruled Latin America.

Sephardic Jews evolved to form most of North Africa's Jewish communities of the modern era, as well as the bulk of the Turkish, Syrian, Galilean and Jerusalemite Jews of the Ottoman period.

Mizrahi Jews

Mizrahim are Jews descended from the Jewish communities of the Middle East, Central Asia and the Caucasus, largely originating from the Babylonian Jewry of the classic period. The term Mizrahi is used in Israel in the language of politics, media and some social scientists for Jews from the Arab world and adjacent, primarily Muslim-majority countries. The definition of Mizrahi includes the modern Iraqi Jews, Syrian Jews, Lebanese Jews, Persian Jews, Afghan Jews, Bukharian Jews, Kurdish Jews, Mountain Jews, Georgian Jews. Some also include the North-African Sephardic communities and Yemenite Jews under the definition of Mizrahi, but do that from rather political generalization than ancestral reasons.

Yemenite Jews

Temanim are Jews, who had been living in Yemen prior their migration to modern Israel. Their geographic and social isolation from the rest of the Jewish community over the course of many centuries allowed them to develop a liturgy and set of practices that are significantly distinct from those of other Oriental Jewish groups; they themselves comprise three distinctly different groups, though the distinction is one of religious law and liturgy rather than of ethnicity. Traditionally the genesis of the Yemenite Jewish community came after the Babylonian exile, though the community most probably emerged in the Roman times, and was significantly reinforced during the reign of Dhu Nuwas in the 6th century CE and later Muslim conquests of the 7th century CE, which drove the Arab Jewish tribes out from central Arabia.

Karaite Jews

Karaim are Jews who during the Middle Ages used to live mostly in Egypt, Iraq, and Crimea. They are distinguished by the form of Judaism they observe. Rabbinic Jews of varying communities have affiliated with the Karaite community throughout the millennia. As such, Karaite Jews are less an ethnic division, than they are members of a particular branch of Judaism. Karaite Judaism recognizes the Tanakh as the single religious authority of the Jewish people. Linguistic principles and contextual exegesis are used in arriving at the correct meaning of the Torah. Karaite Jews strive to adhere to the plain or most obvious understanding of the text when interpreting the Tanakh. By contrast, Rabbinical Judaism regards an Oral Law (codified and recorded in the Mishnah and Talmuds) as being equally binding on Jews, and mandated by God. In Rabbinical Judaism, the Oral Law forms the basis of religion, morality, and Jewish life. Karaite Jews rely on the use of sound reasoning and the application of linguistic tools to determine the correct meaning of the Tanakh; while Rabbinical Judaism looks toward the Oral law codified in the Talmud, to provide the Jewish community with an accurate understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures.

The differences between Karaite and Rabbinic Judaism go back more than a thousand years. Rabbinical Judaism originates from the Pharisees of the Second Temple period. Karaite Judaism may have its origins in the Sadducees of the same era. Karaite Jews hold the entire Hebrew Bible to be a religious authority. As such, the vast majority of Karaites believe in the resurrection of the dead.[18] Karaite Jews are widely regarded as being halachically Jewish by the Orthodox Rabbinate. Similarly, members of the rabbinic community are considered to be Jews by the Moetzet Hakhamim, if they are patrilineally Jewish.

Modern denominations

Israeli Jews

Jews of Israel comprise an increasingly mixed wide range of Jewish communities making aliyah from Europe, North Africa, and elsewhere in the Middle East. While a significant portion of Israeli Jews still retain memories of their Sephardic, Ashkenazi and Mizrahi origins, mixed Jewish marriages among the communities are very common. There are also smaller groups of Yemenite Jews, Indian Jews and others, still retaining a semi-separate communal life. There are also approximately 50,000 adherents of Karaite Judaism, most of whom live in Israel, but exact numbers are not known, as most Karaites have not participated in any religious censuses. The Beta Israel, though somewhat disputed as descendants of ancient Israelites, are widely recognized in Israel as Ethiopian Jews.

American Jews

The ancestry of most American Jews goes back to Ashkenazi Jewish communities that emigrated to the US in the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as more recent influxes of Persian and other Mizrahi Jewish immigrants. The American Jewish community is considered to contain the highest percentage of mixed marriages between Jews and non-Jews, resulting in both increased assimilation and a significant influx of non-Jews becoming identified as Jews. The most widespread practice in the U.S is Reform Judaism, which doesn't require or see the Jews as direct descendants of the ethnic Jews or Biblical Israelites, but rather adherents of the Jewish faith in its Reformist version, in contrast to Orthodox Judaism, the mainstream practice in Israel, which considers the Jews as a closed ethno-religious community with very strict procedures for conversion.

French Jews

The Jews of modern France number around 400,000 persons, largely descendants of North African communities, some of which were Sephardic communities that had come from Spain and Portugal—others were Arab and Berber Jews from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, who were already living in North Africa before the Jewish exodus from the Iberian Peninsula—and to a smaller degree members of the Ashkenazi Jewish communities, who survived WWII and the Holocaust. Most French Jews practice Orthodox Judaism and have permanent and close ties with the Israeli Jewish community.


During the Jewish diaspora, Jews who lived in Christian Europe were often attacked by the local population, and were often forced to convert to Christianity. Many, known as "Anusim" ('forced-ones'), continued practicing Judaism in secret while living outwardly as ordinary Christians. The best known Anusim communities were the Jews of Spain and Jews of Portugal, although they existed throughout Europe. In the years since the rise of the Islamic religion, many Jews living in Muslim countries were forced to convert to Islam, such as the Mashhad Jews of Persia, who continued to practice Judaism in secret and eventually made an Aliyah (return to Israel). Many Anusim's descendants left Judaism over the years. The results of a study of the genetics of the Iberian Peninsula released in December 2008 "attest to a high level of religious conversion (whether voluntary or enforced) driven by historical episodes of religious intolerance, which ultimately led to the integration of descendants.[19]

Modern Samaritans

The Samaritans, who in classical times comprised a comparatively large group, now number 745 people, who live in two communities in Israel and the West Bank, and still regard themselves as descendants of the tribes of Ephraim (named by them as Aphrime) and Manasseh (named by them as Manatch). Samaritans adhere to a version of the Torah known as the Samaritan Pentateuch, which differs in some respects from the Masoretic text, sometimes in important ways, and less so from the Septuagint.

The Samaritans consider themselves Bnei Yisrael ("Children of Israel" or "Israelites"), but do not regard themselves as Yehudim (Jews). They view the term "Jews" as a designation for followers of Judaism, which they assert is a related but altered and amended religion brought back by the exiled Israelite returnees, and not the true religion of the ancient Israelites, which according to them is Samaritanism.

Genetic analysis of Jews

Modern DNA studies have provided evidence that most of the world's Jews, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese, have a common ancestral lineage in the Levant, which can be traced to a common ancestral population that inhabited the Middle East some four thousand years ago. Maternally, both Jews and Samaritans have had very low rates of intermarriage with local or host populations.[20][21] Both populations' DNA results indicate the groups having had a high percentage of marriage within their respective communities; in contrast to a low percentage of interfaith marriages (as low as 0.5% per generation). One study on Ashkenazi Jews stated "Taken as a whole, our results, along with those from previous studies, support the model of a Middle Eastern origin of the AJ population followed by subsequent admixture with host Europeans or populations more similar to Europeans. Our data further imply that modern Ashkenazi Jews are perhaps even more similar with Europeans than Middle Easterners."[22] In 2006, a study by Doron Behar and Karl Skorecki of the Technion and Ramban Medical Center in Haifa, Israel demonstrated that the vast majority of Ashkenazi Jews, both men and women, have Middle Eastern ancestry.[16] Ashkenazi Jews share a common ancestry with other Jewish groups[17] and only 5%-8% of the Ashkenazi Jews were found to have genes which possibly originated in non-Jewish European populations.

According to Hammer, his study suggests that the Ashkenazi population expanded through a series of bottlenecks - events that squeeze a population down to small numbers - perhaps as it migrated from the Middle East after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE to Italy, reaching the Rhine Valley in the 10th century. Dr. David Goldstein, a Duke University geneticist and director of the Duke Center for Human Genome Variation, has noted that the Technion and Ramban team confirmed that genetic drift played a major role in shaping Ashkenazi mitochondrial DNA, therefore mtDNA studies fail to draw a statistically significant linkage between modern Jews and Middle Eastern populations, however, this differs from the patrilineal case, where Dr. Goldstein said there is no question of a Middle Eastern origin.[16] Autosomal trans-genome DNA studies carried out by Behar and al confirmed the shared Middle Eastern origin of all major Jewish groups. According to Behar, these findings are "consistent with the historical formulation of the Jewish people as descending from the ancient Hebrew and Israelite residents of the Levant" and "the dispersion of the people of ancient Israel throughout the Old World"[23]

See also



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