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An Israelite is a member of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, descended from the twelve sons of the Biblical patriarch Jacob who was renamed Israel by God in the book of Genesis, 32:28
The Israelites were a group of Hebrews, as described in the Bible.
There are modern historical debates about the origins of the Hebrews/Israelites.
The English word Israelite derives from ישראל ("Struggled with God", Standard Hebrew Yisraʾel, Tiberian Hebrew Yiśrāʾēl).
Please read this entry in conjunction with the entries on:
Israelites in Biblical times
According to the Bible, the Israelites were the descendants of the children of Jacob, later known as Israel. His twelve male children were Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Dan, Gad, Naphtali, Asher, Joseph, and Benjamin. Twelve tribes of Israel are listed in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible, Old Testament).
- Tribe of Reuben
- ראובן, Standard Rəʾuven, Tiberian Rəʾûḇēn
- ראובני, Standard Ruʾuveni, Tiberian Ruʾûḇēnî
- Tribe of Simeon
- שמעון, Standard Šimʿon, Tiberian Šimʿôn
- שמעני, Standard Šimʿoni, Tiberian Šimʿônî
- Tribe of Levi (This is a special case; see further below)
- לוי, Standard Levi, Tiberian Lēwî
- Tribe of Judah
- יהודה, Standard Yəhuda, Tiberian Yəhûḏāh
- יהודי, Standard Yəhudi, Tiberian Yəhûḏî
- Tribe of Dan
- דן, Standard Dan, Tiberian Dān
- דני, Standard Dani, Tiberian Dānî
- Tribe of Naphtali
- נפתלי, Standard Naftali, Tiberian Nap̄tālî
- Tribe of Gad
- גד, Standard Gad, Tiberian Gāḏ
- גדי, Tiberian Standard Gadi, Gāḏî
- Tribe of Asher
- אשר, Standard Ašer, Tiberian ʾĀšēr
- אשרי, Standard Ašeri, Tiberian ʾĀšērî
- Tribe of Issachar
- יששכר, Standard Yissaḫar, Tiberian Yiśśâḵār
- יששכרי, Standard Yissaḫari, Tiberian Yiśśâḵārî
- Tribe of Zebulun
- זבולן, Standard Zəvúlun, Tiberian Zəḇûlun
- זבולני, Standard Zəvuloni, Tiberian Zəḇûlōnî
- House of Joseph
- יוסף, Standard Yosef, Tiberian Yôsēp̄
- יוספי, Standard Yosefi, Tiberian Yôsēp̄î
- containing the tribes of his sons:
- Tribe of Manasseh
- מנשה, Samaritan Manatch, Standard Mənašše, Tiberian Mənaššeh
- מנשי, Standard Mənašši, Tiberian Mənaššî
- Tribe of Ephraim
- אפרים, Samaritan Afrime, Standard Efráyim, Tiberian ʾEp̄ráyim / ʾEp̄rāyim
- אפרתי, Standard Efrati, Tiberian ʾEp̄rāṯî
- Tribe of Benjamin
- בנימין, Standard Binyamin, Tiberian Binyāmîn
- בן־הימיני Standard Ben haYmini, Tiberian Ben-haYmînî
In Biblical Israel, the tribes were collectively Hebrews and organized into a northern and a southern kingdom. In 722 BC the Assyrians conquered the northern Kingdom of Israel and sent it into exile. Many Israelites from the northern Kingdom of Israel fled to the southern Kingdom of Judah, and likewise portions of Judah went with Israel.
In 586 BC (this date is according to some secular historians only, as rabbinical scholars have a later date) the nation of Judah was conquered by Babylon. About 50 years later, in 537 BC the Persians (who conquered Babylon 2 years before) allowed Jews to move back to Jerusalem. By the end of this era, members of the tribes seem to have abandoned their individual identities.
Today's Jews are mostly descended from the Hebrews of the Kingdom of Judah. Note that over time people joined the Jews via conversion, and married with the descendants of the Judaic Hebrews. The number of converts is unknown, but not so large as to swamp out the original Jewish people. It is thus fair to say that Jews today are descendants of those Hebrews who lived in the Southern Kingdom of Judah, along with some converts who joined Judaism.
One should take note of the historical debate over the accuracy of the Bible's account of the origin of the Hebrews, discussed more fully in the entry on the History of ancient Israel and Judah. Secular Biblical theories are very controversial.
The Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Ten Lost Tribes
The ten lost tribes are those from the northern Kingdom of Israel who were deported by the Assyrians in the 8th century BC to Khorason. In Jewish popular culture they disappeared from history, leaving only the tribes of Benjamin and Judah and the Levi who evolved into the modern day Jews. See Bnai Israel.
According to the Bible, after the civil war in Solomon's son Rehoboam time, 10 tribes split off to create the northern kingdom of Israel. These were the 9 landed tribes Zebulun, Issachar, Asher, Naphtali, Dan, Manasseh, Ephraim, Reuben and Gad, and some of Levi which had no land allocation. The Bible makes no reference at this point to Simeon and we might conjecture the author had in mind that that tribe had already disappeared due to the curse of Jacob.
Judah, the southern Kingdom, had Jerusalem as its capital and was led by King Rehoboam. It was populated by the tribes of Judah and Benjamin (and also some of Levi).
In 722 BC the Assyrians, under Shalmaneser, and then under Sargon II, conquered Israel (the northern Kingdom), destroyed its capital Samaria, and sent the Israelites into exile and captivity in Khorason, now part of Eastern Iran and Western Afghanistan.
Today's Jews are descended from the inhabitants of the kingdom of Judah.
Jews as Israelites
Whatever the historical origin of the Israelite tribes, each tribe had a distinct identity inherited from one's father as recently as 722 BC, when the Assyrians conquered the northern Kingdom of Israel and sent its populace into exile. Individual tribes intermarried extensively throughout history. Many Israelites from the northern kingdom fled to the Southern Kingdom of Judah. At this point in time the tribes living in the Kingdom of Judah melded into a single people from all the Israelite tribes. In 586 BC the nation of Judah was conquered by Babylon. About 50 years later, in 537 BC the Persians (who conquered Babylon 2 years before) allowed Jews to move back to Jerusalem. By the end of this era, members of the tribes seem to have abandoned their individual identities.
Today's Jews are mostly descended from the Israelites of Judah, and thus are often identified as Israelites. Note that over time many people married with the descendants of the Israelites. The number of converts is not trivial, but not so large as to swamp out the origin. It is thus fair to say that Jews today are descendants of those Israelites who lived in the Southern Kingdom of Judah, along with many converts who joined them.
One should take note of the historical debate over the accuracy of the Bible's account of the origin of the Israelites, discussed more fully in the entry on the History of ancient Israel and Judah.
Writing of Hungary in the 1920s and 1930s, Stephen Roth writes, "The word 'Israelite' denoted only religious affiliation and was free from the ethnic or national conotation attached to the word 'Jew', which [Jews in Hungary] therefore regarded almost as a derogatory term." [Roth, 1992, 132]
"Israelite" traditions outside mainstream Judaism
Some modern religions maintain that its followers are "Israelites" or "Jews" although the meaning of these claims differs widely.
Some outside traditional practice of the Law of Moses and with no proven historical connection to the Israelites believe themselves to the modern descendants and inheritors of the Israelites. Such groups include the Latter-day Saints, adherents of British Israelism and even some anti-semitic groups.
Samaritans are a very small ethnic group (not more than about 700 persons) and religious sect living in the State of Israel and the West Bank with many beliefs in common with Judaism. They accept the canonization of the five books of the Torah and the Book of Joshua (but no other books), and that the only prophet is Moses. They also preserve their own unique form of Hebrew, and regard themselves as the descendants of Aphrime (Ephraim) and Manatch (Manasseh). Many regard them as a sect of Judaism, but they regard themselves as distinct from Jews, and do not refer to themselves as Jews.
Messianic Judaism is a sect which accepts the core doctrines of Christianity, and stresses adherence to some precepts of the Torah, a feature of Judaism. It is comprised of mostly gentile adherents, although some ethnic Jews have joined the movement. Many of its non-Jewish converts believe they have been "grafted in" to the tribes of Israel, thus, that they are "Jewish".
Karaite Judaism, relies on the Tanakh as the sole scripture and rejects the Oral Law (the Mishnah and the Talmuds). It does not require its adherents to wear Tefillin in any form, hang Tzitzit on their walls etc. There are approximately 50,000 adherents of Karaite Judaism, most of whom reside in Israel. However, exact numbers are not known, as most Karaites have not participated in any religious censuses. Like the Samaritans, the division goes back many hundreds of years.
The Latter Day Saint movement (Mormons) consists of a group of religious denominations derived from that started by Joseph Smith, Jr., of which the largest by far is the LDS Church of nearly 12 million members. Almost half of all Latter-day Saints — those in the LDS Church — live in the United States, and the rest are scattered in countries on every continent all over the world. They believe that through baptism and receiving the Gift of the Holy Ghost, they become "regathered" Israelites, either as recovered from the scattered seed of Israel, or as Gentiles adopted and grafted into Israel, and thus becoming part of the chosen people of God. LDS Israelite belief is not strictly ethnic, and as such, Latter-day Saints don't consider themselves to be Jews, but rather as "Israelites" of many different cultures occasionally including Jews. (For more details, see Latter-day Saint theology and Judaism.)
"Gentile" is sometimes used informally by Mormons to refer to a non-Mormons. As Isaac Asimov, himself a Jew, wrote in his book Laughing Space:
- Janet [Asimov's wife] and I have a special interest in stories about Mormons. In Janet's case there's a loose genealogical connection. In my case, there's an interest in any group that considers me a Gentile.
Rastafarians believe that the black races are the true Children of Israel, or Israelites, as they like to call themselves. Using the Bible they also conclude that Haile Selassie of Ethiopia is the returned messiah who will lead the world's peoples of African descent into a promised land of full emancipation and divine justice.
One Rasta sect, called the Twelve Tribes of Israel, imposes an astrological system whereby Aries is Reuben, Aquarius is Joseph, etc. With his famous early reggae song The Israelites Desmond Dekker immortalised the Rastafarian concept themselves as the Children of Israel.
There are a number of many anti-semitic groups which claim to be the only "true Israelites", a claim that Jews regard as ironic since these groups are openly hostile to Judaism. Such anti-semitic groups generally do not recognize the validity of Jews or any other group that claims Israelite descent. See British-Israel-World Federation.
See also: History of ancient Israel and Judah, Bible and The Bible and history.
- Roth, Stephen, "Memories of Hungary", in Riff, Michael, The Face of Survival: Jewish Life in Eastern Europe Past and Present. Valentine Mithcell, London, 1992, 125-141, ISBN 0853032203.