Israel may be a small and young country, but you may be surprised to learn that its 9.3 million people are linguistically and culturally diverse.
The country has a sizable population of immigrants, which explains the variety of ethnicities and languages. The country is a haven for persecuted Jews and has developed itself into a formidable military power. Israel and Palestine have been in conflict since the former became an independent state in 1948. The stances that the Israeli government maintains towards Palestine, surrounding Middle East states and other countries have stirred controversy over the years.
About 75% of Israel’s population originally came from other lands, so it is not surprising that the country possesses a significant linguistic diversity.
In 2018, Israel adopted the divisive and controversial “nation-state” law. Among other things, the law declared Hebrew as its official language and relegated Arabic to being a “special status” language. Like many other laws and regulations pertaining to languages, this law can have both a political and commercial impact.
Here are the four most important languages of Israel:
Hebrew is Israel’s official language and is spoken by over eight million people – roughly the entire population in the country. Being the language of Judaism, it makes sense for a self-proclaimed Jewish state to declare Hebrew as an official language.
Hebrew (Modern Hebrew) was revived during the 19th century after some 150 years. Hebrew’s revival was not easy, and it even faced obstacles and opposition from the other languages (mostly Yiddish) to become the pivotal language of the Zionists.
Hebrew is used for official purposes, from government to education. It is even used in court sessions. Hebrew is required for Arabic schools in Israel until the third grade. Israeli students are required to pass the Hebrew exam to get enrolled.
Israel is the only country where Hebrew holds an “official language” status. Other than Israel, there are no other countries where Hebrew is used more than a minority language, brought mainly by Israeli immigrants to some communities.
Arabic is no longer Israel’s official language, although it is recognized as having a “special status in the state.” It is spoken about over a million residents in Israel, making up about 20% of its population. Arabic is the primary language among Israeli-Arab citizens, although most of them are also fluent in Hebrew.
Since the 2000s, it has become common to see Arabic on road signs, railway stations, food product labels, and government messages. Arabic is also sanctioned for use in the Knesset (Israeli parliament) along with Hebrew. However, neither Arabic members of the Knesset make use of this privilege, nor Hebrew-speaking Knesset members can understand Arabic.
Those who wish to do business in Israel are still advised to translate their documentation into Hebrew and Arabic.
The land known today as Israel was controlled by the British Empire from 1920 to 1948. Under British rule, English used to be one of the official languages. But following Israel’s independence as a state in 1948, the use of English dramatically decreased.
During the 1960s, Israel developed and strengthened its ties with the United States, paving the way for English to be used more commonly once again. Although English is no longer an official language, it still retains a role similar to that.
English is the primary language for foreign exchange and international relations, but it is not officially approved for use in the Knesset or in drafting laws. Despite that, most Israelis understand and speak English quite well, as it is the required second language in both Hebrew and Arabic schools. Israelis in the higher economic and social strata tend to have higher levels of English.
Because of the recent American influence on Israel, Israelis speak and write American English in spelling and grammar.
You might be surprised to find Russian on this list. However, Russian is by far the most widely spoken non-official language in Israel.
Due to the mass immigration of the Russian Jews from the former Soviet Union (now the Russian Federation), they make up a good portion of the Jewish population in the country. In fact, over 20% of the population speak Russian, which gives you a fair idea of how often you’ll hear this language in Israel. The government and businesses make sure to provide information in Russian, and some Israeli schools offer Russian language courses. There is even a local TV channel that primarily broadcasts in Russian.
Other languages spoken by the smaller sectors of the Israeli population include Yiddish, French, German, and Romanian.