Israel is a developed, yet a young country, that is home to several ethnicities. The languages of Israel are both indigenous and non-indigenous. Israel or formally, the State of Israel, is located in the Middle East. While the region passed through the hands of several ruling kingdoms and conquering countries, Israel was founded only after the Second World War.
It is a relatively small sized country that is home to about 8.9 million people (2018 estimate). Israel shares land borders with Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which are Palestinian territories.
Israel fought many wars with its neighbors through the years. With the initiative of the United Nations, they proposed a partition plan to create independent Jewish and Arab states in 1947. The Jewish Agency accepted the plan and in 1948 declared that Israel was an independent state. Under the country’s Basic Laws (constitution), Israel is a democratic and Jewish state.
A haven for a variety of ethnic groups
Many persecuted Jews came to Israel over the years. Their varied ethnicities created a diverse Jewish population. Since the 19th century, various Jewish groups from Latin America, North America, Central Asia, the Middle East, Western Europe and North Africa immigrated to Israel. They have different cultures and ethnic backgrounds and brought their customs and languages to Israel. Most of them are members of various religious groups as well.
Among the largest ethnic groups are the Jews (about 75%) and the non-Jewish Arabs (around 20%). The rest comprises different ethnicities. About 70% of the Jews in Israel are native-born. The other Jews are immigrants, who settled in the country from the Americas, Europe, countries in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
Immigrants from Arab countries generally are from Central Asia, Turkey and Iran. Some are of Jewish-Indian and Ethiopian descent. Some people are listed as others such as those who descended from immigrants from the former Soviet Union. They are non-Arab and non-Jewish but are eligible to be citizens of Israel under the ‘ḥok ha-shvūt’ or Law of Return.
Important languages of Israel
According to the 21st edition of Ethnologue, the number of living languages of Israel right now is 34. Of these, 15 are non-indigenous and 19 are indigenous. Hebrew and Arabic are the official languages of Israel, and they are the languages spoken daily by most of the population. Arab schools teach Hebrew while the Arab minority in the state speaks Arabic.
Immigration brought several languages into Israel, which is the main reason why there is a variety of languages in the country. Years back, there was a mass immigration of Jews from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union thus Amharic and Russian are spoken widely. Immigrants from North Africa and France speak French. During the British Mandate from 1920 to 1948, English was an official language in Israel. When the State of Israel was established in 1948, English lost its status, although it retained its role. It still is almost like an official language. English is still used in official documents and road signs. Many Israelis speak English well. It is taught in elementary school, used in TV programs and many subjects at universities are offered in English.
Most common languages of Israel
As a linguistically diverse nation, Israel has some common languages that are heard in the streets. The rest is spoken mainly in the different communities around the country.
Hebrew, one of the official languages of Israel, is a Semitic language that is related to Moabite and Phoenician languages. During the ancient times, Hebrew was the language used in Palestine. But from the 3rd century BC until the early part of the 20th century, Hebrew was replaced by Aramaic and was relegated as a literary and liturgical language only. The language became a spoken language once again during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Hebrew is the language of one religious sect, Judaism. Today it is used in court sessions, education and government. Arabic schools are required to teach Hebrew when children reach the third grade. Students in Israeli schools need to pass an exam in the Hebrew language so they can enroll.
The older form of Hebrew borrowed from other languages, such as Arabic, Spanish, Greek, Latin and Persian as well as from Akkadian and several Canaanite languages. Modern Hebrew, which is used today, while founded on the biblical language, is based on the written form of Old Hebrew. The pronunciation of Modern Hebrew is a modified form based on the Sephardic (Hispano-Portuguese) pronunciation.
Modern Hebrew is composed of various Old Hebrew dialects. It is likewise influenced by several other languages including German, Aramaic, Arabic and English, along with Slavic and Jewish languages.
The second official language of Israel is Arabic (Literary Arabic). A recent ruling states that Arabic will only hold a special status rather than an official status. From July 2018 only Hebrew is going to be recognized as the official language in Israel. Israeli citizens who are descendants of Arab immigrants speak various dialects, like Palestinian Arabic spoken by the Druze and Arabs. The Bedouin group also has their own Arabic dialect. The older generation of Mizrahi Jews still speaks Judeo-Arabic languages. As of 2011, about 18% of Israel’s population speaks Arabic.
In 2000, it was less common to see Arabic included in government messages, food labels and road signs. The situation is different now and many speakers of Arabic are fluent in Hebrew, too.
One of the important languages of Israel is English, which is spoken by a majority of Israelis since the area came under British rule. Although it no longer holds official status, English is a pervasive language in the state and still is the language of foreign relations and foreign exchange. It is a required second language in schools in Israel, so most of the citizens can speak English very well. About 2% of Israel’s population speaks English as their first language.
English lost its status when Israel became independent. In its early years as an independent state, the language used for diplomacy was French. The alliance was undermined in the 1960s as Israel formed closer ties with the United States, which led to English gaining its former status. English is not used in Israeli politics and some of the laws of the British Mandate are gradually being translated into Hebrew. As a required secondary language, written English in Israel follows American grammar and spelling.
Russian is not an official language in Israel, but a high number of people in the country speak the language. Because of the mass immigration of Russian Jews, Russian is spoken fluently by around 20% of Israelis. Despite not an official language, there is a local TV station in the state that broadcasts in Russian. The Israeli government also makes sure that information from them is likewise available in Russian.
Hebrew’s revival near the close of the 19th century and well into the following century is unique. From being Judaism’s sacred language, Hebrew started to be a written and spoken language that is used in the daily lives of Israelis.
The descent of many Jews from different countries into Israel and their assimilation into the Jewish community that already exists in Palestine during the 19th century spurred the older generation of Arabic-speaking Jews in the area and the immigrants to use Hebrew. The language, after all, is the feature shared by the different groups of Jews.
The revival of the Hebrew language is significant, as it has no precedent. From being a natural language that lost its native speakers, it suddenly gained millions of native speakers. Moreover, it is the only sacred language that switched to become a national language.
Unofficial languages of Israel
As Israel is a multicultural and multilingual society, a large portion of the population speaks other languages unofficially. If you go around Israel, you are likely to hear the following languages spoken:
- Romanian. It spoken by first and second generation Jews from Romania as well as Romanian nationals that work in the country.
- Yiddish. Ashkenazi Jews speak this language. The number of speakers is declining due to the passing away of the older generation.
- German. About 100,000 Israelis speak German as their first language. German-speaking Jews have been around since the Ottoman period. The establishment of a branch of Goethe Institute in Tel Aviv in 1979 boosted the interest in the German language, which is offered as an elective course in several universities in the country.
- Amharic. It is the language spoken by Ethiopian Jews many of whom were transported to Israel in the 1984 and 1991 operations.
- Judaeo-Georgian/Georgian. It is the language spoken by Georgian Jewish immigrants when they are together. Otherwise, they speak Russian.
- Ladino. A variant of Spanish used during medieval times, it is a combination of Hebrew and the language spoken by many Sephardi Jews.
- Polish. Immigrants from Poland brought their native language when they made Israel their new home. First generation Polish who came to Israel attempted to teach the language to their Israel-born children.
- Ukrainian. Among themselves, immigrants from Ukraine speak their mother tongue and use Russian when they are with other Israelis.
- Spanish. Many Jewish immigrants from Argentina and other countries speak Spanish. Interest in the language is high due to the popularity of shows from Venezuela and Argentina.
- French. It is spoken by Jews from Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco but more French speakers are arriving from France and other countries that speak French, including countries in Africa.
- Judaeo-Italian/Italian. It is spoken by Italian Jews from Italy, Libya, Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea.
- Other immigrant languages. You are likely to hear in Israel people speak in Hungarian, Kurdish, Turkish, Persian, Thai, Tagalog, Chinese, Vietnamese, Marathi, Malayalam, Bukhori, Qwara, Greek and Adyghe.
The policy on immigrant languages in Israel varies. During the 1970s to the 1990s, some languages were banned from being used in public. Today, however, Israel is encouraging immigrants to use their native language for communicating with authorities. The government is slowly allowing immigrant languages, such as Russian, Tigrinya, Amharic and others in local broadcast stations and publications.
Communicate better with your business partners
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