By Sarah-Claire Jordan
Israel is a country in the Middle East that has only existed since the late 1940s, making it one of the youngest countries in the region. It is a haven for persecuted Jews, and has developed into a strong military power. Its population is made up of a variety of ethnicities, most of whom practice Judaism, but does include other religious groups. It has been in conflict with Palestine since it was declared a sovereign state after World War II. The stances its government has about Palestine and some other countries has stirred controversy over the years.
Given that about 75% of the population is originally from somewhere else, it’s no wonder there would be a great amount of linguistic diversity. There are four very common languages spoken in Israel, however:
Being the language of Judaism, it makes sense that in a self-proclaimed Jewish state, Hebrew would be at least one of the official languages. It is used for official purposes from government to education and even court sessions. Hebrew is a required language in Arabic schools from the third grade on, and in Israeli schools students have to pass a Hebrew language exam to matriculate. Besides Israel, there aren’t any other countries with Hebrew as more than a minority language. Israeli immigrants may have brought it to some communities, but mostly it remains a liturgical language outside of the country.
Arabic is the other official language of Israel, specifically Literary Arabic. Many other dialects are spoken by Israeli citizens of Arab descent. You can now see Arabic on road signs, labels for food, and in any government messages, but before 2000 this was not so common. Arabic speakers make up 20% of the population of Israel, so this reform was long overdue. Arabic speakers are also generally fluent in Hebrew as well, speaking it as a second language, but that doesn’t mean they should be subjected to having all official information only be available in Hebrew.
Thanks to British colonization, English used to be one of the official languages of what would become the independent state of Israel, but this changed after 1948. Now, English has no real official status, but it is the most common language in the arena of foreign exchange and relations with other countries. Most Israelis can speak it fairly well, as it is a required second language for students in both Hebrew and Arabic schools. Israelis who travel tend to have very high levels of English, which makes it easier for them to get around.
This might be a surprising language to find on this particular list, but the truth is that Russian is the one non-official language that is spoken by highest number of people in Israel. There was a time of mass immigration from the USSR by Russian Jews, who make up a good portion of the Jewish population of Israel. In fact, about 20% or more of Israelis can speak Russian fluently, which gives you an idea of how often you might hear it in Israel. Many businesses, and the government as well, make sure to provide information in Russian, and there is even an Israeli TV channel in Russian.