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Home to three major religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), Israel is just as diverse when it comes to languages. Therefore, it’s not a matter of “what language is spoken in Israel”, but of which are the languages spoken in Israel.
Following a tumultuous and often violent history, the nation of Israel now has a population of more than 9 million people. Out of this, 74.2% are Jews, 20.9% Arabs and 4.8% are Christians and people who have no religion listed in the civil registry. Despite the cultural diversity, almost the entire population speaks Hebrew, the country’s official language, either as a first or second language. However, this is not the full story of the languages of Israel. Let’s take a closer look at the country’s current linguistic landscape.
The Israel language mosaic – what language is spoken in Israel?
Hebrew is the everyday and official language of Israel and roughly everyone speaks it, but the Arab minority which accounts for about one-fifth of the population, also speaks Arabic. Additionally, a high percentage of Israelis know English and over a million of them speak Russian as a result of immigration from the Soviet Union.
Although Hebrew can be seen and heard everywhere, Israel’s laws are officially published in Arabic and English as well. The same is true for most road signs, food labels, medicine brochures, safety regulations and messages published by the government.
Hebrew is a Semitic language which developed between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea during the last part of the second millennium BCE. From a cultural perspective, the language plays a very important role not only for Jews, but for the Western culture as well because it is the language of the Bible and the “language of creation”.
What’s fascinating about Hebrew is that it ceased to be an everyday spoken language somewhere between the 2nd and 4th century CE. During the medieval period it survived only as a sacred language of Jewish liturgy and rabbinic literature. But then, toward the end of the 19th century and into the 20th century, with the rise of Zionism, it was revived as a spoken and literary language. Its renaissance is considered by many a linguistic miracle.
Although Arabic is no longer an official language in Israel, it has a special status under Israeli law and it is spoken by Israeli Muslims, Christians and Druze, as well as by Jews who originate from Arab countries.
For many years, the Israeli authorities were reluctant to use Arabic, but this has changed following a supreme court ruling in November 2000 which decided that the use of Arabic should be much more extensive. Now, according to the data provided by Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in Hebrew-speaking public schools, “Arab studies are compulsory for every student between the 7th and 10th grades. After the 10th grade, about 25% of students choose to continue studying Arabic until their graduation”.
When you asked yourself “what language is spoken in Israel?”, probably Russian wasn’t your first choice. However, over one million Russian-speaking Israelis make Russian the most widely spoken non-official language in the State of Israel. Following a mass Jewish immigration from the USSR in the 1970s and later, Israel became home to many Soviet Jews who fled Russia to escape anti-Semitic discrimination.
Apart from the fact that the government and businesses often provide information in Russian as well, there is also an Israeli television broadcast channel in Russian. Naturally, Russian immigrants and their children speak Hebrew, but the majority of them still use Russian with family and friends.
So, as you can see, Russian is surprisingly widespread in Israel.
Other languages you’re likely to hear in Israel are Yiddish, French (which was used as a diplomatic language in Israel until the 1990s when the Israeli-French alliance was undermined), German, Spanish and Romanian.
Can you speak English in Israel?
Yes, you can. A high percentage of Israelis can understand and speak English on at least a basic level.
Sure, not everyone speaks perfect English, but younger people tend to have a better command of the English language after growing up being exposed to it in the media and later studying it at school.
Also keep in mind that tourism is a central part of the country’s economy, so shop, pub and restaurant owners try their best to communicate efficiently with every customer regardless of his nationality.
If you want to find out more about what it’s like to travel to Israel, you can check out this Israel travel guide complete with tips and basic travel phrases.
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