Languages of Israel

A sign at the Ministry of the Interior/Ministry of Immigrant Absorption at the Government Village, Haifa. From top to bottom: Hebrew, Arabic, English, and Russian. English and Russian are the most popular unofficial languages in Israel.
The quadrilingual warning (English, Hebrew, Arabic and Russian) on the optical cable manhole cover in Tel Aviv.

The Israeli population is a linguistically and culturally diverse community. The 19th edition of Ethnologue lists 35 languages and dialects spoken in local communities. The main languages used for communication among Israeli citizens are Modern Hebrew and Arabic, while English, second language of the majority of the Israeli population, is used widely in official logos, road signs and product labels. Modern Hebrew is a language that emerged in the late 19th century, based on different dialects of ancient Hebrew and somewhat influenced by many languages (English, Jewish languages, Slavic languages, Arabic, Aramaic, German and others). Hebrew and Arabic are the official languages of Israel.

According to a 2011 Government Social Survey of Israelis over 20 years of age, 49% report Hebrew as their native language, Arabic 18%, Russian 15%, Yiddish 2%, French 2%, English 2%,[1] 1.6% Spanish, and 10% other languages (including Romanian, German and Amharic, which were not offered as answers by the survey). This study also noted that 90% of Jews and over 60% of Arabs have a good understanding of Hebrew.

Official status of languages

An Israeli road sign in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. On some road signs (such as the ones above), the Arabic and English are transliterations of the Hebrew place names. On others, the local Arabic or conventional English names are used.

Several laws determine the official status of languages and language policy in Israel. This confusing situation has led to several appeals to the supreme court, whose rulings have enforced the current policies of national and local authorities.

Currently, the official languages in Israel are Hebrew and Arabic. The main law governing language policy is the 82nd paragraph of the "Palestine Order in Council" issued on 14 August 1922, for the British Mandate of Palestine, as amended in 1939:[2]

"All Ordinances, official notices and official forms of the Government and all official notices of local authorities and municipalities in areas to be prescribed by order of the High Commissioner, shall be published in English, Arabic and Hebrew."

This law, like most other laws of the British Mandate, was adopted in the State of Israel, subject to certain amendments published by the provisional legislative branch on 19 May 1948. The amendment states that:

"Any provision in the law requiring the use of the English language is repealed."[3]


The Palestine Mandate articles, issued by the Council of the League of Nations in 1922, and the 1922 Palestine Order in Council were the first in modern times to acknowledge Hebrew as an official language of a political entity. This was a significant achievement for the Zionist movement, which sought to establish Hebrew as the national language of the Jewish people and discouraged the use of other Jewish languages, particularly Yiddish,[4] just like Aramaic replaced Hebrew in ancient times.[5]

The movement for the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language was particularly popular among new Jewish Zionist immigrants who came to Palestine beginning in the 1880s. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (born in the Russian Empire) and his followers created the first Hebrew-speaking schools, newspapers, and other Hebrew-language institutions. As Max Weinreich notes in his book, "History of the Yiddish Language, Volume 1", the "very making of Hebrew into a spoken language derives from the will to separate from the Diaspora".[6] After Ben Yehuda's immigration to Israel, and due to the impetus of the Second Aliyah (1905–1914), Hebrew prevailed as the single official and spoken language of the Jewish community of mandatory Palestine. When the State of Israel was formed in 1948, the government viewed Hebrew as the de facto official language and initiated a melting pot policy, where every immigrant was required to study Hebrew and often to adopt a Hebrew surname. Use of Yiddish, which was the main competitor prior to World War II, was discouraged,[7] and the number of Yiddish speakers declined as the older generations died out. However, Yiddish is still often used in Ashkenazi haredi communities worldwide, and is sometimes the first language for the members of the Hasidic branches of such communities.

Today, Hebrew is the official language used in government, commerce, Knesset debates, court sessions, schools, and universities. Hebrew is a required subject in Arabic-speaking schools from the third grade onwards, and a Hebrew exam is an essential part of the matriculation exams for students of Israeli schools.

The state-affiliated Academy of the Hebrew Language, established in 1953 by a Knesset law, is tasked with researching the Hebrew language and offering standardized rules for the use of the language by the state. Although its decisions are supposed to be mandatory, their application varies from government bureau to bureau, while commercial adoption of the Academy’s rules (such as in the print media) is voluntary.


Literary Arabic, along with Hebrew, is the second official language in Israel. Spoken Arabic dialects are spoken primarily by Arab citizens of Israel and Israeli Druze, as well as by some Mizrahi Jews (Yemenite Jews, Moroccan Jews, Tunisian Jews, Libyan Jews, Egyptian Jews, Syrian Jews, Algerian Jews, Iraqi Jews, and French Jews), particularly those of the older generation who immigrated from Arabic-speaking countries. In 1949, 156,000[8] Palestinian Arabs were left inside Israel’s armistice line, most of whom did not speak Hebrew. Today the majority of Arab Israelis, who constitute over a fifth of the Israeli population, speak Hebrew fluently, as a second language.

For many years the Israeli authorities were reluctant to use Arabic, except when explicitly ordered by law (for example, in warnings on dangerous chemicals), or when addressing the Arabic-speaking population. This has changed following a November 2000 supreme court ruling which ruled that although second to Hebrew, the use of Arabic should be much more extensive.[9] Since then, all road signs, food labels, and messages published or posted by the government must also be translated into Literary Arabic, unless being issued by the local authority of an exclusively Hebrew-speaking community.

Arabic was always considered a legitimate language for use in the Knesset, but only rarely have Arabic-speaking Knesset members made use of this privilege. This situation can be easily explained: while all Arabic-speaking MKs are fluent in Hebrew, fewer Hebrew-speaking MKs can understand Arabic.

Arabic lessons are widespread in Hebrew-speaking schools from the seventh through ninth grades. Those who wish to do so may opt to continue their Arabic studies through the twelfth grade and take an Arabic matriculation exam.

In March 2007, the Knesset approved a new law calling for the establishment of an Arabic Language Academy similar to the Academy of the Hebrew Language. This institute was established in 2008, its center is in Haifa and it is currently headed by Prof. Mahmud Ghanayem.[10][11]

In 2008, a group of Knesset members proposed a bill to remove Arabic's status as an official language, making it an "official secondary language".[12][13] That bill did not pass.

In 2009, Israel Katz, the transport minister, suggested that signs on all major roads in Israel, East Jerusalem and possibly parts of the West Bank would be amended, replacing English and Arabic place names with straight transliterations of the Hebrew name. Currently most road signs are in all three languages. Nazareth, for example, would become "Natzeret".[14] The Transport Ministry said signs would be replaced gradually as necessary due to wear and tear. This has been criticized as an attempt to erase the Arabic language and Palestinian heritage in Israel.[14][15] Israel's governmental names' committee unanimously rejected that suggestion in 2011.[16]


In 1999, the High Court of Justice ruled that English, Arabic and Hebrew were inherited as official languages by Israel, but that English had been removed by the Law and Administration Ordinance of 1948.[17] The Ordinance said:

"Any provision in the law requiring the use of the English language is repealed."[3]

In practice the use of English decreased dramatically during the state's early years. At first, French was used as a diplomatic language, even though most state officials and civil servants were more fluent in English. During the late 1960s, the Israeli-French alliance was undermined, giving way to a stronger Israeli-United States alliance and paving the way for the English language to regain much of its lost status. Today, English is the primary language for international relations and foreign exchange, but it is not sanctioned for use in Knesset debates or in drafting legislation. Some British Mandate laws are still formulated in English, and the process of their translation into Hebrew has been gradual. English is required as a second language in schools and universities, for both Hebrew- and Arabic-speaking students. Despite the country's history of British mandatory rule, written English in Israel today uses primarily American spelling and grammar.

The usage of the language is influenced by factors related to the birthplace of the speaker or the speaker's ancestors: those who are born to American-descended parentages are more likely to speak American English as their preferred dialect of the language, Western Continental European descendants are more likely to speak with accents heavily influenced by languages such as French, German and Yiddish, and so on. A distinctively Israeli dialect of the language has been slow in development due to continued migration to Israel, large established communities of persistent speakers of languages and dialects from outside of Israel, and the state's focus upon education in Hebrew; the development of English in Israel may depend upon the future of assimilation and integration of generations of native-born Israeli citizens as well as the status of Israel's relations with English-speaking countries including the United States.

In general, most Israelis can converse in English on at least a basic level. Cultural exposure to American culture has been massive in Israel since the early 1990s, and as a result, most Israelis born from the 1980s onward have acquired English skills superior to those of their parents and grandparents. Secular Israelis who are of a higher social and economic status usually possess greater capabilities in English than those that are of a lower social and economic status (this is mostly due to differing levels of state-sponsored education, as well as variation in cultural exposure to the language). Proper usage of the English language is considered a mark of good education among Israelis. In the past, several politicians, including David Levy and Amir Peretz, were mocked openly in the media and in public for their poor English skills.


A Russian bookstore in Arad

Russian is by far the most widely spoken non-official language in Israel. Over 20% of Israelis are fluent in Russian after mass Jewish immigration from the USSR (Russian Jews in Israel) and its successor states in the 1970s, 1990s, and 2000s. The government and businesses often provide both written and verbal information in Russian. There is also a native Israeli television broadcast channel in Russian.

Other languages

Policy towards immigrants' languages

The melting pot policy, which governed the Israel language policy in its early days, was gradually neglected during the late 1970s. While in the 1950s Israeli law banned Yiddish-language theaters and forced civil servants to adopt Hebrew surnames, the new policy allowed immigrants to communicate with the authorities in their language of origin and encouraged them to keep their original language and culture. This new practice has become evident since the early 1990s with massive immigration from the former Soviet Union and the additional immigration from Ethiopia (Ethiopian Jews in Israel). Israeli authorities began to use Russian and Amharic extensively when communicating with these new immigrants. During the 1991 Gulf War, warnings and instructions were issued in at least seven languages. In 1991, a new radio station was erected, called "REKA", which is a Hebrew acronym for "Aliyah Absorption Network". At first, it broadcast exclusively in Russian, also containing programming aimed at teaching Hebrew, which included veteran Israel radio broadcasters recapping news in "easy Hebrew"; some years later, Amharic and Tigrinya time slots were introduced. Just as news in Arabic existed on Aruze 1, news programmes appeared in Russian, Amharic and Tigrinya. Several newspapers and magazines were published in Russian and easy Hebrew with Niqqud. In the beginning of the twenty-first century, the first Russian-language TV channel was created.

Unofficial languages

Because Israel is a multicultural society, many other languages are used by large sectors of the population. The main ones, after English and Russian (covered above), are as follows:

A 1978 notice on the Temple Mount in Hebrew, English, and French.

See also


  1. The Israeli Census Bureau only counts as second generation Jews those persons whose father was born aboard, regardless of their mother's origin


  1. Israel Central Bureau of Statistics. "Selected Data from the 2011 Social Survey on Mastery of the Hebrew Language and Usage of Languages (Hebrew Only)". Retrieved 12 October 2013.
  2. The Palestine Gazette, No. 898 of 29 June 1939, Supplement 2, pp. 464–465.
  3. 1 2 Law and Administration Ordinance No 1 of 5708—1948, clause 15(b). Official Gazette No. 1 of 5th Iyar, 5708; as per authorised translation in Laws of the State of Israel, Vol. I (1948) p. 10.
  4. Lerman, Anthony (5 March 2010). "Yiddish is no joke". The Guardian. UK. Retrieved 12 July 2011.
  5. Goldsmith, Emanuel S. (1997). Modern Yiddish culture: the story of the Yiddish language movement. Fordham University Press. p. 58. ISBN 0-8232-1695-0. Retrieved 26 November 2011. The linguistic dualism between Hebrew and Yiddish was similar to that of Hebrew and Aramaic in former generations.
  6. Weinreich, Max (2008). History of the Yiddish Language, Volume 1. Yale University Press. p. 311. ISBN 0-300-10960-1. Retrieved 26 November 2011.
  7. As described by the Yiddish-speaking actor Nathan Wolfowicz in the Israeli Yiddish newspaper Letzte Naies on 20 July 1951. A Hebrew translation of his article by Rachel Rozhenski appeared in Haaretz on 31 March 2004.
  8. "Dr. Sarah Ozacky-Lazar, Relations between Jews and Arabs during Israels first decade (in Hebrew)".
  9. "The official text of the Israeli supreme court ruling (in Hebrew)".
  10. The law in Hebrew in the Israeli official gazette (publication no. 2092 from 28 March 2007).
  11. "Arabic Language Academy – Haifa". 21 March 2007. Retrieved 4 May 2012.
  12. "Knesset Hawks Move To Strip Arabic of Official Status in Israel". The Forward. Retrieved 4 May 2012.
  13. Ilan, Shahar (17 February 2012). "MKs: Make Hebrew the only official language". Haaretz. Israel. Retrieved 4 May 2012.
  14. 1 2 CounterPunch, 17 July 2009, Israeli Road Signs: Wiping Arabic Names Off the Map
  15. BBC, 13 July 2009, Row over 'standard' Hebrew signs
  16. חסון, ניר (2011-07-06). "לשכת רה"מ: הצעת כץ למחוק שמות יישובים בלועזית - לא ריאלית". הארץ (in Hebrew). Retrieved 2016-05-20.
  17. High Court of Justice, case 4112/99, paragraphs 11–12
  20. Bartolmai, Evelyne. "German Language Slowly Losing Taboo Status in Israel" (Archive). Deutsche Welle. 18 June 2006. Retrieved on 11 June 2015.
  21. "Growing Demand for Italian Language Courses in Israel" (PDF).
  22. "General information on courses at Technion (showing italian language courses)".
  23. Viva la telenova!, Michal Palti, Haaretz. 8 August 2001.
  24. (French) olim from french speaking countries
  25. "Israel and the OIF institutions". Retrieved 6 October 2009.
  26. "Speaking of Italian Ambassador in Israel about Israeli program for the teaching of Italian language (in italian)".
  27. Weil Shalva (1977). "Verbal Interaction among the Bene Israeli". Linguistics. de Gruyter, Reference Global. 15 (193): 71–86. doi:10.1515/ling.1977.15.193.71. Retrieved 13 February 2011.
  28. "Association of the Deaf in Israel". Retrieved May 2015. Israeli Sign Language and Hebrew are the languages of the Israeli Deaf community Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  29. Meir, Irit; Sandler, Wendy; Padden, Carol; Aronoff, Mark. "Emerging Sign Languages" (PDF). Oxford Handbook of Deaf Studies, Language, and Education. 2: 8. Retrieved 14 May 2015.
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