Languages of Israel
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The Israeli population is a linguistically and culturally diverse community. The 15th edition of Ethnologue lists 33 languages and dialects spoken in local communities. The main language used for communication among Israeli citizens is Modern Hebrew and Arabic, while English remains the second language of the majority of the Israelis and used 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 (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 mother tongue, Arabic 18%, Russian 15%, Yiddish 2%, French 2%, English 2%. 1.6% report Spanish and 10% - other languages (among others Romanian, German and Amharic, which were not offered as answers by this survey). This study also noted that 90% of Jews and over 60% of Arabs have a good understanding of Hebrew.
Official status of languages
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, there are two official languages in Israel: Hebrew and Arabic. English, which has semi-official status, is used extensively at all levels of society. 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:
- 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 (paragraph 15-b) states that:
- Any order in the law which requires the use of the English language is hereby abolished.
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. just like Aramaic replaced Hebrew in ancient times.
The movement for the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language was particularly popular among new Jewish Zionist immigrants who came to Palestine since 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". 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, and the number of Yiddish speakers declined as the older generations died out. However, Yiddish is still commonly used in Ashkenazi haredi communities worldwide, and is often the first language for the members 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 and Yemenite Jews, particularly those of the older generation who immigrated from Arabic-speaking countries. In 1949, 156,000 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. 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.
In 2009, Israel Katz, the transport minister, announced 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 "Natzrat". The Transport Ministry said signs would be replaced gradually as necessary due to wear and tear. This has been criticized as an attempt by the Israeli government to erase the Arabic language and Palestinian heritage in Israel.
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The amendments to the British Mandate's legal system, issued in May 1948 (paragraph 15-b) state:
- Any order in the law which requires the use of the English language is hereby abolished.
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 superior English skills to their parents and grandparents. Secular Israelis who live in big cities and are of a higher social and economic status usually possess greater capabilities in English than those living in more remote suburbs and 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 decent education among Israelis. In the past, several politicians such as David Levy and Amir Peretz, were mocked openly in the media and public for their poor English skills.
Russian is by far the most widely spoken non-official language in Israel after English. At least 20% of Israelis are fluent in Russian after mass immigration from the USSR and its successor states in the 1970s, 1990s, and 2000s. The government and businesses often provide information in Russian, and it is semi-official in some areas.
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. 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.
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:
- Romanian: It is estimated that 82,300 first generation and at least [nb 1] 126,200 second generation Romanian Jews lived in Israel by 2012. Additionally, it is estimated that 14,700 Romanians nationals worked in Israel as of 2010 (with or without a work permit). These figures do not include Moldovan-born Jews and Moldovan migrants, which in turn are listed as former Soviet. While these numbers don't account for actual language speakers but mere nationality, there is no recent data on the number of Roumanophones living in Israel.
- Yiddish: The language of Ashkenazi Jews in the diaspora and the second most widely spoken Jewish language, Yiddish is a Germanic language, but incorporates elements of Hebrew. Banned in theatres, movies and other cultural activities during Israel’s early statehood, Yiddish has undergone a cultural revival in recent years. Furthermore, Yiddish has always and is still regularly used in some haredi Ashkenazi communities. However, despite state-sponsored initiatives for preserving Yiddish culture, the number of Yiddish-speaking Israelis is in decline as older generations of Ashkenazi Jews pass away.
- German is spoken natively by around 100,000 Israelis. In Palestine during Ottoman rule and the mandate period, as well as during the first decades of Israeli statehood, German was one of the primary languages of Jews living there. Around 1950, the German language Israel-Nachrichten was the largest newspaper of Israel.
- Amharic: Spoken by most of Israel’s 130,000 Ethiopian Jews, most of whom arrived in two massive operations transporting tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews from Ethiopia to Israel in 1984 and 1991, Amharic is often used in government announcements and publications.
- Georgian/Judaeo-Georgian: Although most Georgian immigrants speak Russian, they converse among themselves in Georgian.
- Ladino: The Sephardi Jewish language and the third most widely spoken Jewish language, Ladino is a variant of medieval Spanish, intermixed with Hebrew. It is spoken by many Sephardi Jews. Today there is a state-supported authority for preserving the Ladino culture.
- Polish: Polish was spoken by the large number of immigrants from Poland. Today, it is somewhat common in Polish moshavei ovdim (workers’ settlements) created during the 1940s and 1950s. There are also several thousand Polish Jews living in Israel who immigrated after the 1968 Polish political crisis; most were born and raised in Poland, speak the language fluently amongst themselves, and have made attempts to impart the language to their children.
- Ukrainian: While most Ukrainian Jews speak Russian, there is still a segment of Ukrainian speakers.
- Spanish: Spanish is spoken by Jews from Argentina and other olim from other Spanish-speaking countries, as well as by some Sephardi groups. Spanish is not restricted to Sephardim, as most Argentine Jews are actually Ashkenazim. Spanish has never been part of the curriculum in Israel. Only English, French, Arabic, Russian and Italian are taught, in addition to Hebrew, and Spanish is only taught as a foreign language in schools and universities.
- French: Spoken by many Moroccan, Algerian, and Tunisian Jews, either as a native or second language of these francized Maghrebi Jews, French is also spoken by the increasing number of new immigrants from France and other French-speaking countries, as well as by foreign workers from French speaking Africa. For many years French had been the diplomatic language of Israel, and it is still taught in many Israeli schools. The French embassy’s Institut Français supports French studies in Israeli schools. Israel has tried to join La Francophonie, but has been rebuffed by its Arab members. Tel Aviv University is a member of the Agence universitaire de la Francophonie (AUF).
- Italian/Judaeo-Italian: In addition to being spoken by Italian Jews, Italian is also spoken by many Jews from Libya (a former Italian colony) and immigrants from other former Italian colonies (Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia) as a primary or second language. As a result of growing demand, Italian may be taken as an optional subject in some schools.
- Turkish: Turkish is spoken by more than 50,000 Turkish Jews and their families, who immigrated from Turkey in the second half of the 20th century and also by foreign workers. Many of the Turkish speakers in Israel also speak Ladino.
- Persian: Persian is spoken by many Persian Jews who immigrated from Iran and their children.
- Kayla and Qwara: These languages are spoken by Ethiopian Jews in addition to Amharic. Kayla appears to be extinct.
- Chinese, Tagalog, and Thai: While spoken by a negligible number of Israeli Jews, Chinese, Tagalog, and Thai have made inroads in Israeli society in recent years due to an influx of non-Jewish immigrants from China, the Philippines, and Thailand. It is estimated that there are 180,000 such illegal immigrants. Many (though mostly Vietnamese) legally entered the country when Israel opened their doors to "boat people" from war-torn Southeast Asia in the 1970s.
- Marathi: Marathi is the language of Bene Israel – Jews from the Konkan coast of India. They migrated to Israel beginning in 1948, when the State of Israel was established. In 1977 they numbered about 20,000. Concentrations of Marathi speakers are found in the towns of Dimona and Beersheba.
- Malayalam: Judeo-Malayalam is the traditional language of the Cochin Jews (also called Malabar Jews), from Kerala, in southern India.
- Bukhori: Bukhori is spoken by the Bukharian Jews who immigrated from Central Asia.
- Israeli Sign Language is the main language amongst deaf Israelis. It comes from Jewish educators of the Deaf from Germany who relocated to start the first school for the deaf in Israel.
- Ghardaia Sign Language
- Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language
- Syriac/Neo-Aramaic: The Syriac language is also spoken by some Iraqi Jews that immigrated to Israel from Iraq during the 1940s and 1950s.
- Greek: Greek is spoken by Greek-Orthodox church.
- The Israeli Census Bureau only counts as second generation Jews those persons whose father was born aboard, regardless of their mother's origin
- 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.
- Lerman, Anthony (5 March 2010). "Yiddish is no joke". The Guardian (UK). Retrieved 12 July 2011.
- 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.
- Weinreich, Max (2008). History of the Yiddish Language, Volume 1. Yale University Press. p. 311. ISBN 0-300-10960-1. Retrieved 26 November 2011.
- 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.
- "Dr. Sarah Ozacky-Lazar, Relations between Jews and Arabs during Israel’s first decade (in Hebrew)".
- "The official text of the Israeli supreme court ruling (in Hebrew)".
- The law in Hebrew in the Israeli official gazette (publication no. 2092 from 28 March 2007).
- "Arabic Language Academy – Haifa". Arabicac.com. 21 March 2007. Retrieved 4 May 2012.
- "Knesset Hawks Move To Strip Arabic of Official Status in Israel –". Forward.com. Retrieved 4 May 2012.
- Ilan, Shahar (17 February 2012). "MKs: Make Hebrew the only official language – Haaretz Daily Newspaper | Israel News". Haaretz. Israel. Retrieved 4 May 2012.
- CounterPunch, 17 July 2009, Israeli Road Signs: Wiping Arabic Names Off the Map
- BBC, 13 July 2009, Row over 'standard' Hebrew signs
- "Growing Demand for Italian Language Courses in Israel".
- "General information on courses at Technion (showing italian language courses)".
- (French) olim from french speaking countries
- "Israel and the OIF institutions". Retrieved 6 October 2009.
- "Speaking of Italian Ambassador in Israel about Israeli program for the teaching of Italian language (in italian)".
- Weil Shalva (1977). "Verbal Interaction among the Bene Israeli". Linguistics (de Gruyter, Reference Global) 15 (193): 71–86. doi:10.1515/ling.19126.96.36.199. Retrieved 13 February 2011.
- Languages of Israel – Ethnologue entry for Israel.
- Language Policy Research Center, Bar Ilan University, Ramat Gan, Israel.