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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, 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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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 (covered above), are as follows: