The Russian Language in Israel
By Nate Sirotovitch
Israel is a very diverse country, and is home to many religions, languages, and ethnic groups. While Jews are the majority in the country, comprising around 75%, around a fifth of its population identifies as Arab. Additionally, groups like the Druze, Assyrians, Circassians, and Armenians are a considerable part of its ethnic makeup. The Jewish population is extremely diverse, as 56% of Israeli Jews hail from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Roughly 30% have full or partial European ancestry, and the rest have a mixed background. Over 30 languages are spoken within the country, with the most spoken one being Hebrew, which is that of the Jewish majority. In terms of the number of speakers, Hebrew is followed by Arabic and Russian. While the majority of Jews speak Hebrew, those who don’t often hail from the former Soviet Union, particularly Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. Formerly Soviet Jews make up one-seventh of the population of Israel, and since many immigrants from the former USSR tend to speak Russian, over 15% of Israelis’ native tongue is Russian. The language unifies many different groups like Ukrainians, Belarusians, Georgians, and Uzbeks, and this unity gives them political power in society.
Mass Jewish immigration from the former Russian Empire started toward the end of the First World War, and over 300,000 such Jews migrated to Israel up until the founding of the State of Israel in 1948. This number includes Prime Ministers Shimon Peres and Golda Meir, who made immense contributions to the Zionist movement. Immigration from the USSR slowed in the following years, mostly due to the Soviet Union barring anyone from leaving the country without explicit permission from the government. However, during the 1970s, the USSR caved to international pressure and let some Jews emigrate to Israel. Notable immigrants during the late Soviet period include dissident Natan Sharansky, billionaire Leonid Nevzlin, and the current Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman. In the decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union, over 800,000 Jews from the Commonwealth of Independent States arrived in Israel. These immigrants make up the majority of the Russian-speaking population.
There have been many immigrants from minority republics in the USSR who have fled during the communist regime and after its collapse, as well as many who have fled in the wake of the ongoing invasion of Ukraine. For example, in the 1990s, immigrants from Ukraine made up 31.5% of all immigrants from the former Soviet Union. However, most of them spoke Russian. The same can be said about Jews who came to Israel from national republics like Belarus, Lithuania, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. This is due to the phenomenon of Russification, especially in large cities where Jews disproportionately lived, such as Kyiv, Minsk, Vilnius, and Odessa. Particularly during the times of dictator Joseph Stalin, the usage of the dozens of minority languages of the USSR was greatly discouraged, and ethnic minorities such as Jews were expected to speak Russian in order to fit into society and get ahead professionally. For the Jews of Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, their native tongue would probably have been Yiddish or the language of the Soviet republic they were living in — Lithuanian, Belarusian, Georgian, Ukrainian, and so on. Due to the favoritism shown to the majority language by Soviet authorities, Jews began to shift toward it, and this is visible in the former Soviet Union, Israel, America, and anywhere else with an Eastern European diaspora.
Israel is home to the third-largest Russian-speaking community outside of the Commonwealth of Independent States, despite the state’s best efforts to make everyone unite under the Hebrew language. Free Hebrew courses are offered to immigrants so that they will eventually integrate into the Hebrew-speaking world. Part of the reluctance of some immigrants to adopt Hebrew is due to the fact that they do not need to use it on a daily basis. There are several Russophone local newspapers as well as daily radio services in Russian. Additionally, a television channel called Channel 9 broadcasts in Russian, sometimes without Hebrew subtitles. Absorption of Hebrew is slow among older Soviet immigrants, as is assimilation into broader Israeli society. Further assimilation will take even more time due to the new influx of immigrants from the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Over 30,000 Ukrainian refugees have moved to Israel, with the majority of them being Russian-speaking. Thousands of Russian citizens have also fled, fearing the prospect of being drafted and sent to the front lines.
Israel is a multicultural place, especially with respect to linguistic diversity. Russian brings Jews from many countries together, and is an important cultural unifier for almost one-fifth of the population. The cultures of different Jewish groups from Lithuania to Uzbekistan are joined by means of the Russian language, their lived experience under Soviet tyranny, and their escape to find a tolerant and welcoming home in Israel. This unifying factor makes these ethnically and culturally diverse groups a very powerful political force and allows them to contribute to and influence life in the country.