On the surface the answer to the question, “What are the main languages in Israel?” seems to be simple: Hebrew for the Jews, Arabic for the Arabs, and English as a common colonial tongue. Below the surface…we know things in this part of the world are never simple.
CLASSICAL HEBREW (often a term used interchangeably with BIBLICAL HEBREW, though Biblical Hebrew is a dialect of Classical Hebrew) first appeared in about the 10th century B.C. and was spoken in the land of Canaan primarily around the 6th Century B.C., though it didn’t really disappear as a spoken language until about 70 A.D. The Jewish Bible, the Torah (“the five books of Moses”) are written in Classical/Biblical Hebrew. This eventually developed into MISHNAIC HEBREW, which is the language used during the
time of the writing of the commentaries on the Torah known as the Talmud, the first part of which is called the Mishnah. Mishnaic Hebrew fell out of favor in about the 2nd century A.D., leaving Hebrew to the Jewish liturgy.
We should note that some of the Jewish liturgy and later (6th century A.D.) commentaries on the Torah were written in ARAMAIC, which was a main spoken language in Canaan from the 6th century B.C. until about 70 A.D. Aramaic is rarely spoken today, though there are small pockets of Aramaic-speakers in Syria.
In the late 1800s Zionists and other Jews who intended to settle Israel chose MODERN HEBREW as the language of their nation-to-be. Modern Hebrew is a contemporary variant of Classical Hebrew with some influence from Slavic, Arabic, Aramaic and German. It solidified as the main language of Jewish settlers in the early 1900s.
While most citizens of Israel, including those of Palestinian descent, speak Hebrew, Palestinians in Israel and in the Occupied Territories primarily speak “LEVANTINE ARABIC,” which is an Arabic dialect spoken in the Palestinian territories, in Syria and in Lebanon. Palestinian Arabic borrows words from a number of different languages such as Persian, Armenian, English, Turkish, Kurdish, English and even Hebrew. So even Palestinian Arabic is complicated.
Adding substantially to the Israeli and Palestinian linguistic mishmash is Israel’s intense history of immigration. By far the most prominent non-official language is RUSSIAN, which became almost ubiquitous in Israel in the ’80s and ’90s when nearly a million Russian “olim” (immigrants) entered the nation. After that the next most widely-spoken non-official language is, somewhat surprisingly, ROMANIAN/MOLDOVAN, with an estimated half million speakers, and then, also surprisingly, YIDDISH. (The former being surprising because Romania and Moldova are not the first countries one outside of Israel may consider as having made a substantial mark on there, the latter because, while Yiddish is undergoing a revival around the world, only in Israel is it still any
prominent community’s daily spoken language.) Other “foreign” languages that are important in Israel are the Ethiopian language AMHARIC, FARSI (Persian) and even the Bukharan Jews’ “BUKHORI.”
For more information about Israel’s linguistic diversity, visit Wikipedia’s section on non-official languages widely spoken in Israel.