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  • Hebrew Learning and Identity Perception among Russian Speakers in Israel
  • Rinat Golan (bio) and Malka Muchnik (bio)

This article probes the relation between the learning of Hebrew and the perception of identity among new immigrants to Israel from the Former Soviet Union (FSU) from the mid-1990s to the middle of the first decade of the present century. In the research presented here two groups of immigrants were investigated: one that studied Hebrew at an ulpan, and the other who did not formally study the language. The ulpan is an institution designed for intensive study of Hebrew, primarily by adult immigrants. Our aim was to reveal whether formal learning of the language is likely to influence immigrants' perception of identity as Russian, Jews, or Israelis. According to our survey and interview results, such an influence exists. Immigrants who studied at an ulpan reported a strong sense of belonging to the state and defined themselves as more "Israeli" than "Russian" or "Jewish." In contrast, immigrants who did not study at ulpan defined themselves as more Russian than Jewish or Israeli.


The research presented in this article focuses on new immigrants from the FSU and the study of Hebrew as an influencing factor on their perception of society, culture, and their own identity as part of the absorption process in Israel. We have studied the formal and informal characteristics of learning the language, in ulpan or independently, and the data was used to compare identity perceptions.

Immigration from the FSU in the beginning of the 1990s, when hundreds of thousands came to Israel in a relatively short time, was different from all previous immigration waves. This immigration wave has been researched in respect to its magnitude, cultural and demographic characteristics as compared to the Israeli population, and changes in absorption policy. The special needs of this immigration required the planning of new services and intervention and follow-up programs.1 [End Page 105]

The massive wave of immigration that began in the early 1990s decreased in the middle of the first decade in this century. During this period, there were many changes in immigrants' characteristics, especially when compared to immigrants from the USSR who arrived in Israel in the 1970s. Changes were observed in immigration motives, adaptation processes and demographic characteristics, sociocultural and linguistic aspects, and economic and employment conditions. One of the most salient changes is the strengthening of immigrants' cultural and linguistic relation to their original countries, which caused socio-cultural isolation of the immigrants and their refusal to abandon the Russian language.2

Besides changes in immigrants' characteristics, there was a changing tendency in Israel's absorption policy—from a "melting pot" ideology to a more pluralistic ideology and readiness for a linguistic policy change.3 This change already started with the massive wave of immigration from the USSR in the 1970s, but instead of creating a multicultural society, it perpetuated ethnic groups' identities as different from mainstream society and led to an emphasis on the polarization between them.4

It is not sufficient for society to adopt a pluralistic attitude if it does not respect and encourage the equal existence of all groups and the creation of multicultural language policy. The difference between a pluralistic and multicultural attitude is that the pluralistic model creates a gap among the different language communities and emphasizes the difference between the majority and the "others." In contrast, multiculturalism is a dynamic situation, where each one of the groups is equally respected.5 Learning Hebrew while maintaining immigrants' languages is likely to reduce the gap between the different cultures and enrich all of society. Moreover, since the learning of a new language does not come at the expense of any other language, and maintaining the mother tongue does not create a conflict with the new culture, the use of both languages is not supposed to generate any fear of inter-cultural conflict.6

The acquisition of Hebrew by new immigrants is initially done for basic adaptation purposes, but among some of them it is later done in an ulpan as a part of the absorption program, which includes the formal learning of the language from linguistic, cultural, and ideological aspects.7 Some...


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pp. 105-127
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