The Russian language in Israel is spoken natively by a large proportion of the population, reaching about 20 percent of the total population by 1989, mostly by immigrants who came from the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s and later years. It is a major foreign language in the country and is used in many aspects of life. Russian is by far the most used non-official native language in Israel. The government and businesses often provide information in Russian, and it is semi-official in some areas with high concentration of Russian Jewish immigrants. The Russian-speaking population of Israel is the world's third-largest population of Russian native-speakers living outside the former Soviet Union territories after Germany and the United States, and the highest as a proportion of the population. As of 2013, 1,231,003 residents of the Post-Soviet states have immigrated to Israel.
The first large scale immigration of Russian-speaking Soviet Jews to post-1948 Israel occurred during the 1970s, but the "great migration" did not start until the late 1980s, during the last years of the Soviet Union.
About 100,000 Jews emigrated from the Soviet Union to Israel from 1971 to 1974. Most of them were from Georgia; the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania; and areas annexed by the Red Army in 1939–1940, mostly Poland. Soviet authorities allowed this emigration by calling it "family reunification," to avoid the appearance that anyone was unhappy living in the Soviet state. These emigrants held strongly Zionist views and took the opportunity to settle in their historic homeland. Less than half of those who emigrated in the 1970s wave came from Slavic countries, i.e., Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, even though about 80% of Soviet Jews lived there at the time.
The Soviet Union was generally anti-Semitic; Zionist activities inside its borders were considered treason that could lead to execution, and, after 1967, Israel was considered an enemy state. It was not until Perestroika that Jewish activists were given freedom to operate. The emigration that took place from 1989 to 1993 is described as a "panic migration", due to the socio-economic crisis in the Soviet states, rather than a migration of "born-again" Jews. Many of them did not have any relation to Judaism or Zionism in their former place of residence. Most immigrants of this period came from Russia and Ukraine, and to a lesser extent from Belarus and Central Asia.
The "old immigrants" of the 1970s, who mainly came to Israel for Zionist feelings, viewed people who came during the wave of the 1980s and 1990s as people escaping a harsh economic situation who did not have much appreciation for their new homeland. The last Soviet census of 1989 indicated 1,449,000 Jews living in the country, of which about 877,000 had moved to Israel by October 2000. The wave of immigration in this short period of time was the greatest influx of people to Israel since the date of its creation. Immigrants from the former Soviet Union composed 50%–70% of the newcomers. The number of people who came to Israel in the late 1980s and early 1990s outnumbered the number of people who came during the 1970s by four times, which made it harder for them to be integrated into the mainstream society of such a small country.
An estimated 250,000 of immigrants are not halachically Jewish (which only recognises maternal descent), but rather considered Jewish under the law of return due to having at least one Jewish grandparent, or being the spouse of Jewish immigrants who received Israeli citizenship according to the Law of Return.
Although free Hebrew courses are offered to every immigrant, some immigrants did not take them. In 2013, about 26 percent of Russian immigrants did not speak fluent Hebrew. Russians often settle close to each other, forming Russian-speaking neighborhoods with store window advertisements in Russian and banks with at least a few Russian-speaking workers. Ashdod, the fifth largest city in Israel, absorbed a particularly large number of immigrants, accepting over 100,000 Soviet Jews from 1990 to 2001. The Yud-Yud Gimmel neighborhoods in southern Ashdod, where immigrants account for 75 percent of the population of 26,000, were dubbed "Israel's Russian ghetto".
The process of integration into mainstream Israeli society is slow, because many Russian-speaking adults prefer to not learn Hebrew and are reluctant to give up their Russian cultural background. Language professors Elana Shohamy and Bernard Spolsky attributed this to a "strong loyalty to their ethnic language".
Hayim Gordon describes the situation in his 2007 book Israel today:
Today, Russian is in a much better position than Arabic, which is an official language in the country. The Russian-speaking adult population, which is less competitive in Hebrew than the youth, mostly tries to preserve the common Russian cultural background, teaching it to their children born in Israel. However, according to Shohamy and Spolsky, second generation Israelis of Russian origin "do not receive a formal education in Russian" and, as a result, "language attrition is rapid". Political scientist Ze'ev Khanin opined, "The Russian-speaking community is identifiable, but it is part of the Israeli collective. The second generation is much more influenced by its Israeli experience than its Soviet past." In 2001, camp counselors in Ashdod volunteered to help youths accommodate to Israeli lifestyle, and those that participated in the program said that "they feel Israeli in every respect".
Roughly 20 percent of Israel's population was born in Russia, and, as of 2013, the Russian-speaking community accounts for 15 percent of Israel's eligible voters. Ze'ev Khanin surmised that Russian Jews in Israel tend to be politically conservative, estimating that 50 to 60 percent support the Likud Beiteinu party.
Israeli journalist Lily Galili attributed this to being in part due to an unwillingness to make land concessions for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. She explained, "They come from this huge empire to this tiny Israel and they say: 'Is that all, is that the country? And what, you want to give back the territories? Who gives up territory in the first place! And in this small country. You must be kidding!'" Russian-speaking Israeli analyst Igor Khlopitsky stated that this also resulted from the Russian-speaking Israelis generally wanting quick results during times of turmoil, saying, "Those who came after Perestroika had the Soviet mentality beaten out of them by the very difficult problems of the time. And where some other Israelis see the possibilities for discussion and dialogue, they just want to solve the problems swiftly."
Hebrew and Arabic are the only official languages of the State of Israel.
Russian and a number of other immigrant languages are widely used in Israel, because ethnic Jews from dozens of countries from all around the world have settled in the area. Russian is the major immigrant language of Jews living in Israel. Since 1967, millions of Russian Jews have settled in the country, and a great influx of Jews from the post-Soviet states took place in the 1990s. Today, Russian is used in cultural events, the educational system and other public domains.
By 1999, about 5 to 10 percent of all jobs in Israel were held by Russian speakers. The Ministry of Transport published booklets and manuals in Russian. It is very likely to find Russian-speaking doctors at hospitals.
Most Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union were highly educated with almost 45 percent of them having some kind of higher education.
Despite the fact that the native language of a significant part of the country's population is Russian, the language occupies a modest role in Israel's education system. Hebrew University started teaching Russian in 1962. In public schools, the first Russian-language classes were opened in the 1970s in large cities. The number of students enrolled in these programs dropped in the 1980s as immigration from the Soviet Union slowed down. In the 1990s, a Russian-language program carried out by local governments called Na'leh 16 included some 1,500 students. In 1997, about 120 schools in Israel taught Russian in one way or another.
Traditionally, Russian speakers read newspapers and listen to radio more often than Hebrew speakers.
Nasha strana was the major Russian-newspaper in Israel during the 1970s, when it competed with Tribuna for the immigrant reader. In 1989, there was only one daily in Russian, and 6 in 1996. Since the 2000s, the number of Russian-language newspapers started to decline due to the increasing number of television and online media. Israeli television provides daily translation in Hebrew, Arabic, and Russian. In 2002, the Israeli Russian-speaking commercial Channel 9 was launched. It is also known as Israel Plus. In November 2007, a typical digital package included 45 channels in foreign languages, with 5 in Russian. Today, there are four dailies, 11 weeklies, five monthlies and over 50 local newspapers published in Russian in Israel, with a total circulation of about 250,000 during weekends. Daily radio services in Russian are also available throughout Israel.