Israel cultural insights
The following cultural insights are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. The content in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
On this page
Local and Canadian perspectives for the following subjects:
- Communication styles
- Display of emotion
- Dress, punctuality & formality
- Preferred managerial qualities
- Hierarchy and decision-making
- Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
- Privileges and favouritism
- Conflicts in the workplace
- Motivating local colleagues
- Recommended books, films & foods
- In-country activities
- National heroes
- Shared historical events with Canada
- About the cultural interpreters
- Related information
When first meeting people in Israel, just your accent when speaking Hebrew can pique people’s interest about your origins. Israelis are very curious, but also respectful of foreigners, particularly those who either have more or less mastered or try to speak the Hebrew language.
Generally, discussions centre on your background at first. This helps you to get to know the person better. Family is also an important topic of conversation. Work comes last, and only to help get to know the person better. There are not really any taboo subjects in Israel; there is free speech and everyone is allowed to have their own controversial opinions, whatever they may be.
Humour is frequent and spontaneous in Israel and people use it almost subconsciously. However, you need to be familiar with the special vocabulary that is not always easy to understand or master.
When meeting someone for the first time I would ask about their job (exact responsibilities), their army service (what rank they had, where they served—army service is compulsory for men and women ages 18-21). Humour is acceptable—especially political humour—it is easy to associate a person with a specific political ideology by their dress. A right wing person would be a religiously observant looking—with a head covering for men and women and modest or dark coloured clothes. The left wing person would be more likely to wear "beach" attire (from a Canadian perspective); for men, for example, half-open button down shirts without an undershirt underneath. But, for Israelis, no topic is off limits—it’s completely acceptable to ask how much rent you pay, how much salary you make. Lastly, it’s always a good topic of conversation to find out where a person is from—the country is small so it’s likely someone has travelled there on a business meeting. Therefore, asking about how long the drive took, how much traffic was on the way (there’s always lots!) are good icebreakers.
In Hebrew as in English, there is no formal form of "you" as there is in French and this makes things much easier. Barriers are quickly got over and people lose their shyness about talking to one another. There is no real feeling of distance as Israelis put others at ease quickly with their casual demeanour. If Israelis notice that you are uncomfortable, they will not hesitate to put you at ease by joking around yet trying at the same time to understand how you are feeling.
Initially, people address one another as Mr. or Mrs. followed by their last names, but soon enough you can call people by their first names.
Gestures are more important than touching. You may meet Israelis who jump all over the place while trying to express a commonplace idea. Men shake hand with other men as well as women they do not know, although this may not necessarily always be the case. It is rare to see men and women kiss one another on the cheek, although it is somewhat less unusual between women who know one another well.
Israelis speak loudly and quickly. They give the impression that they are in a rush or frustrated. Israelis often yell as though they were all worked up when in fact they are speaking in quite a normal tone of voice.
Israelis hate hypocrisy and do not hesitate to openly condemn it. Speak frankly and in a straightforward manner. If there is a disagreement, it is important to talk about it and not just make insinuations.
Tone of voice and directness are most important—there is no beating around the bush with Israelis—a direct, to the point, almost indiscreet (from a Canadian perspective) approach is the Israeli way. Eye contact is important too but not paramount. Hand motions, gesturing are part of the vocabulary and are generally too close for comfort for most Canadians. Touching someone is a no-no as religiously observant men and women do not touch one another. So, in business dealings in Jerusalem, where there are more religious people, there is more distance. On the other hand, in strictly cosmopolitan Tel-Aviv, shaking hands is expected practice. Outside the major cities, conversations are more relaxed—especially in the North and on Kibbutzim.
Display of emotion
Displays of affection are very common for everyone: whether you are seven or 77 years old!! People get worked up easily, in no time at all (when standing in lines, receiving poor service, etc). Swearing comes easily as well. In general, if a serious dispute occurs, bystanders will try to calm things down. There is always another "big talker" who will step in to bring calm to the situation.
As for displays of affection, see above. Anger is a frequently expressed emotion that is reached quickly. People go from zero to sixty, fast! The whole society is under a lot of stress and pressure. In a country where life can be ended in an instant by an attack, emotions run high. People get into fights at vegetable stands, with taxi drivers and in business meetings. Because anger is a staple of the Israeli diet, it need not be taken as seriously as it would be in Canada. It often represents passion. Having said that, in a professional environment, you are not excused for fighting with your boss—you can argue with colleagues but there is still a hierarchical system in place that must be respected. Emotions are welcome but there are limits—rarely do these tough people "break-down" and talk about feelings.
Dress, punctuality & formality
As previously mentioned, Israel is a warm country where people are very relaxed. At work, people do not wear suits and ties unless they are specifically asked to by an employer. A short-sleeved shirt and dress pants will do. Even many executives and directors dress very casually.
Interaction among colleagues is very straightforward, spontaneous, and almost family-like. Companies are almost like a second family and you will quickly make friends with colleagues who want to get to know each other better and even to help you out. People go out to eat or take a coffee break together. How you speak is not so important as long as you can make yourself understood.
People generally call one another, even their superiors, by their first names. The idea is that everyone should be working toward the good of the company in a pleasant team environment. Some jobs demand that you adhere to deadlines on which your superiors will place a lot of importance. Once you have proven that you can deliver the expected results on time, you will be allowed manage your workload on your own. Punctuality and absenteeism are also monitored in most companies.
Generally, dress code is very casual—it’s very hot in Israel so ties for men are out. In fact, shirts do not get buttoned up fully either and khakis with a short-sleeved button down shirt, tucked in, and sandals are fine. In fancier offices sandals are out, and closed toes shoes are in. In less fancy offices, jeans are acceptable. For women, dress is also casual but neat. Sweaters and skirts, pressed pants and sandals are fine but jeans are out for women. Religious women wear hats, scarves or other head coverings, even in the office; they also wear skirts that cover their knees. Religious men wear skull caps (kippa) and suits, or white shirts and dark pants.
Colleagues and supervisors are addressed by first name. However, someone calling into an office who does not personally know (has not yet met) the individual they are trying to contact would use Mr. or Mrs.—as in, "Is Mr. Goldman available?". But, even at their first meeting, that same person would call Mr. Goldman, "George".
Though things should run on army time—punctually, in reality, everyone seems to be running a little late. So, if you are the person with the upper hand—that is, you are the boss, the investor, the employer, you can come late. If you are looking for a job, a seed investment etc. you should be on time. The definition of late can vary from about 5 minutes to 40 minutes. Past the half-hour mark, the tables turn and the person who is late is considered rude. It’s OK to come to the office late in the morning—start times vary from 7 am to 10:30 am but arriving late comes with the expectation of staying later. Absenteeism is not acceptable as there is about a 2-week vacation (as negotiated) for entry level jobs and on top of that, about one month of paid national holidays concentrated in September and October (for the Jewish holidays) as well as a few other days scattered throughout the year including a week off for Passover in April. On those Jewish holidays, all stores, malls, grocery stores are closed. The only paid day off when everything is open is national election day. On that day, everyone votes and then goes to the beach!!
Preferred managerial qualities
Generally, the qualities that are required include individual skills and qualifications. A sense of initiative, outstanding dynamism, a willingness to adapt, team spirit and leadership, professional experience and a firm knowledge are the qualities of a good director.
Israel is a country of immigrants and most people’s families come from the four corners of the earth so a director’s background does not affect his/her relationship with employees. People will only judge you on your professional skills.
In Israel it is very easy to know if your colleagues or employees like you or not; Israelis do not hesitate to say what they think about others.
Army seniority and university education are highly regarded. Experience working in America is impressive. Blue Chip, New York or London experience gets attention in a land of business ideas and marketing. Also, being fair to every employee and not favouring one over the other (ie. good leadership) is well regarded too. Lastly, language is very important. If you are managing Israelis, you must be able to keep up with all their vocabulary and slang (including modern slang and army slang). Otherwise, you will not be respected.
Hierarchy and decision-making
Depending on their importance, decisions are made collectively during either staff or work team meetings.
Everyone has the right to express how he or she feels about the topic in question. If the supervisor is available, people may spontaneously suggest ideas, give their opinions or even complain. Freedom of expression is essential for the group’s well being.
The workplace is generally quite an open place; however, at the end of the day, what the boss says, goes. It is acceptable to ask for feedback from your immediate supervisor, and you can also tie such an evaluation to a pay raise review.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
In Israel, male-female relations are equal in most areas (politics, the army, and private life). Women have the same civic rights as men and you can find women in the government that have the same political prerogatives as their male colleagues. Women have the same status as men in the Israeli army and can rise to high-ranking positions (officers, fighter pilot, etc). The same holds true for the police force.
Outside of religion, modern Israeli women can have access to any job they want as long as they have the necessary skills. At work, women have the same decision-making power as men and the relationship between employees and female managers is generally respected. Sometimes there are salary differences between men and women with the same qualifications and skills and this situation is often denounced by the national union (Istadroute).
With respect to a religious woman, in an Orthodox Jewish family (as in other religions), the status of women is such that they do not work very much or at all; they are required to raise the children while husbands spend most of their time studying the Torah in Talmudic schools. In an orthodox family, it is considered to be a divine act ("Mitsva") for a woman to have a lot of children, and they are her responsibility, the father’s role being to teach them about Jewish traditions and values.
The Jewish religion, and religion in general, is very much respected. Respect of others is a dominant feature. In Israel, there are three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Many Christians and Muslims work in and are well integrated into Israeli society. However, you will observe that each religious community prefers to stay to itself. This means that there are areas or towns that are practically all Muslim or Catholic. I am not talking about the various branches of Islam (Shiites, Sunnites, Bahaï, Druzes), which can be found in many villages and whose followers are very integrated in the country (towns or cities that are primarily Arab include the main tourist areas (Nazareth), but the inhabitants of these communities prefer to avoid any contact with Israeli Jews and this feeling is sometimes mutual).
Equality with regard to religion at work is generally respected by all, but with the understanding that many employers are reluctant to hire people from the Muslim Arab community due to the current situation in Israel. Since the beginning of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, many Israeli Arabs who work regularly in Israel have suffered the consequences of the conflict. There is still a distrust of Arabs in Israel since the image of suicide bombers is ingrained in the hearts of the Israeli population that is literally traumatized from the numerous Palestinian attacks.
For festivities, Israel follows the Jewish calendar; in daily life it uses the Christian calendar. In a secular workplace environment, individuals who are more religious than their colleagues will not notice any difference.
The gap between the rich and the lower classes has broadened greatly since the beginning of the 2nd Intifada. The recession has worsened and many budgets were dedicated to national security and the army to the detriment of social assistance. Today in Israel, the poor who have very limited to no resources at all are becoming poorer while the rich become richer and travel abroad. This explains why many businesses have shut down or relocated abroad. The result is a considerably weakened Israeli economy and an unprecedented depression. There are still people who belong to the middle and lower classes who struggle to survive in terrible economic conditions.
There are many different Jewish ethnic groups due to the great waves of immigrants from Russia in the early 1990s, and the arrival of Jews from Ethiopia and those who were chased out of and fled from Iran and Iraq, as well as the many Jews from France and the United States who left on Aliyahs (which translates into "going (emigrating) to Israel"). Israeli society has greatly diversified and the Israeli melting pot has grown. Israel has welcomed (and continues to welcome) with open arms Jews from around the world regardless of their origins, in order to increase the population and have more weight in its relations with the surrounding Arab countries.
Women are viewed as being not as capable as men. So, if there’s a woman who is as successful as a man, she gets that much more respect for having overcome that gap. Observant women generally have a lot of kids, so if there is a religious woman in the workplace who also has 8 kids at home, she too gets that much more respect. Only recently were women allowed to fight in combat roles in the army. The mainstream and business cultures follow these army trends.
Religious people are seen as second class by the cosmopolitan working types and the secular Jews (generally the cosmopolitan) are seen as being heathens by the religious. This is the biggest issue in Israeli society and cannot be summarized in even 100 000 words. But, it should be known that if there were someone who could bridge the gap between the religious and secular Israelis, they will be doing a great service to the people and to the country. Most of the country respects those who respect religion and are a part of mainstream society—the anti-religious and the ultra-orthodox tear at the social fabric.
As the country is so small, entire cities act as neighbourhoods. Depending on the city you say you are from, it can mean you are likely "nouveau riche", third generation Israeli, and secular or struggling financially, a new American immigrant, and religious. Those two will never meet. Therefore, though there may be many business opportunities between the two, they never connect to form that synergy. The long-time Israelis often resent new immigrants for the strain they put on the economy. There is the concept of "the right of return" where any Jew can come to Israel and will benefit from many government subsidized opportunities such as a free plane ticket, mortgage breaks, tax deductions on cars and appliances and free university education. Even if they do actually meet, they would find it hard to work together, though, admittedly, the religious perspective plays heavily in this reality.
As I’m sure is the case in many countries, ethnicity, religion, class are all heavily tied together. There should, in theory, be no ethnic issues as most Israelis are Jews. Having said that, there is an increasing number of non-Jewish immigrants including Russians, Thais, and Philippinos. There is an issue in Israel with the Ethiopian Jews as they are the only black people in the country. The Ethiopians did not come from a western life-style and tended not to know much about Jewish culture, Israeli culture, Hebrew language and therefore found themselves at a great disadvantage. When they were put in temporary residences, there was little outreach by Israel to truly integrate them. Therefore, the Ethiopians who have been successful in the Israeli business world are few and far between and much of the population resents their dependence on the system. This class/ethnic struggle still continues today. With each successive wave of immigration, the same story applies. Although second generation Ethiopians are now integrating, newly arrived Russian immigrants face many of the same obstacles. Also, obviously, there is a major ethnic/class issue with the Arabs who feel completely disenfranchised, segregated and suppressed. However, there is very little Arab-Israeli business any more.
It is difficult to have an Israeli colleague really trust you. This takes time and an attentive ear as well as mutual understanding. The same goes for clients—get to know them well and do not hesitate to talk with them.
This makes the challenge even more difficult. In order for an Israeli to really feel comfortable or have trust in you, they must have put the prospective partner "to the test" beforehand. You need to be able to analyse exactly what the needs and expectations are and show that you are the best person for the job.
The fact that you can befriend a client or colleague shows that you communicate well and adapt easily.
In Israel, "knowing someone" is EVERYTHING. It’s called "protectia" (you can imagine that this is translated as "protection") and it gets you far. It’s someone knowing you or knowing someone who knows you, bringing you under their wing and connecting you to the right people. This is the system by which many things get done in this country. From meeting with the bank manager who is seemingly unavailable for the next 3 weeks, to getting a job interview, to getting a good deal on a T.V. set, it’s all about your aunt Ida knowing the boss—or being the boss, even better! Having said that, you can bring a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. People don’t get jobs undeservedly. They may get an interview just from knowing someone but will only get hired on their own merit.
Privileges and favouritism
Special privileges called "Protexia " in Hebrew are very common in Israel. Confidentiality between employees (much appreciated of course) and the boss hiring friends or family are common phenomenon. For an employer, a recommendation made by a close friend or family member is already considered to be an important guarantee with respect to the person who comes recommended.
However, the giving of favours or raises is a much rarer occurrence. These actions are based on merit and not on whom you know.
Please see above. However, note that "protectia" only works if the person giving it wants it to. So, the person of whom the favour is being asked must like the person asking the favour. However, "Protectia" can be automatic if it’s a very close relationship; for example, if your father is the head of the army, and people recognize your name and you’ll get far on that basis.
Conflicts in the workplace
Again, in this situation you should not hesitate to speak with your colleague in private. A good and even forceful discussion can fix anything. If the situation cannot be resolved, it is strongly suggested that you speak with your superior.
If you are not sure, do not hesitate to engage the other person in conversation. Never let misunderstandings brew as arrangements and deals can be made if they are found in a timely manner.
You can confront the colleague directly, but you would probably speak to your supervisor first. All this would be done privately. Generally, if a colleague were having problems with you, he or she would express it directly.
Motivating local colleagues
As in any country, salary is the first source of motivation. In Israel, the cost of living is high, and increasing even more since the second Intifada. In some companies, trips or seminars are organized to motivate the staff and end-of-year salary increases given.
Recognition is important to Israelis—they want to be recognized and singled out, and they would want to know they have been successful in a risky situation. They want to distinguish themselves from their army rank. They are also very family-centric and therefore work hard to play hard. They want time to contribute to and build their families. Money is also important to Israelis so they will work harder for more money.
Recommended books, films & foods
Books and famous authors
- My People by Abba Eban
- works by:
- A.B. Yeoshua
- Golda Meir
- Amos Oz
- Meir Shalev
- Néomi Reger.
- Khatouna Mehoukhéret (The Late Wedding)
- Lime Eskimo
- Shtey Etzbaot Metsitson
- Meakhorey Hasoragim.
Jpost.com or The Jerusalem Report Magazine are good resources.
Places to visit
- Tel Aviv
- the Golan Heights.
There are many kinds of food from different countries. Falafel, pita bread, shawarma, borekas, meatballs, and tahini are typical Israeli dishes frequently eaten. Dishes from North Africa include dafina, couscous, loubia, djahnoun, and khamin; and deserts such as moffletas, burkoks, makrods, sfindj, and meshimna. Dishes from Eastern Europe include gefilte fish (fish balls in bouillon broth), different kinds of sliced meat, and Geagteleiber (a terrine made out of chicken intestines and onions).
The Tel Aviv National Theatre, the "Bima", and the Jerusalem Rebecca Crown National Theatre all offer different programs. In the summer there are a number of open-air concerts in an ancient Roman amphitheatre from the time of Cesar. Other concerts include the Israel Festival (many plays and choreographic presentations in a number of cities) held every May, the Annual Jazz Festival which takes place in August in Eilat, the Arad Annual Festival of Song, and the Annual Klezmer Music Festival in July in Carmiel and in August in Safed.
The Jerusalem Post is available in English or Hebrew and you can also choose from Yedihot Aharonot or Maariv, both national daily papers.
- La Isha (Elle)
- At (Marie Claire)
- Motor (4x4 magazine)
- Tséhirim (for youth)
- Maariv Lanoar (for youth)
- Rosh Ehad (for youth)
- Globe (business).
News broadcasts are a very good way to find out what is happening in the country. Most people tune in at 8:00 pm. Variety shows include Shishi ba Taverna (Friday at the Bar), Doudou Topaz (a very popular talkshow host), Mi rotsé liyot milionaire (Who wants to be a Millionaire?), Yair Lapid (talk show), Tioulim (travel) and Kassefet (game show); and Arutz A Tarbout is the cultural and university channel.
Arutz A Sratim (Films on cable).
These offer a wide variety of shows including: Galey Tsahal, Kol Israel, Galgalatz, Reshet Alef, Beth and Guimel. Every city has its own radio station.
There are the Maccabi Games every four years (the Israeli Olympic Games), soccer games every Saturday evening (very popular), and national tennis, judo, and high-jump competitions.
- A Propo
- Hard Rock Café
Going to the shuk (the market) to see the aggressive vendors and how everything is negotiable, the entrepreneurship, the foods such as olives, chummous, cucumbers, watermelon and the sabra—a sharp, prickly fruit on the outside, and a sweet soft fruit on the inside. Israelis are often called sabras.
Basketball is the game of choice for spectator sport and TV viewing. Open-air music concerts, art exhibits in Jaffa port, Zichron Yaacov. Visiting the Bahhai gardens in Haifa, the 4 quarters of the old city in Jerusalem, the beach in Tel Aviv and Chof Nitzanim. Drinking Botz (coffee—sort of).
- King David, the Biblical hero who destroyed the giant Goliath
- Moshé Dayan, the main hero from the Six Days War and great army general
- Jonathan Nathanyaou, the head of the commando unit that freed the hostages held at the Entebbe raid
- Itzhak Rabin, general in the Great War and pioneer of peace in Israel
- Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut and military legend
- Shimon Perez, known for his steps toward peace
- Haim Weizman, scientist and Prime Minister of Israel.
- Yonatan Netanyahu—died freeing hostages in Uganda
- Ilan Ramon—the first Israeli astronaut who died in the challenger spacecraft disaster
- Dana International—Eurovision song champion who won based on his/her looks, singing and gender bending.
Shared Historical events with Canada
No negative stereotypes. Israelis (like people from many other countries) think that there are bears and Indians in traditional dress walking around Montréal and that even in summer the temperature is -30 degrees!! Israelis sometimes admire the fact that Canadians can take such harsh winters.
Canadians think life in Israel is "dangerous" and are therefore hesitant to visit or develop ties with the country. In truth, more people die in traffic accidents there than in bombings. Now, that may not say a lot for the way the Israelis drive, but the political situation is not a reason to stay away.
About the cultural interpreters
Your cultural interpreter was born in Israel, the youngest of 10 children. She grew up in the city of Ashdod and studied at the Ramat Gan University in Tel Aviv. Her studies first took her abroad to France where she studied literature. She subsequently immigrated to Canada to work in a travel agency. For the past seven years she has lived in Montreal, although twice a year she goes back to Israel to visit her family and participate in assistance programs. She is married and has two children.
Your cultural interpreter was born in Ottawa, Canada where she grew up. At age 18, she went to Israel for her first year of university and completed her degree in cultural studies at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Afterwards, your cultural interpreter moved to Toronto where she lived for one year before returning to Israel for two years. There she worked in a venture capital fund and started her own sushi business. After that, she travelled to Singapore, Thailand, Australia and New Zealand before moving to France to take cuisine courses in Paris. She is currently living in Canada taking cuisine classes at the Cordon Bleu, Ottawa campus. She is married and has a daughter.
Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.
You may disagree with or object to the content of some responses. This is to be expected given the complexity of the subject and the problems associated with speaking generally about an entire country and its people. We would encourage you to share your experiences; your contributions will help to make Country Insights a richer environment for learning.
The content of Country Insights in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.