An American in Israel

by Rebecca Weiner


An American traveling in Israel will face with many situations that are unfamiliar and foreign. How do you interpret the everyday situations and avoid misunderstandings? While the U.S. and Israel share many characteristics, and Israel has grown increasingly "Americanized," cultural differences also exist between the two countries. These differences often come into play during visits to Israel.

Practical Advice

Politeness

The way society views politeness is one of the differences between Americans and Israelis. Many people who visit Israel comment that the Israelis are rude, impolite and inconsiderate. By contrast, Americans expect pleasant smiles and kind words. Americans would seem to place a higher value on manners and cordiality in interactions with others, as compared to Israelis. Israelis, on the other hand, find this behavior superficial and only display these types of affectations with friends, rather than casual acquaintances or customers in a shop. As a sojourner, one must be aware that these two different world views toward politeness exist.

Informality

In the workplace, which reflects Israeli society as a whole, informality manifests itself in the tendency to ignore hierarchical roles. In the U.S. there is a certain manner of speaking and behavior appropriate between bosses and subordinates, however, this does not exist in Israel. Everyone in Israel considers themselves a manager; no one identifies themselves as subordinate. While these behaviors may seem disrespectful, it is just a different type of interaction between authority figures and subordinates.

Bargaining

In Israel virtually everything is negotiable. So if you go to the market to buy vegetables, realize you can bargain down the price, even if there is a sign stating a set payment. Bargaining primarily takes place in the shuk (market) and most sales people will ask for a price that is at least double what they expect to get. If you do not like to bargain, search for the stores with a fixed price — usually they are clearly marked and not in major tourist areas. You may end up paying a shekel or two more, but you won't have to squabble over the price.

Protexia

If you want to get anything done in the Israeli bureaucracy, it will be facilitated greatly if you have protexia (protection), patronage or support of a friend or relative. Most Israelis use protexia in bureaucratic transactions and feel obligated to help friends.

Casual Attitude Toward Rules

A casual attitude also exists toward rules and regulations in Israeli society. An example of how Israelis feel about rules can be seen in the term frier (Hebrew slang for pushover). A frier will follow the rules and may do so at his own expense. This type of behavior will be looked down upon; the one who gets ahead in Israeli society knows how to bend the rules to fit his own goals.

Deeper Cultural Differences:

The Army

Even my loves are measured by the wars/I say it happened after World War 2/ We met one day before the six day war/ I never say, before the peace of '45-'48 or/ In the middle of the peace of '56-'57/ But knowledge of peace/Passes from one place to another/Like children's games/The same everywhere.

Yehuda Amichai - Poem 15 of Zion and Jerusalem

To understand the Israeli mind-set, culture or lifestyle one must be familiar with the military experience. Service in the army is mandatory for all men and women, at age eighteen, and lasts 22 months for women and three years for men. Men also serve in reserves for another 25-30 years. The army influences everyone; its systems and values are transferred to civilian life. Values such as improvisation and risk-taking are important for Israeli soldiers in their ability to adapt to any situation that may occur in battle. This attitude has filtered into the rest of the society, which places a low value on binding commitments. The army also emphasizes self-reliance and, at the same time, stresses strong group cohesion and concern for the group's success and well-being.

The Siege Mentality

The constant threat of war has led Israelis to feel as though they are living on borrowed time. This can be seen in the way Israelis drivers are always rushing and constantly honking the horn. It is also manifest in the way that many Israelis cut corners in business dealings and are more present-oriented. One does not know what the next day will bring. Life moves at an extremely fast pace. Americans, who do not live in a perpetual state of war, feel a sense of security that the next day will be the same as the previous. Americans do not need to listen to the radio every hour to make sure that no relative has been injured or their reserve unit has not been recalled. Besides the threat of an all-out conflict, Israelis also experience anxiety from threats of terrorism, serving in the army, economic uncertainties and concerns over the impact of the peace process (e.g., an increase in violence or the need to relocate from the Golan Heights, the West Bank or Gaza).

Judaism

Israel follows both the Gregorian calendar and the Jewish calendar. All the Jewish holidays are celebrated and knowledge of non-Jewish holidays is limited. Once an Israeli friend said she did not know what Christmas was as a child. As a sojourner, Jewish or non-Jewish, the most pervading example of how Israel's Jewishness may affect you is the celebration of the Jewish Sabbath. From sundown Friday until an hour after sundown Saturday, most businesses will be closed; all banks and government offices will be closed, and the public transportation system between cities will run infrequently, if at all. Be prepared to modify your schedule accordingly and make the necessary food and travel arrangements beforehand.

Religious Jews

The effect of Judaism on Israeli society can be most obviously seen among the religious Jews. Israel's religious population is vast and as a sojourner there is no one rule to follow when interacting with a hareidi (ultra-orthodox). Many hareidi Jews live in separate communities, where all visitors are expected to dress modestly. In these neighborhoods, the streets are closed to traffic on Sabbath and holidays.

The hareidim live their lives according to halacha, Jewish law consisting of the written and oral traditions of the Torah. The Hareidim follow the moral codes and dress codes of their ancestors from the shtetl in Europe and some continue to think within that mind-set. Their focus is not on modern western progress, but that of the traditional values of the past. These values and traditions clash with Israeli secular society, causing great tension between the two.

Secular Jews

Many secular Jews in Israel believe that serving in the army, speaking Hebrew, celebrating the Jewish holidays (although in a different manner than the religious) and participating in archaeological digs is a form of Judaism. Ironically, many secular Jews feel the authentic religious form of Judaism can only be found in Orthodox Judaism and dismiss other forms of Judaism. I was told once by a secular Israeli Jew that the synagogue he does not attend is an Orthodox one. Most Israeli Jews are either secular or religious and there is no in-between, while most American Jews fall somewhere in the middle (i.e., Reform or Conservative). This is one reason why the Conservative and Reform movements of Judaism have not gained a large following in Israel. (Other reasons include vigorous political opposition from the Orthodox establishment and a lack of government political and financial support for non-Orthodox institutions.)

Conclusion

As a sojourner in Israel, you will meet many people with points of view different than your own and situations that will challenge you. Do not be afraid to embrace your differences and learn about another way of looking at the world. Open yourself up to new experiences and enjoy what Israel has to offer.