Culture Shock in Israel

From the secular business hub-cum-seaside resort of Tel Aviv to the religiously significant Jerusalem, Arab villages, kibbutzim and in between, Israel contains a huge amount of diversity in one very small strip of land.

Expats may experience varying degrees of culture shock in Israel, as local culture reflects its varied population of Europeans, North and South Americans, as well as inhabitants from the Arab world, the former Soviet Union and various African countries. 

Israel is, on the whole, a place of informality, where the common attitude is that people should be free to do what they want until an authority stops them.

It is fitting that the phrase chutzpah originates from Hebrew, as newcomers may be both shocked and affronted by the behaviour around them. Blatant flirting with strangers is standard, shouting at a customer is to be expected, understanding that ‘no’ means ‘no’ is rare and waiting in line is practically unheard of. Conversely, the straightforwardness of Israelis can be strangely refreshing, and there is something both exhilarating about bartering at a local market.

Expats may have heard Israelis described as cacti, and this is indeed an apt description for both the people and their culture. On the surface, Israelis may often seem rude, pushy and inflexible, but new arrivals are often surprised by how willing people can be to break rules in their favour, and how helpful people can be in moments of crisis.

Bureaucracy, however, is a key cause of frustration for expats living in Israel, as the completion of the simplest of administrative processes can easily stretch into weeks or even months.

Dress in Israel

Unless expats are in areas such as Jerusalem’s old city, Tsfat or the West Bank, dress in Israel is similar to Europe and North America. Expats in Tel Aviv during summer will see women in short dresses and men in nothing more than their swimming shorts.

In more religious or conservative areas, new arrivals are advised to dress appropriately. Both men and women are expected to keep their arms and legs fully covered. Men should also cover their heads in Jewish religious sites

Alcohol in Israel 

Although not usually consumed in vast quantities, alcohol is a part of everyday life in Israel and is served in bars and cafés across the country.

Perhaps an explanation for the less prominent presence of drunken youths in the streets compared with countries like the UK is price. Alcoholic beverages in Israel are fairly expensive. 

Women in Israel

Despite the many laws that have been passed to promote equality and rights for women, Israel has a reputation as being a patriarchal society.

Women generally receive lots of attention from Israeli men, and foreigners are a common target. Expat women should be prepared to deal with some unwanted attention. That said, Israel is generally a very safe place for women compared with many other destinations. Many women feel safe to walk alone through most areas at night.

Language in Israel

Speaking English or Russian can be advantageous for an expat in Israel, but neither really match the benefits of speaking Hebrew.

Expats may question whether it's truly necessary to learn Hebrew. Often even simple processes, such as sending a parcel or buying a bus pass, can quickly develop into a nightmare if both parties are unable to communicate successfully. Having some knowledge of Hebrew will also give expats an advantage in the workplace.  

Abi Nurser Our Expat Expert

Abi was born in Rugby, UK.  After completing her degree in English Literature and Spanish at Newcastle University, she started work as a teacher in Cheltenham, but managed to travel regularly in the holidays. In July 2010 she went backpacking to Israel, where she met and fell in love with an Israeli. In July 2011 she moved to Tel Aviv and now works as a teacher and copywriter/ editor. She is always happy to help out fellow expats, particularly with regards to the complications of the moving process! Follow her blog, Get On In Israel.

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