This guide was written prior to the October 2023 escalation of hostilities between Israel and Palestinian militant groups. The ongoing conflict has markedly affected the safety and advisability of travel to the region. Please consult with relevant authorities and exercise extreme caution when considering travel to Israel and the surrounding areas.
From historical sites in Jerusalem to the bustling business hub of Tel Aviv, traditional Arab villages, communal kibbutzim and coastal resorts, Israel boasts a diverse landscape.
Expats may experience varying degrees of culture shock in Israel as the local culture reflects its varied population, including the Jewish diaspora, Europeans, North and South Americans and inhabitants from the Arab world and various African countries.
It's fitting that the phrase 'chutzpah' originates from Hebrew, and newcomers may take some time to adapt to Israel's unique cultural traits. Everything from dating behaviours to treatment of customers and queuing – or rarity thereof – are informed by the country's cultural context of straightforwardness, and can take some getting used to. Conversely, the straightforwardness of Israelis can be strangely refreshing, and there is something exhilarating about bartering at a local market.
Expats may hear of Israelis described as sabra, or 'prickly pears' – tough on the outside but sweet on the inside. On the surface, Israelis may come across as rude, pushy and inflexible, but new arrivals are often surprised by how willing people can be to break the rules in their favour and how helpful people are in moments of crisis.
That said, bureaucracy is a crucial cause of frustration for expats living in Israel, as completing the most straightforward 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 Palestinian territories like the West Bank, dress in urban areas like Tel Aviv is mostly casual and can be compared to Western cities in Europe and North America. During summer, expats in Tel Aviv will see women in short dresses and men in nothing more than their swimming shorts.
New arrivals are advised to dress appropriately in more religious or conservative areas. Both men and women are expected to keep their arms and legs fully covered. Men should also cover their heads at Jewish religious sites and should be aware of modest dress expectations at Islamic religious sites as well.
Alcohol in Israel
Although not usually consumed in significant quantities, alcohol is a part of everyday life in Israel and is served in bars and cafés across the country.
That said, the presence of drunken youths in the streets of Israel is a lot less common than in countries like the UK. Perhaps an explanation for this is the price of alcoholic beverages. They are fairly expensive in Israel.
Women in Israel
Despite the many laws passed to promote equality and rights for women, Israeli culture has a reputation for being patriarchal. That said, Israel also has a strong history of women in leadership roles (like Golda Meir, former Prime Minister).
Expat women, like in many other places in the world, sometimes report receiving unwanted attention. It's always advised to approach such situations with caution and awareness. That said, Israel is largely a safe place for expat women compared to many other destinations. Many women feel safe to walk alone through most areas at night.
Language in Israel
While speaking English, Arabic or Russian can be beneficial in Israel, understanding and speaking Hebrew is nearly indispensable and can greatly enhance an expat's experience in various situations. Arabic also holds official status, and many Arab Israelis speak it as their first language.
Expats may question whether it's truly necessary to learn Hebrew. Often, simple processes, such as sending a parcel or buying a bus pass, can quickly become a nightmare if both parties cannot communicate successfully. Speaking even the smallest amount of Hebrew would help tremendously in such situations. Having some knowledge of Hebrew will also give expats an advantage in the workplace.
►To learn about the work culture in the country, read Doing Business in Israel
What do expats say about cultural norms in Israel?
"Everything warrants a fight – from going to the grocery store to catching a taxi. But the same person you fight with one second will be inviting you over for dinner a few minutes later." Learn more about encountering the locals in Jessica's interview.
Are you an expat living in Israel?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Israel. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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