As with any country that is different to our own, you can expect to see some slight cultural differences when you arrive in Israel. That said, though Israel is a Middle eastern country, Israel’s culture feels extremely liberal and westernized when looked at in comparison to other countries in the region that encompasses it.
I’m sure you will have a blast in Israel, but here are a few cultural points to help you prepare for your trip.
Don’t Discuss Controversial Topics
Think before you start to discuss or ask questions about the state of affairs in a part of the world other than your own. With specific reference to Israel, I’m referring to the conflict between Israel and Palestine, the Gaza strip, general Middle Eastern relations and other personal and political factors relevant at the time of your trip.
Imagine if a foreigner in your country started analyzing your politics, you’d consider it extremely rude and darn right it’s rude wherever you go. Regardless of your opinion on the matter, don’t pry. Take your trip to Israel as a learning opportunity to listen to the different perspectives of people who have lived here their entire lives.
Dress is Somewhat Liberal
Unlike some parts of the Middle East which are extremely conservative and traditional, Israel has a pretty laid back approach to what constitutes acceptable dress. Shorts and short sleeved tops are perfectly fine when you are travelling in the cities and beach areas. The only time that you need to cover up and dress a little more modestly is at religious sites such as churches or the western wall.
(If you’re not sure where your day may lead but you’re struggling with the heat, I always carry a lightweight change of clothes in my backpack, and a light shawl/pashmina to drape over my shoulders or cover my hair with if needed).
Public and Religious Holidays are Restrictive
Take holidays and religious dates such as the Sabbath into consideration when organising your travels through Israel. The Sabbath (referred to as “shabbat” locally in Hebrew) runs from Friday evening through to Saturday evening, with businesses closing on Friday afternoon and not opening again until Saturday night. During shabbat and religious holidays, you may find that public transport stops completely.
(Note that many parts of Israel are divided into Arab and Jewish districts, the citizens of which obviously celebrate different holidays due to their different religions, so when businesses close in the Jewish quarters, those in the Arabic districts are still open).
Higher Levels of Security
Soldiers and military checkpoints are not an uncommon sight in Israel and at train stations, bus stations, or busy tourist sites your bag may be searched and you may, on occasion be asked to empty your pockets. This may seem intimidating at first, however just remember that these practices are there for your own safety. Though there are many conflicting opinions and ideologies in this part of the world, the number of incidents or attacks that occur are few and far between and that is because of the excellent security levels that are in place.
Yes, it is safe
From my perspective, the western media often make the situation in the Middle East seem far worse than it actually is. More often than not, the situation on the ground upon arrival in these countries is a far cry to what you would expect if you’re scaring yourself using the news as your only source. Clashes and violent incidents do happen, as they do anywhere else in the world, but they are rare occurrences. The people here are friendly and always willing to help you if you find yourself lost or looking for information. You should be careful in the old city of Jerusalem, particularly at night but otherwise, I’ve been wandering around by myself at all hours and have never felt uncomfortable.
Israeli Women are Strong
There is a perception in the West that women in the middle east are meek, timid and controlled by their male counterparts, however Israeli women break every such stereotype. From the age of 18, all Israelis, both male and female are obligated to spend 2-3 years in compulsory military service. As such, Israeli women are strong and independent, and the view of women in Israel differs substantially to other Middle Eastern countries values.
You Can Distinguish People’s Religions Through Their Attire
The cities within Israel contain sites of significant importance for people of various religions, with the majority of the population being Jewish, a relative percentile being Muslim, and then a further amount of people being from other religious backgrounds (Christians, Catholics, etc). Not only is it easy to distinguish who belongs to what religion, it is also easy to determine precisely how religious they are through their attire. For example, you will note an observant Jewish male by the kip-pah worn on his head, and an ultra religious Jewish male (Haredi or Chasidic Jews) by their more formal dress (black trousers, black coats and hats).
Pork is available
The fact that the two most prominent religions in the country (Jewish and Muslim) do not eat pork may have one assuming that their meaty favorite is not available in Israel, however although it is admittedly difficult to come by in restaurants, it is available in some stores within Christian villages. There are also a few restaurants within Tel Aviv that serve pork however their numbers are dwindling. Suffice to say, you may not be eating that much pork during your time in Israel.
Israelis are Super Friendly
Although blunt in their nature sometimes, Israelis are incredibly friendly. It’s not uncommon for strangers to strike up a conversation with you on the train, at a coffee bar, etc. People take a genuine interest in hearing traveler’s stories and will go out of their way to help you.