We all know that we don’t pat the back of a colleague in Korea to thank them for a “job well done”. Or eat with your left hand in India, or sip vodka in Russia. In many countries, these actions are harmless. But in others, they can give a wrong impression or cause offense.
In fact, whatever culture you’re from, it’s likely that you routinely do something that could cause offense somewhere else in the world. So here is:
A primer on how to avoid mistakes in Israel
Israelis sometimes compare themselves to the prickly pear or sabra: said to be tough and prickly on the outside yet sweet and soft on the inside. Israelis are direct in a way that might seem abrupt, even rude, in other parts of the world. Do not be offended by this as Israelis do not mean to insult or offend in any way. Directness and honesty are often valued over politeness and projection of niceness. Direct personal questions are common, and should not be taken as offensive. But Israelis are also very kind and hospitable. Strangers will gladly assist you, and make great efforts to help a lost or inquiring tourists, sometimes over-whelming you with advice and questions.
When you make a friend here, they will do their best to take care of you while you’re in their country. Foreign visitors are deeply appreciated and are generally shown the utmost respect by locals. Many will even go as far as to show you around some areas in Israel as a sign of their own national pride and towards respect for tourists. Religious Sites While traveling in Israel, visitors will discover that Israelis have, in general, a western-oriented outlook with a Middle Eastern touch. The population is laid-back, outgoing, and always willing to help. Some tourists may even feel that Israelis are overbearing, since their definition of personal space is much different than in the west.
However, it is extremely important to realize that some parts of Israel follow a strict code of respect based on religious law and custom. Jewish Sites Jewish holy sites in Israel are generally divided into sections based on gender. This is most obvious at the Western Wall, where the wall is separated into mens and womens sections. In addition to gender separation, modest attire is required at holy sites. Men should wear at least jeans, a t-shirt, and sneakers, while women should wear a knee-length skirt and a t-shirt with sleeves. Jewish men, and in some instances non-Jewish men, should wear a head covering at holy sites. It is also customary, though not required, for married women to cover their hair.
Visitors should also be aware of their behavior on the Sabbath and all religious holidays. Those at holy sites during these times should refrain from smoking, using their cell phones, taking pictures, or disturbing the serenity of the day in other ways. The religious commuity takes these days very seriously, as they receive a lot of joy from them. Tourists may even want to live a day in the life, and experience these sites according to the local custom. Muslim Sites While the sites most holy to Muslims are in Saudi Arabia, Israel is full of sites sacred to the followers of Islam. In addition, many neighborhoods, especially in the north of Israel, have a Muslim majority. As such, tourists should be sensitive to acting and dressing in a modest way.
When entering Muslim holy sites, women should ensure to not wear tight or revealing clothing, and have a scarf with which to cover their hair. Men should also not wear tight or revealing clothing, and should be prepared to take off their shoes. Christian Sites Most Christian holy sites are located in the north or in Jerusalem. Especially in churches, respect should be paid to worshipers who expect a quiet, serene atmosphere. Along with a modest dress code, tourists should understand the photography is frowned upon, and in some instances not allowed. Candles are available for lighting for prayers and religious observance, and should not be disturbed. Sensitive Topics The Holocaust The modern state of Israel was founded in the wake of one of the biggest tragedies to befall the Jewish people. Many survivors of that harrowing experience made their way to Palestine, as it was then known, via British DP camps.
While survivors, their children and grandchildren, and all other Jews affected by The Holocaust talk about it to varying degrees, tourists should not press the issue. In addition, making jokes about The Holocaust will not make you many friends. Israel is full of great stories, and an amazing museum, but all travelers should be respectful. The Arab-Israeli Conflict Israelis, both Arab and Jewish, will often speak openly about current events, and sometimes without prompting. There are views along the entire spectrum, from the far right Israeli settler movement to Arab nationalists, which can provide visitors with many colorful views. However, travelers should be sure to listen more than they speak. Israelis can be defensive, and often think that their opinion is the right opinion. Keep conversation about the conflict light, and take cues from the locals.
With this, you had the primer on key facts about Israel, and key facts on culture and customs. Another important part of the culture is the local food and the local drinks. Make sure you read our posts on Israel food and drinks:
Other tips that you’d like to share on mistakes to avoid in Israel? Please comment below.