Social Customs in Israel
Customs of the Country
Western-style social graces aren’t the strong suit of the average Israeli. But, despite the country’s legendary informality, the traditions and customs of its many ethnic and religious communities form an entire corpus of social norms. Sensitivity to those norms can open doors; ignoring them may cause offense. The best example is the modest dress code required (especially for women) in conservative religious environments—Muslim holy places, some churches and monasteries, and (strictest of all) ultra-Orthodox Jewish shrines and neighborhoods. Covered shoulders, modest necklines, and either full-length pants or (safest) skirts below the knees are de rigueur.
Restaurants that abide by kosher dietary regulations, to satisfy a particular clientele, close for Friday dinner and Saturday lunch (Sabbath ends after dark). Kosher hotel eateries remain open, but do not serve menu items that require cooking on the spot. "Kosher" has nothing to do with particular cuisines but with certain restrictions (no pork or shellfish, no dairy and meat products on the same menu, and more). Kosher restaurants today not only have to compete with nonkosher rivals but also must satisfy an increasingly demanding kosher clientele, so the variety of kosher food is growing. Tipping is 12% minimum. Mostly, tips are expected in cash, but adding it to the bill is becoming more common, especially in Tel Aviv.
There’s great coffee all over Israel. Latte is called hafuch; and if you want black coffee, ask for "filter" coffee or Americano. Tap water is safe throughout Israel.
Israelis don’t stand on ceremony and greet each other warmly with either a slap on the back (for men) or an air kiss on both cheeks (for women). Tourists are usually greeted with a handshake. Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men don’t acknowledge women, and very religious Jews of either gender don’t shake hands or mingle socially with members of the opposite sex.
Israelis are known for their bluntness. That openness extends to discussions on religion and politics, too, so don't be afraid to speak your mind (but expect candor in return).
The Jewish Sabbath
The Sabbath extends from sundown Friday until nightfall on Saturday. Most shops and restaurants in Jewish neighborhoods close, but Arab areas in Jerusalem’s Old City, and towns like Nazareth and Akko still bustle. While Jerusalem quiets down by Friday afternoon, Tel Aviv remains lively, although bus services are suspended in both cities. Sunday is the first day of the regular work- and school week.
Hebrew is the national language of Israel, but travelers can get by with English. Virtually every hotel has English-speaking staff, as do most restaurants and many shops in the major cities. In smaller towns and rural areas it might be more challenging. A few words of Hebrew, such as toda (thank you), bevakasha (please), and shalom (hello or goodbye) are warmly appreciated.
Arabic is Israel's other official language, spoken by Arabs, Druze, and a dwindling number of Jews with family roots in Arab lands. Because Israel is a nation of immigrants, mistakes and various accents are tolerated cheerfully.
Israelis use a lot of hand gestures when they talk. A common gesture is to turn the palm upwards and press the thumb and two fingers together to mean "wait a minute"; this has no negative connotations. Just as harmless is the Israeli who says "I don't believe you" to express that something is unbelievably wonderful.
Money and Shopping
The Israeli shekel (designated NIS) is the currency, but the U.S. dollar is accepted in places accustomed to dealing with tourists. At this writing, US$1 is equal to NIS 3.84. Rates for hotels, guiding services, and car rentals are always quoted and paid for in foreign currency, thus avoiding the 17% local V.A.T. Many better stores give a government V.A.T. refund on purchases above NIS 400, claimable at the airport duty-free or Jordanian border. Licensed exchange booths on busy streets or in shopping malls are convenient places to change money; banks have lines, unhelpful hours, and unattractive rates. Although ATM transaction fees may be higher abroad than at home, ATM rates are good because they're based on wholesale rates given by major banks. Avoid buying gold, silver, gemstones, and antiquities in bazaars (like Jerusalem's Old City souk), where things aren't always what they seem and prices fluctuate wildly.
Israel is news, it seems—for better or for worse. To be sure, there have been several major security situations over the last decade or so, but intense media coverage has sometimes exaggerated the scope and significance of a localized incident. Yet much of the populace seems unmoved. At this writing, the country is entirely calm, though there continue to be security concerns about the Palestinian Territories and some bordering countries. In Jerusalem, the Old City can be thronged during the day and virtually empty at night. Spend your evenings elsewhere. The Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem are perhaps not as welcoming as they were once, but unless there’s some general security issue at the time, the daytime wanderer shouldn’t encounter anything more serious than pickpockets.
At the time of this writing, Israeli authorities were barring their citizens from visiting Palestinian autonomous areas such as Bethlehem and Jericho, but tourists can take an Arab cab. Your concierge or Israeli tour guide may be able to set up a Palestinian guide on the other side. There are standard security checks along the roads to the West Bank, and car-rental companies generally don’t allow their vehicles to cross into those areas.
Expect to have your handbags searched as a matter of course when you enter bus and train terminals, department stores, places of entertainment, museums, and public buildings. These checks are usually quick and courteous.
Visiting Sacred Sites
Muslim sites are generally closed for tourists on Friday, the Muslim holy day. Avoid the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City between noon and 2 pm on Friday, when the flow of worshippers in the streets can be uncomfortable or even rowdy. Some Christian sites close on Sunday; others open after morning worship. Many Jewish religious sites, museums, and historical sites close early on Friday: some remain closed through Saturday (the Jewish Sabbath).