A Personal Travel Guide To Israel: Cultural Tips

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By Douglas E. Duckett

A Personal Travel Guide To Israel – Find all the chapters here

Israel is an amazingly diverse place. Jews from over a hundred countries have come here, bringing their own cultures and traditions. Also, of course, there is a large Arab population as well, and other, smaller ethnic groups. This makes for a culture that is very complex, but infinitely rich and interesting. It is one of the things I truly love about the country. As one Israeli friend, originally from the US, said, “Americans think of themselves as a ‘melting pot,’ but we’re more like a salad.  The cucumber still knows it’s a cucumber, and a tomato knows it’s a tomato. But toss us together in a little lemon juice and olive oil, and we make something wonderful and delicious.” What a delightful summary of the wonderful diversity that is Israel!

The Jewish Population

Israel is the world’s only Jewish state, and it was founded in 1948 as a restored homeland for the Jewish people after nearly two millennia in exile. Zionism is the modern, political movement to re-establish a Jewish nation in Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel or Palestine), and the movement began in earnest in the late 1800s, led by a brilliant visionary named Theodor Herzl, a secular and assimilated Austrian Jew who was so shocked by the anti-Semitism he saw in “enlightened” France during the Dreyfus trial that he concluded that the only answer was for Jews to have their own state. In my view, the frightening resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe and even in the US in this century proves that he was right.

So, while Jews had longed for two millennia to return and there was always a significant Jewish presence in Eretz Yisrael, waves of immigrants inspired by persecution or dreams of a restored Jewish homeland (each wave referred to as an aliyah) began to return and settle the land, mainly in the Galilee, the coastal plain, and the Jerusalem area, but throughout the country as well.  That movement was given a major boost when the United Kingdom, soon to become ruler of the country after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, endorsed the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine in the Balfour Declaration of 1917.  Increasingly, the Jewish pioneers came into conflict with the resident Arab population, and this eventually triggered a corresponding national awakening among people who would later become known as the Palestinians.

israel aliya
aliyah

Zionism had many streams, often at sharp odds with each other. The most dominant was the Labor Zionists, led by well-known figures such as David Ben-Gurion, Chaim Weizmann, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, and Shimon Peres.  This movement was socialist in orientation, sharply secular, and created the kibbutz movement. It went on to become the Labor Party, which would govern the State of Israel for its first three decades.  

On the right was the Revisionist Movement, with leaders such as Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin, which sought to establish the Jewish State through dramatic, bold means. Some elements of that movement adopted terrorist methods to resist British rule, such as the Irgun and Lehi/Stern Gang. The Revisionist movement eventually evolved into the Likud Party, led today by Benjamin Netanyahu.

And there was also a Religious Zionist movement which saw the establishment of even a secular Jewish state as part of God’s redemptive plan. While nearly all Jews are Zionist today, this was not true in the pre-State years, and many Orthodox and even some Reform Jews fiercely opposed Zionism.  The anti-Zionist Orthodox saw it as a betrayal of the belief that only the Messiah could return the Jewish people to sovereignty in Eretz Yisrael; the anti-Zionist Reform saw it as a betrayal of their universalist world view, where being Jewish was a faith, not a national identity.

Today, Jews comprise 76% of the population of Israel proper (excluding the West Bank and Gaza).  While many are immigrants (especially from the former Soviet Union in the past 30 years), an increasing portion of the population was born there. The native-born are called “sabras” after a native, prickly pear cactus that is “tough and prickly on the outside, but soft and sweet on the inside.” This is an apt metaphor for native-born Israelis.

Sepharadi Jew
Sepharadi Jew

Ethnically, Israeli Jews are broadly grouped in two major categories—the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim.  Ashkenazim, from the old Hebrew word for Germany (Ashkenaz), are Jews from western, central, and eastern European origin, including most North American Jews. Most of the original Zionist settlers and founders of the State of Israel came from this group, and they formed the cultural and political elite for most of the State’s early history.

The Sephardim take their name from the Hebrew word for Spain (Sepharad). This term originally referred to Jews of Spanish origin, primarily the dispersion that followed the expulsion of Jews from Christian-ruled Spain in 1492.  Later, the term was applied to all Jews of North African and Middle Eastern origin as well, including many Jews in Italy and the Balkans.

After the founding of the State, the Arab countries expelled their large, centuries-old Jewish populations, and hundreds of thousands of Sephardim entered Israel, nearly tripling Israel’s population in just three years.  Many Ashkenazim saw these new immigrants as culturally backward, and the Sephardim often resented what they saw as condescending, disrespectful, and discriminatory treatment by the Ashkenazi elite.

The Sephardim first gained significant political power with the rise of the right-wing Likud party under Menachem Begin, and still are largely aligned with the Likud and Sephardi religious parties, most notably Shas. This remains a major fault line in Israeli cultural and political life. Many Sephardim from Middle Eastern or North African countries now prefer the term Mizrachim, meaning “eastern” Jews. As an aside, I love Mizrachi food, music, and traditions, and I appreciate their sometimes more tolerant and flexible approach to Judaism.

Two other groups are noteworthy.  With the era of perestroika and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union, the gates of emigration were finally thrown open to the huge community of Soviet Jews. Since 1989, over a million Jews from the former Soviet Union have made aliyah (immigrated to Israel), and they now make up roughly 15% of the Jewish population of Israel.  While they are overwhelmingly Ashkenazi, integration has proven rough. Many were educated professionals arriving in a country already saturated with such talent and have been unable to find work in their fields (I’ve seen teachers working as hotel maids, as an example). Others are not Jewish according to halakha (Orthodox Jewish law) and are thus unable to marry Jews in religious ceremonies (the only way to get married in Israel, which still has no civil marriage option).  One sees Russian signs frequently, and you will also hear the language spoken on the street.

Soldier around Nablus
By David Bicchetti – Own work, CC BY 2.5,

Another fascinating group is the Ethiopian JewsBy tradition, this ancient community of black Jews traces its origin to the union of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, and this faithful community did not even know that other Jews existed until the late 1800s. In the 1980s and 1990s, virtually the entire community was brought to Israel in two huge airlifts, Operation Solomon and Operation Moses. In a matter of days in 1991, 35 El Al and Israel Air Force cargo flights airlifted the population to start a new life in the Jewish State. Seats were even taken out of planes to bring as many out as possible, and several babies were born in flight. As recounted in Donna Rosenthal’s The Israelis,

Solomon Ezra, the Ethiopian-born Israeli coordinating the evacuation on the ground, asked the last pilot out how many were on his plane, and he replied, “Over a thousand.”  Stunned, Ezra warned him that this was impossible, that the plane could not take off with more than five hundred aboard. The white Israeli pilot calmly replied, “It’s okay. I don’t want to leave any of my people behind.”  Ezra said, “I never felt prouder to be an Israeli,” and that flight set the Guinness record for the number of passengers on one flight. (Every time I tell that story my eyes fill with tears.)

The reality of integration has proven tougher. The cultural, social, and educational gaps were at least as great as what faced the Sephardim, and add to that the issue of skin color and the resulting racism. Still, one sees evidence of Ethiopian Jews making their way in everyday Israeli life, including as soldiers. The Army has always been the great integrator of Israeli life.

Most Israelis are secular and not religious, let alone ultra-Orthodox. But you will see the ultra-Orthodox everywhere, distinctive mainly by the way the men dress—long, black coats, white shirts, often large hats, and side curls.  Women will typically wear ankle length skirts, full sleeves, and for married women, either a wig, hat, or other covering to conceal their hair.

In Hebrew, ultra-Orthodox Jews are known as haredim. Most haredi men will not speak to a woman they do not know, and many dislike dealing with tourists. Some extreme haredim even refuse to recognize the State of Israel, because only God, through the Messiah, should restore Jewish sovereignty in Eretz Yisrael.  

Ultra orthodox Jews
Ultra orthodox Jews

On the other hand, many observant Jews wear modern, Western dress, but the men will always wear skullcaps —these are the modern Orthodox, religious but not ultra-Orthodox.  Many of them are nationalistic and right-wing on issues of peace and security, but you can’t assume that, though a hand-knitted kippa can be a clue.  Reform and Conservative Jews are far less numerous and prominent in Israel than they are in North America, and these branches of Judaism unfortunately receive little or no legal recognition from the government. Israeli Jews tend to be either ultra-Orthodox (about 10%), modern Orthodox or traditional (15-30%), or secular and non-observant (the balance). There is no real separation of religion and state in Israel, and conflicts between the religious and secular, especially over military service and funding, create one of the major fault lines in Israeli

society.  

Most Israelis, Jewish or Arab, speak at least some English, and many do so fluently.  If you are having trouble in a shop, ask the 12-year-old son or daughter of the shop owner who is studying English in school (mandatory as of second grade).  But if you take the time to learn a few phrases in Hebrew, it will endear you to Israelis. They are very proud of their revived language.

Sometimes Americans, especially from the “heartland,” find Israelis abrasive and even rude at first blush.  On the surface, I see why; the country values brash, blunt, open approaches to life. The key aspect of the Israeli character is that people are direct—remember that sabra definition—and especially for people like me from the Midwestern US, it takes some getting used to.  

Secular Jews
Secular Jews/ Some rights reserved by Yzukerman

It is common, for instance, to be asked how much money you make or how much you paid for something, and Israelis will be puzzled why we Americans would think that is private. Israelis also express opinions bluntly and love an argument! But once you get past that surface impression, I find Israelis warm, open, and interesting, and extraordinarily generous and helpful to someone in need.

Israelis truly engage in the lives of those around them—without the aloof distance of my “nice” world. Near strangers have offered to help me in a way that would really inconvenience them. I also learned that “nice” is relative, and I have come to value Israeli directness.  At one dinner, a friend who is a law professor at Tel Aviv University noted that when studying at Harvard, he was puzzled at the American tendency to say, “Let’s get together some time.” He’d reply, “OK, when?” Then the evasions started. In Israel, when someone says that, he means it, and people start checking their calendars. He learned that Americans often don’t mean what they say; “niceness” can also mask shallowness or lack of real connection.

Military issues and experiences dominate life in Israel to a degree unknown to most North Americans, at least outside of the disappearing World War II generation. Even in a post-September 11 world, that aspect of life in the United States or the rest of the Western world is nothing like what Israelis experience.

Remember, in Israel, nearly everyone—male and female—serves for two and a half years of military service, then as much as a month each year in the reserves until their 40s.  (Arabs and haredim studying full-time in yeshiva (seminary) are exempt from the draft, though the exemption for yeshiva students has eroded a little.) For many Israelis, their social circles and key identities are built around the people with whom they served in the Army, much as many Americans make those life-long connections in university. They may continue to perform reserve duty with those same units for several weeks each year—for decades.

Soldiers on leave, Tel Aviv port.
Soldiers on leave, Tel Aviv port. Some rights reserved by runneralan200, Flickr

Israelis love to discuss politics and to argue, but as an outsider, I suggest caution and sensitivity. This is not the place to pontificate. Issues of peace and security are existential for Israelis—if they guess wrong, they may lose their country and die. Nothing holds deeper emotion. Israelis are very sensitive to perceived criticism by outsiders, especially North Americans and Europeans, who can preach from a position of distance and relative safety.

If you note how much money the US gives Israel, for example, you may be left speechless when a parent replies, “I gave my son.”

My own politics on Israeli issues are center-left leavened with a heavy dose of realism and skepticism in recent years—and I am opinionated!—but I lie low and say things like, “It’s very complex,” and “This is an issue for the Israelis and the Palestinians to work out among themselves.”  Really, the same is true when speaking with Arabs.

The collapse of the peace process and the extreme violence that followed radicalized both Israelis and Palestinians, and both optimism and moderation are in scarce supply. Even many Israelis who once supported the peace process and concessions to the Palestinians have become very mistrustful and embittered.

The Hamas takeover in Gaza, with ongoing violence and open warfare there despite the Israeli withdrawal, the conflicts with Hizbullah, threats from Iran, and the massive instability and violence in the Arab world after the failed “Arab Spring” have all further eroded those hopes.  Like most Americans, I am an optimist by nature, but I am not optimistic here, at least in the near term. Few are still looking for “the new Middle East” anymore.

The Shabbat

I do not have the space in this guide to talk in detail about the Jewish calendar, including the yearly cycle of holidays, but professional guidebooks and online sites do that well. The Jewish calendar sets the rhythm of Israeli life. But there is one “holiday” that occurs every week and will have a major impact on your travels, and that is Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath.  

Beginning at sundown on Friday evening (Erev Shabbat) and ending with the spotting of the first stars on Saturday evening (Motzei Shabbat), everyday Israeli life slows down—and even shuts down to some degree—for Shabbat.  

Shabbat in Tel Aviv
Shabbat in Tel Aviv. Some rights reserved by tedeytan

Starting early Friday afternoon, you will notice the banks closing, shops being shuttered, and the rush of last-minute shoppers in the markets getting ready for Shabbat. As the sun sets on Friday evening, you will see observant Jewish families making their way (on foot) to synagogue for the evening service. Car traffic thins, and in observant neighborhoods, stops altogether. Sirens sound at sundown throughout Jerusalem to announce Shabbat. Even most secular Jews (the majority) make it a point to be at home for the Friday evening family dinner, which is a special one. It is a beautiful part of Israeli life. I love the atmosphere of Shabbat in Israel, and we have nothing like it in North America or Europe.  

On a practical level, many restaurants (and all kosher-certified ones) close for Shabbat and do not reopen until after darkness falls on Saturday.  Banks are closed (ATMs still work, though), and most venues of public entertainment, such as movies, close as well. There is no public transportation on Shabbat except in Haifa or Arab areas, though taxis and sheruts do still operate.  Many observant Jews will not answer their telephones. So, keep this in mind when planning your travels.

Most of the national parks and many museums are open, but you should check. If you are inclined to tour Christian or Muslim sites, this is a good day to do so, because they remain open (though they may close on Sunday and Friday, respectively).

Tel Aviv, the center of secular life in Israel, is far more “open” on Shabbat, but even in Holy Jerusalem, there are more and more pockets of secular defiance. It’s confusing, but it’s Israel.

As for the other holidays, I will mainly note that the fall is the major holiday season, with not only Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but also followed by Sukkot (the Festival of Booths) and Simhat Torah.

Israelis love fall because they get a lot of time off in what is otherwise a five-and-a-half-day work week for many people, but it can be an expensive and crowded time to visit the country. I suggest you travel before Rosh Hashanah (but it still could be quite hot) or after Simhat Torah (generally delightful weather). In the spring, be aware that if you travel over Passover (Pesach) and Easter (Latin and Orthodox), the country and its hotels will be crowded with tourists (including traveling Israelis), prices will be higher, and many restaurants will close because of the dietary restrictions of Passover. Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks, generally observed in June) is another major holiday, but a short one and therefore less disruptive to travel.

A final, practical tip:  Know that if you suggest to an Israeli to have dinner at a restaurant, the expectation generally is that the one who invites will pay.  But do look for chances to interact with people. Historical sights and beautiful scenery are wonderful, but the heart of a country is its people, and they are the best part of any trip.  Every trip has confirmed for me that truth.

The Arab Population

Arabs make up 20% of Israel’s population, and of that group, more than 90% are Muslim and the rest are Christian. I am talking here about the population within “the Green Line,” the pre-1967 borders of Israel, not including the territories occupied in the Six-Day War of 1967.  

These Arabs are full citizens of the State of Israel, vote and serve in the Knesset (Israeli Parliament), and most speak Hebrew as well as their native Arabic. They are not drafted for service in the IDF (Israel Defense Forces), but can volunteer, as two of my young friends from Nazareth did in the 1990s.

Arab Israelis

Arab citizens of Israel do suffer significant discrimination as you would expect. Their identity is a very complex one; some say, “My country is at war with my people.” While the term “Israeli Arab” is common; now one also hears “Palestinian-Israeli” or “Palestinian citizen of Israel.” Arabs who live in the occupied territories are called simply “Palestinians” or “Palestinian Arabs.” By the way, like most things in Israel, these terms are very political. Israelis do not generally use the term “occupied territories” when describing the West Bank. Some Israelis on the left say “the administered territories” or simply “the territories” (my preferred term). Most Israelis—and all on the right—prefer the Biblical term “Judea and Samaria.”

Sadly, the pressures of both the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the rise of Islamist extremism are causing many Christian Arabs to emigrate, and that population is rapidly shrinking.  This is true even in cities like Nazareth and Bethlehem, where Christians were once the majority but are no longer. Will Christianity survive in the land of its birth? It remains an open question.

If you have the opportunity to be hosted by Arabs, by all means do it. It will be an extraordinary experience. There are “hidden rules,” though, at least for those not familiar with Arab culture. I learned by breaking them—the most painful way, of course—so I’ll teach you some of them ahead of time.

Arab hospitality is extraordinary and can even be overwhelming. Being a good host is a central value in Arab life, and Arabs will literally spend themselves into debt to host you. You will be waited on hand and foot. Accept that, or don’t accept the invitation. There is no middle ground.

Especially in observant Muslim families, expect strict sex segregation socially. Women will be with the women, men with the men. Women should shake hands with other women, but the men may not take their hand. If perceived as a friend, however, men may be kissed on both cheeks by other men. Male friends may also hold hands. This is not at all indicative of homosexuality; it’s just the way friendship is expressed.

Food in Israel
Some rights reserved by WordRidd, Flickr

When being served food or beverages, stay seated, unlike North American or European parties where we mill around. I don’t know what the rule is on women guests offering to help in the kitchen, but it would be unheard of for a male guest to do so. Not knowing this, I tried once, and I thought my hosts were going to pass out. It was a major faux pas.

If you are in an observant Muslim home, remember that Islam proscribes the consumption of alcohol, and you should not expect to be served any. It may embarrass your hosts to ask for an alcoholic drink, as they will want to please a guest. Some Muslims, less observant, may offer you alcohol, or drink themselves. Wait to be offered.

Arab hosts will serve you more food than you can possibly eat. This is not a problem—if you understand how the game is played. When you’ve had enough, leave a good amount of food on the plate. An empty plate in American culture shows appreciation of a wonderful meal, but to an Arab host it means that not enough food was served, and more will be forthcoming. It’s a little like a dog chasing its tail; I gained five pounds and major gastrointestinal distress before I learned this. I’m thinking, “Good Lord, will the food never stop coming?” They’re thinking, “Good Lord, how much do Americans eat?!?” I would guess that family is still talking about my appetite.

Your Arab hosts will insist on paying for anything you do while visiting them. Don’t suggest anything expensive. While you can offer to pay, don’t force the issue—it will not work and will cause great offense. So, don’t suggest doing things that would strain your hosts financially. You could offer a present for your host or, even better, something for their children.  American tee-shirts are often popular. For adults, flowers are always safe as a gift. Remember that wine is not an appropriate gift for Muslims.

You will often be asked to stay for at least three days, the traditional minimum for Arab hospitality.  If you can’t stay, just keep saying so politely, while saying how much you’d love to. You will likely have to refuse several times.  That’s all right. Just be very polite and grateful while doing so and thank the person profusely for the wonderful hospitality.

Rave about how wonderful the food was. They lay it on thick as hosts, and guests are expected to reciprocate. And the food is wonderful, by the way, so that should be easy. But do not admire a specific item in the house, or your host may feel impelled to offer it to you.  Just say, “you have a lovely home,” and remark on how wonderful your hosts made you feel there. Again, I generally find that true, so saying so comes from the heart.

Some Arabs, especially Muslims, feel it risks fate if their children are complimented directly for their brilliance, beauty, or accomplishment. This is prideful boasting and risks the wrath of God upon whom all things depend (or more superstitiously, “the evil eye”). More appropriate: “God has blessed your children with many gifts,” “God has given you a beautiful child,” or “God has been very good to your family.” Still, children are much loved and generally a very safe topic of conversation. Politics and religion are usually not, unless you know a family very well. Listen more than you talk—always.

If you don’t have any other opportunity to experience Arab hospitality, you may want to contact a remarkable man I met more than ten years ago who lives in a village in East Jerusalem on the top of the Mount of Olives. His name is Ibrahim Ahmad Abu El-Hawa. As far as I know, he still hosts people for meals and even for lodging with no real charge, though he accepts contributions for his lovely work of bringing people together across national and religious lines to help heal this land. Staying there would be a bit too much like a very basic hostel for me, but a meal with him is quite an experience. If you accept his hospitality, please leave him ₪80-100 for his work. Contact me if you want to meet him and tell him his friend Douglas sent you. He is truly a lovely man.

Other Groups in Israel

In addition to the Jewish-Arab dichotomy, and the Jewish-Muslim-Christian triad, Israel has a several other, distinct groups that make up the balance of the population.  

Some rights reserved by Israel_photo_gallery, Flickr

The Druze are a sect that grew out of Islam but keep their religious beliefs and traditions secret. They number some 110,000 and speak Arabic but are a distinct community. The Druze are deeply loyal to whatever country they live in and serve in the IDF, often with great distinction and prominence. There are two major Druze villages on Mount Carmel (see the Haifa section for more information) and others in Galilee.

Druze in the Golan, on the other hand, mostly consider themselves still to be Syrians, though the long civil war is straining that identity.  

The Bahà’ìs are a modern faith founded in the 19th Century, and their world headquarters are in Haifa with another major shrine in Akko. The Bahà’ì faith teaches that all religious prophets (Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, and Buddha among them) are from God, humankind is one, and women and men are equal. The Bahà’ì gardens and terraces in Haifa are among the most beautiful sites in all Israel. Don’t miss them.

The Circassians are Muslims who are originally from the Caucasus area of southern Russia, and they settled in the area in the mid-1800s after fleeing the aftermath of a failed war against Tsarist Russia. They speak Cherkesi, written in the Cyrillic alphabet, and live mainly in two Galilee communities.

The Bedouin Arabs are the famed desert nomads of romantic novels and films such as Lawrence of Arabia. They comprise nearly 10% of the Arab population and belong to some 30 tribes, most of them scattered over a wide area in the south. Formerly nomadic shepherds and herders, the Bedouins are currently in transition from a tribal social framework to a permanently settled society and are gradually entering Israel’s labor force. This is a controversial policy with decidedly mixed results.

You will most notice them in the Negev or in the Judean wilderness on the way from Jerusalem to Masada and the Dead Sea. Many Bedouin serve in the IDF, particularly as trackers, and have a very distinguished record of service. If you tour with Adam Sela in the Negev (see the Negev section) or with Desert Eco Tours out of Eilat, you may have a chance to meet local Bedouin, a fascinating experience.

©2004-2019 Douglas E. Duckett, All rights reserved.

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