Managing in Israel
Working With Politics and Religion
Imagine that your organization has opened an office in Israel, and your boss asks you to travel there to meet your new team. You're excited and nervous: you know that Israel has an extremely rich religious history, but you're also aware of the tensions and violence that have troubled it for many years.
Israel is officially known as the "State of Israel," and it has about eight million inhabitants. It's a narrow country situated in Western Asia, which boasts shores on the eastern Mediterranean Sea and a wide range of stunning landscapes, including deserts, mountain ranges and coastal plains. However, it also has several areas that have been ravaged by war.
In this article, we'll explore how to live and work successfully in Israel, whether you're relocating, managing a team remotely, or working with Israeli team members.
This article is intended as a general guide only. Consider each person's unique needs, and use your own best judgment when managing an Israeli team.
The modern State of Israel was created in 1948, from the former British Mandate of Palestine. It was the first Jewish state to be established in nearly 2,000 years, and it realized the aim of the Zionist movement to provide a homeland for geographically dispersed Jews.
Israel has absorbed Jewish immigrants from around 120 countries in Europe, the rest of the Middle East, North America, the former Soviet Union, and Ethiopia, and it has a majority Jewish population. The country also has a smaller number of Muslim and Christian inhabitants.
Israel's visa and other entry requirements are complex. So, make sure that you're aware of its immigration policies before you travel, and allow extra time for increased security measures and checks at airports, particularly during holidays and the peak summer tourist season.
Israel has been considered a holy land for centuries by Jews, Christians and Muslims, which has caused friction and a number of political and religious disputes. Its Arab neighbors and Palestinian inhabitants have also challenged how Israel owns and uses land.
Israel is situated in Western Asia, with shores on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba at its southern tip. It is bordered by Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories (including the West Bank, also known as Judea and Samaria Area, and the Gaza Strip).
Israel's primary languages are Hebrew and Arabic, although English, Russian, French, Spanish, Yiddish, Marathi, Northern Uzbek, and Aramaic are also spoken. Israeli schoolchildren learn Hebrew, Arabic and English, and most street signs are written in all three languages.
Bear in mind that Hebrew and Arabic use different alphabets, which can cause a lot of confusion for new visitors.
|How are you?||Ma shlom-kha? (m)
Ma shlo-mekh? (f)
|My name is…||Shmi… (m)
Ko-rim li… (f)
|Good morning||Bo-ker tov||Boh-kehr tohv|
|Thanks||To-da ra-ba||Toh-dah rah-bah|
|Hello||Ahlan wa sahlan||AH-lan wah saH-lan|
|How are you?||Izayak? (m)
|My name is…||Ismi…||Iz-mee|
|Good morning||Sabah el-khair||SabaaH al-khayr|
The pronunciation of these useful phrases is in standard Arabic. Arab inhabitants in Israel, however, may speak a dialect of Palestinian Arabic, or Levantine Arabic. So, check pronunciation with native speakers, or consider enrolling on a language course.
In Israel, public holidays and vacation allowances are complex, and include many Hebrew observances that non-Jews do not celebrate. So, find out which holidays your organization follows before you begin managing an Israeli team, and avoid scheduling meetings or setting deadlines around these times.
According to Israel's Annual Leave Law, employees are entitled to 14 days' paid leave for up to four years' service, 16 days for five years, 18 days for six years, 21 days for seven years, and one extra day per year up to 28 days. If people work during their vacation, they lose their right to paid leave.
Israelis are entitled to the following public holidays (not including Hebrew observances):
- Purim (Tel Aviv) – Date changes each year (March 1 in 2018.)
- Shushan Purim (Jerusalem) – Date changes each year (March 2 in 2018.)
- Pesach I (First Day of Passover) – Date changes each year (March 31 in 2018.)
- Yom HaAtzmaut (Independence Day) – Date changes each year (April 19 in 2018.)
- Ramadan – Date changes each year (starts May 15 in 2018.)
- Shavuot (Pentecost) – Date changes each year (May 20 in 2018.)
- Eid al-Fitr – Date changes each year (June 14 in 2018.)
- Rosh Hashana (New Year) – Date changes each year (September 10 in 2018.)
- Rosh Hashana II (New Year, Day 2) – Date changes each year (September 11 in 2018.)
- Yom Kippur – Date changes each year (September 19 in 2018.)
- Sukkot I – Date changes each year (September 24 in 2018.)
- Shmini Atzeret/Simchat Torah – Date changes each year (October 1 in 2018.)
See this website for a full list of Israel's public and religious holidays.
When managing Muslim team members, bear in mind that Ramadan is the Muslim month of fasting and prayer, and its date is determined by the phases of the moon. It concludes with Eid al-Fitr, and most Muslim stores and public buildings will close during this time.
During Ramadan, Muslims are expected to fast from dawn to dusk, and are only permitted to work for six hours per day. So, workflow will likely drop during this time, and it will be harder to communicate with clients and colleagues and to schedule meetings. You won't be required to fast over Ramadan, but be aware of Muslim team members who are fasting.
It's important to recognize that serious conflicts exist in Israel, and that safety and security are big concerns. Demonstrations and other forms of civil unrest can occur at short notice and often turn violent, so expect a heavy Israeli security presence.
The U.S. Department of State warns against travel to the West Bank (Judea and Samaria Area), the Gaza Strip, the border with Lebanon, or Route 98 in the Golan Heights. It also prohibits U.S. citizens from using public buses throughout the country.
Palestinians in the West Bank have lived under Israeli rule since 1967, when Jewish settlers were allowed to move in. However, many people consider these settlements illegal, which has caused violent conflicts.
Israel evacuated its settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005, withdrew its forces, and intensified its economic blockade when the Palestinian Islamic resistance group Hamas took control of the area in 2007. In 2008 and 2014, Israel launched major military assaults on Gaza following cross-border rocket attacks.
Check with your country's government website for specific travel advice and detailed guidance, and, once you're in Israel, leave an area immediately if you feel unsafe. Be vigilant when working in Israel, particularly in areas of known conflict or tension.
Israel is a wealthy country, compared with its neighbors, and the World Bank estimates that its gross national income (GNI) per head is around $37,400 – which is greater than the GNI in some European countries.
Despite its conflicts, Israel is considered a safe place to do business. It ranks 54th on the World Bank's Ease of Doing Business Index, and foreign businesspeople are welcome. Its main exports are computer software, military equipment, chemicals, and agricultural products.
Israel's unit of currency is the Israeli shekel, which comprises 100 agorot. However, the one and five agorot coins have been discontinued, so expect prices to be rounded to the nearest multiple of 10 agorot when you pay in cash.
Getting the Best From Your Team
Bear in mind that all organizations are different, and that attitudes may vary depending on whether your team members are Jews or Arabs. So, make sure that you treat each person as an individual, and use your own best judgment in each situation.
In Israel, people consider success and dynamism important in leadership, and you can gain status through your achievements. However, avoid pulling rank, as you might lose the respect of your Israeli team members.
Make sure that you're sincere, confident and respectful of your team members' religious beliefs at all times. Israelis are generally keen to help people who are positive towards their country, or those who can improve economic opportunities, so don't discuss religious or political conflicts, or criticize the country in any way. It's important to treat people as equals, and assume that they have a high level of cultural intelligence.
Expect your Israeli team members to be more casual than Western colleagues, particularly with deadlines. Israeli organizations are often informal, so there may be little protocol at meetings. For example, seating is non-hierarchical, you're permitted to use first names early on, and everyone is encouraged to speak up. Bear in mind that your Israeli team members might be impatient to voice their opinions, which can make them poor listeners.
The Jewish dress code is influenced by the Torah (the books of the Jewish religious law) – especially regarding modesty. For example, married Jewish women may cover their hair as a sign that they're no longer single, and men in some communities are discouraged from wearing shorts. However, the laws that govern clothing are generally more relaxed for men.
Orthodox Jewish women tend to wear clothing that's not too bright or tight-fitting, with sleeves that cover the elbows and skirts that cover the knees (pants aren't allowed by law). The Torah also doesn't permit people to wear garments that consist of both wool and linen, and forbids men and women to wear clothes that belong to the opposite sex.
While in Israel, you'll likely to hear the term "Sabra" (pronounced "tzabaar" by Israelis, and "tzabra" by Lebanese), which refers to Israeli Jews born in Israel. The word alludes to a tenacious, thorny plant known as a "prickly pear," which is how these people see themselves: tough on the outside but sweet and delicate on the inside.
In 2010, more than four million Israeli Jews (particularly youths) – around 70 percent of the country's population – were Sabras.
So, it's important to recognize that a growing proportion of Israel's working population only has experience of life in Israel. While Jewish cultures from around the world are still present, these are starting to fade, and sabras are forming their own, more secular, modern Israeli culture.
"Kashrut" or "kashruth" is the body of Jewish law that defines the suitability of food, the use of rituals, and how food should be prepared. According to the Torah, food should be kosher, which means that the correct procedures are observed and the right ingredients used.
During "Pesach," or Passover, "chametz" (leaven, often yeast, or food mixed with leaven) is strictly prohibited. For example, over Pesach, the diets of the animals at the biblical zoo in Jerusalem are changed according to kashrut.
- At dinner, your host will sit at the head of the table, with the honored guest next to him or her. In Orthodox Jewish homes, men and women may eat separately, or at different times.
- Always assume that Jewish people observe kashrut, unless they tell you otherwise. So, avoid pork, shellfish and mixing milk and meat products.
- The majority of Israelis observe "Shabbat," the day of rest. This begins just before sunset each Friday, and continues until around 40 minutes after sunset on Saturday. Many businesses will be closed during this time.
- Don't be surprised if your team members are tactile: Israelis in all levels of society will touch, kiss and hug each other frequently.
- Younger Israelis often enjoy socializing, so consider organizing events outside of work that your team members can attend. This will help you build trust with your people.
- You may be questioned more thoroughly at the Israeli border if you've previously visited another country in the region. So, check with your country's Israeli Embassy before you travel, and be prepared to be stopped at passport control.
Israel has a rich religious history, but it's also a country under constant threat of terrorism and military aggression.
Israelis value dynamic, successful and sincere leaders, and status is often granted through achievement. Manage your Israeli team by working to understand cultural differences and the role of religion, and bear in mind the difference between Jewish and Muslim colleagues. Always treat everyone with respect and as equals.