Israel - Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture

Israel - Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture

by Jeffrey Geri, Marian Lebor

Paperback(Third edition)

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781857338829
Publisher: Kuperard
Publication date: 07/02/2018
Series: Culture Smart! Series
Edition description: Third edition
Pages: 168
Sales rank: 233,154
Product dimensions: 4.30(w) x 6.60(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Jeffrey Geri worked extensively in Israeli tourism, advertising, and writing before his passing in 2013. Marian Lebor is a journalist, filmmaker, and teacher who writes for a variety of English-language publications in Israel and abroad on Israel-related themes.

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Situated at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, Israel is a narrow strip of land bordered to the north by Lebanon; to the east by Syria, the West Bank, and Jordan; to the south by the Red Sea; and to the southwest by Egypt. A more recent border, added by Israel's disengagement in 2005, is that of the Gaza Strip, a slim finger of land pointing along the coast from the Sinai Peninsula, ending just south of the Israeli city of Ashkelon.

Israel is roughly the size of the state of New Jersey or the country of Wales, but with a climate and topography that varies greatly from north to south and from east to west. Along the Mediterranean on the verdant coastal plain are two of its three main cities: Tel Aviv–Jaffa, "the city that never sleeps," and, about 53 miles (85 km) north, Haifa, serene and beautiful on the slopes and crest of Mount Carmel. Haifa is the port city gateway to the Galilee, with its landscape of hills, forests, and olive groves and, at its lowest point, below sea level, the Sea of Galilee. There are no mountains in Israel, only hills.

Jerusalem, Israel's spiritual capital and the seat of government, nestles in the biblical Judean hills 37 miles (59 km) east of Tel Aviv. East of Jerusalem is the Judean desert, which slopes down to the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth, and the start of the Great Rift Valley that runs south through Africa. About 71 miles (115 km) south of Tel Aviv lies Beersheba, the capital of the Negev desert, and a 150-mile (241 km) journey further south through the desert, to its southernmost point, takes you to the Red Sea port and resort of Eilat.


Israel enjoys a Mediterranean climate with hot, rain-free summers and mild winters, which have intermittent periods of heavy rain, particularly in the north and center of the country. From April to October daily temperatures range from 73.4°F (23°C) low to 86°F (30°C) high, with July and August the hottest months. From November to March temperatures range from 59°F (15°C) low to 68°F (20°C) high. In the winter, from the northern Galilee to the northern Negev, the country is transformed into a deep green. You are unlikely to encounter snow, but if you do it will be in winter in Jerusalem or on the Golan Heights. Temperatures and tempers rise during the occasional hamsin (sharav in Hebrew), a hot, dry, desert wind occurring mostly in early summer and fall.

Jerusalem is cooler than the coastal plain, especially in the evenings, and enjoys lower humidity. Eilat is always warmer, and is a winter sunshine favorite for Israelis and foreign visitors alike, as are the Dead Sea resorts.


The State of Israel was established in 1948, in a land holy to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Unsurprisingly, interpretations of its history are hotly contested, but to understand the Israelis one must start with the Jewish perspective.

Ancient History

Jewish history began about 4,000 years ago, in around 1600 BCE, with the wanderings of the biblical patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Book of Genesis relates how Abraham, a native of the Sumerian city of Ur, in today's southern Iraq, was commanded to go to Canaan to found a community that worshiped the One God. When a famine spread through Canaan, Abraham's grandson Jacob (Israel), his twelve sons, and their families moved to Egypt, where their descendants were forced into slavery.

Modern scholarship is continually refining our understanding of the historical context of the biblical account, but the powerful narrative of the Hebrew Bible is the foundation stone of Jewish identity. Thus, after generations of bondage in Egypt, Moses led the Israelites to freedom, to receive the revelation of the Ten Commandments at Sinai, and to be forged into a nation by forty years of wandering in the desert. Joshua spearheaded the conquest of Canaan, the promised land of milk and honey, where the Children of Israel were bound to establish a moral and ethical society that would be "a light unto the Gentiles." The exodus from Egypt, indelibly implanted in Jewish consciousness, is still celebrated by Jews every year, wherever they may be, at Pesah (Passover), the festival of freedom.

The Biblical Kingdoms of Israel (c. 1000–587 BCE)

The Israelites settled in the central hill country of Canaan more than a thousand years before the birth of Christ. These were the years of the biblical Judges, Prophets, and Kings. The hero-king David vanquished the Philistine champion Goliath, and his kingdom, with Jerusalem as its capital, became a power in the area; his son Solomon built the first Temple in Jerusalem in the tenth century BCE. Solomon made political alliances through marriage, expanded foreign trade, and promoted domestic prosperity. After his death the kingdom was split into two: Israel in the north with its capital at Shechem (Samaria), and Judah in the south with its capital at Jerusalem.

Exile and Return

The small Jewish kingdoms were caught up in the power struggles of the day, between the rival empires of Egypt and Assyria. In about 720 BCE, the Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and dispatched its inhabitants into oblivion; in 587 BCE the Babylonians destroyed Solomon's Temple and transported all but the poorest Jews to Babylon. Throughout the period of exile the Jewish people retained their faith: "If I forget thee O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning" (Psalm 137.5). After the Persian conquest of Babylon in 539 BCE, Cyrus the Great allowed the exiles to return and rebuild the Temple. Many Jews remained in Babylon, and communities grew up in every major city around the Mediterranean. Thus began the pattern of coexistence of a Jewish presence in the land of Israel with Jewish communities in the outside world, known collectively as the Diaspora (dispersal).

In 332 BCE Alexander the Great conquered the region. After his death in 323 BCE his empire was divided up, with Judah eventually falling to the Syrian portion ruled by the Seleucid dynasty. Their Hellenizing policies were resisted, and they were expelled in an insurgency led by the priest Mattathias and his son Judah Maccabee, who rededicated the defiled Temple in 164 BCE, a victory celebrated to this day in the festival of Hanukkah. The Jewish royal house they founded, the Hasmoneans, ruled until Pompey's siege of Jerusalem in 63 BCE, after which the Jewish state was absorbed into the Roman Empire.

Roman Rule and the Jewish Revolts

In 37 BCE Herod, son of an Idumaean chieftain, was appointed King of Judea by the Roman Senate. Granted almost unlimited autonomy in the country's internal affairs, he became one of the most powerful client kings in the eastern part of the Roman Empire. Herod kept his subjects ruthlessly in check, and launched a massive construction program, which included the cities of Caesarea and Sebaste, and the fortresses at Herodium and Masada. He also rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem, making it one of the most magnificent buildings of its time. Despite his many achievements he failed to win the trust and support of his Jewish subjects.

Herod's death in 4 CE was followed by years of political turmoil, civil unrest, and messianic fervor. Cruel and corrupt Roman procurators united the disparate Jewish factions against them, and in 67 CE the Jews rose up in a general revolt. The Emperor Nero sent his general Vespasian to Judea with three legions. After Nero's suicide in 68 CE, Vespasian ascended the imperial throne, and sent his son Titus to continue the campaign in Judea. In 70 CE the Roman armies laid siege to Jerusalem, and on the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av the Temple was burned to the ground. All other buildings, except for three towers, were razed, and the city's population was taken captive.

A band of Zealots had taken refuge at Masada, the fortress palace built by Herod on a barely accessible mountain plateau overlooking the Dead Sea. In 73 CE, after years of trying to dislodge them, the Romans besieged the fortress with an army of ten thousand men. When they eventually succeeded in breaching its defenses, they found that all but five of the defenders, men, women and children, had committed suicide rather than face crucifixion or enslavement.

A second, better-coordinated Jewish revolt broke out in 131, under the spiritual leadership of Rabbi Akiba and the generalship of Simon Bar Kochba. The Romans were forced to evacuate Jerusalem, and a Jewish administration was set up. After four years, and very heavy Roman losses, the revolt was put down by the Emperor Hadrian in 135 ce. Jerusalem was rebuilt as a Roman city dedicated to Jupiter, Aelia Capitolina, and Jews were forbidden to enter it. Judea was renamed Syria Palaestina.

The Diaspora

The story of the dispersal of the Jews outside the land of Israel is long and complex, and the subject of a great body of literature. Ironically, the destruction of the Temple cult gave rise to a vigorous new form of religious and social cohesion — rabbinical Judaism, the system of law and custom that was heir to the scholastic tradition of the Pharisees.

From 135 CE onward, for almost two millennia, the Jews lived as a distinctive minority among other nations. As Israel's first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, put it, "We have preserved the Book, and the Book has preserved us." In the Christian world Jews were subjected to nearly constant persecution. They fared better under Islam — the "Golden Age" in Muslim Spain was a high point in Jewish history. Elsewhere, in different times and places, there were periods of peace, prosperity, and cultural achievement. The land of Israel, in the meantime, was coveted and fought over by a succession of rulers, each with his own agenda.

Byzantine Rule (327–637)

After the destruction of the Jewish state, and with the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, the country became predominantly Christian and a center of Christian pilgrimage. Queen Helena, the Emperor Constantine's mother, visited the Holy Land in 326; churches were built in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Galilee, and monasteries founded throughout the country. A Persian invasion in 614 caused havoc, but the Byzantines retook the country in 629.

The First Muslim Period (638–1099)

The first Muslim occupation began four years after the death of the Prophet Mohammed, and lasted more than four centuries. In 637 Jerusalem was taken by Caliph Omar, who was unusually tolerant toward Christians and Jews alike. In 688 the Umayyad Caliph Abd elMalik, based in Damascus, commissioned the magnificent Dome of the Rock on the site of the Temple on Mount Moriah, from where the Prophet Mohammed was carried on his famous night journey. The alAqsa mosque was built close to the Dome. In 750 Palestine passed to the Abbasid caliphate and was governed from their new capital, Baghdad. In 969 it fell to the Shi'ite Egyptian Fatimids (known to the Europeans as Saracens); the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was destroyed and Christians and Jews were harshly suppressed.

The Crusaders (1099–1291)

Christians had generally worshiped freely in Jerusalem under Muslim rule. In 1071, however, the nomadic Seljuk Turks, newly converted to Islam, defeated the Byzantine Emperor at Manzikert near Lake Van, and expelled the Fatimids from Palestine and Syria. In 1077 they closed Jerusalem to Christian pilgrims. The Byzantine Emperor and pilgrims appealed to Pope Urban II for help in 1095. In response he called for a Crusade, or holy war, to liberate the Holy Land from the heathen. Between 1096 and 1204 there were four major European Christian campaigns to the Middle East.

In July 1099, after a five-week siege, a great Crusader army led by Godfrey de Bouillon captured Jerusalem, massacring most of the city's non-Christian inhabitants, and burning its synagogues with the Jews inside. Godfrey established the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. On his death in 1100 he wassucceeded by his brother, Baldwin. From the mid twelfth century, however, the Christian territories were on the defensive, despite the formation of the great military-religious orders of the Knights of St. John and the Knights Templar.

In 1171 the Seljuks of Mosul destroyed Fatimid power in Egypt and installed their Kurdish general, Saladin, as ruler there. The impact was electrifying. Saladin swept through Galilee and defeated the Christian army under Guy de Lusignan at the Horns of Hattin near Lake Tiberias, before taking Jerusalem in 1187. In the region, only Tyre, Tripoli, and Antioch remained in Christian hands. In response the Europeans mounted the Third Crusade. Under the leadership of Richard the Lion-Heart of England, the Crusaders managed to recapture a narrow strip of the coast, including Acre, but not Jerusalem. Richard returned to Europe after making a truce with Saladin. Later campaigns by European monarchs, including the future Edward I of England, came to nothing. Finally, the Mameluke Sultanate of Egypt reconquered Palestine and Syria, taking the last Christian outpost in 1302.

Mameluke Rule (1291–1516)

The Mameluke dynasty, descended from Turkish and Circassian slave soldiers, held power in Egypt from 1250 to 1517. Under their rule Palestine entered a period of decline. Ports were destroyed to prevent further crusades, and commerce dwindled. Ultimately the country, including Jerusalem, was virtually abandoned; the small local Jewish community was totally impoverished. In the final period of Mameluke rule the country was beset by power struggles and natural disasters.

Ottoman Rule (1517–1917)

In 1517 Palestine became part of the expanding Ottoman Empire, as part of the vilayet (province) of Damascus-Syria. The present walls of Jerusalem were built by Suleiman the Magnificent in 1542. After 1660 it became part of the vilayet of Saida (in Lebanon).

At the commencement of Ottoman rule, there were about 1,000 Jewish families living in the country, descendants of Jews who had always lived there as well as immigrants from other parts of the Ottoman Empire. In 1700 work started on the "Hurva" synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem. In 1831 Mohammed Ali, the Egyptian viceroy nominally subject to the Sultan of Turkey, occupied the country and opened it up to European influence. Although the Ottomans reasserted direct control in 1840, Western influence continued. In 1856 the Sultan issued the Edict of Toleration for all religions in the empire, and Jewish and Christian activity in the Holy Land increased.

The desire to return to the land of Israel (Hebrew, Eretz Yisrael) had been preserved in the liturgy and folk consciousness of the Jews since the time of the destruction of the Temple in 70 ce. Belief in the return of the Jews to Zion was an essential part of Jewish messianism. Thus, long before the invention of political Zionism, Jewish attachment to the Holy Land found expression in Aliyah ("ascension," or immigration) to Eretz Yisrael. Supported by Jewish philanthropy, Jews came from countries as far flung as Morocco, Yemen, Bukhara, Romania, and Russia. In 1860 Jews established the first settlement outside Jerusalem's city walls. Before Zionist colonization began there were already sizeable Jewish communities in Safed, Tiberias, Jerusalem, Jericho, and Hebron. The Jewish population in the country as a whole grew by 104 percent between 1890 and 1914.


Zionism was the name adopted in 1890 by the Jewish national movement that sought to establish an independent Jewish homeland in Palestine. The word "Zion" referred at first to the hill in Jerusalem on which King David built the Temple. In time it became synonymous with the Temple, the city, and the Holy Land itself.

In eighteenth-century Europe, the Enlightenment had seemed to herald an age of tolerance and reason in which Jews could participate as equals in civic society. But emancipation brought new problems as assimilated Western Jews entered the middle classes and the professions. Secular European nationalism spawned both modern "scientific" racist and mystical-nationalist forms of anti-Semitism.


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Table of Contents

Map of Israel     7
Introduction     8
Key Facts     10
Land and People     12
Geography     12
Climate     13
A Brief History     14
Key Events Since 1948     36
Israelis Today     44
Government     49
The Economy     54
The Israel Defense Force (IDF)     55
Cities and Towns     57
The Kibbutz     61
The Moshav     63
Values and Attitudes     64
Wars and Occupation     64
Secularism and Religion     65
Family Life     70
Togetherness and Groups     72
Attitudes Toward Each Other     73
Attitudes Toward Minorities     75
Humor     77
Customs and Traditions     78
Jewish Festivals and Holidays     78
Muslim and Christian Festivals     86
Rites of Passage     86
Courtship and Marriage     88
Death and Mourning     90
Making Friends     92
Hospitality     93
Gift Giving     95
Manners     96
Immigrant Associations     98
Daily Life     102
Homes and Lifestyles     102
Weekday Routine     104
Education     106
Leisure and Sports     110
Time Out     112
Wining and Dining     112
Shopping     116
Fashion     118
The Performing Arts     120
Museums and Galleries     122
Cultural Festivals     123
Nightlife     124
Beaches     125
Travel, Health, and Security     128
Flying     128
Taxis     128
Buses     129
Trains     130
Driving     130
Seeing the Country     133
Health Care and Emergency Services     143
Safety and Security     145
Business Briefing     146
Business Culture     146
Protocol and Presentations     147
Personal Relations     149
Negotiating Styles     150
Contracts and Fulfillment     151
Women in Business     152
Communicating     154
Language      154
Body Language     157
The Media     157
Telephone     161
Mail     162
Conclusion     163
Further Reading     165
Business Web Sites     165
Index     166
Acknowledgments     168

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