Food, Manners and Unrequited Love: What Every Visitor to Israel Needs to Know
LANGUAGE AND MANNERS
In my experience, most Israels "understand" English but their fluency is lopsided:
Either they understand you but struggle to reply, or can speak English well but have a hard time understanding you.
If you hail from a big North American city, you already know the drill: Be patient. Speak slowly and clearly. Don't expect strangers to understand your cultural references or jokes.
Speaking of which: The Israeli sense of humor tends toward the dry and straightfaced, and will leave some travelers puzzled or even offended.
For instance, when I mentioned to a hotel front desk clerk that I couldn't understand a recorded message on my room phone because I don't speak Hebrew, he shot back, "Why not? How dare you?"
He was joking around, but not everybody will respond well to that kind of ribbing.
Israeli's are also notoriously blunt to the point of rudeness. Customer service isn't as cloying and obsequious as you may be used to, especially if you live in the Southern or Midwestern United States.
"Civility is not a high priority," as Barry Rubin delicately phrases it in his book Israel: An Introduction:
With no history of an oppressed peasantry or working class that "knew its place," Israelis are notoriously obstinate, egalitarian, and insistent on their personal rights. The lack of a well-developed system of etiquette derives from the lack of a subservient or class conscious past. (...)
Israeli society's pioneer ethos, familiar aspect, and contempt for snobbishness or class distinction is reflected in its high levels of informality. With the exception of the Haredim, most Israelis wear casual clothing. The ubiquitous Western suit and tie stay in the closet, even for weddings and funerals. (...) Punctuality is not a high priority. It is not unusual for events and even television programming to start later than scheduled.