Have you ever done business with Israel? It helps a lot to have some background knowledge and context in all countries and Israeli Business Culture is no different, especially due to the political, cultural and religious aspects which come into play here. Osnat Lautman is an organisational consultant specialised on intercultural communication, living in Israel, who previously has also lived in the USA.
She works with global companies to provide them with consulting, workshops and lectures explaining the details of building effective business relationships with Israelis. The fact that Osnat has lived in the US, helped her to understand her Israeli culture and identify its defining characteristics for herself. So many of us don’t realise what characterises our own culture until we experience first hand the contrast with an alternative culture.
Table of Contents
Who is this book for?
The book was designed to be read within a couple of hours (ie. The length of many flights) to give non-Israelis an overview about the origins of the Israeli culture & how that relates to business. Osnat defines the main characteristics of the national psyche and explains how best to work together with Israelis, using many anecdotes and examples. Of course, the book is also relevant in the opposite direction: It can be used by Israelis to gain more insight as to how they are perceived outside of their country. The tools mentioned in the book should enable both sides to better communicate and therefore have increased chances of doing business successfully together.
Osnat uses the acronym ISRAELI™ to describe the general characteristics of the business culture in Israel:
There is a great deal of literature about the foundation of the state of Israel, the rights and wrongs of the geopolitical situation and military history, however although the Israelis are extremely entrepreneurial, there are few books describing Israeli business culture.
Whilst reading the book for the first time, back in 2018, I found myself nodding at intervals and sometimes chuckling as Osnat’s descriptions resonated with my own experiences at various times over my career.
Risks of Generalisations
If we’re talking in a cross-cultural context, there is always a risk of generalisation as “cultures” rely on groups and not everyone will fit the mould. That means we need to take care not to reduce individuals to some kind of caricature of what we expect their attitudes to be. (How often did I write already about the risks of assuming things?).
It’s important to also remember that people and societies change over time, and that knowledge about a particular culture doesn’t mean all conflict can be eliminated.
Also, each of us is a bit like an onion. I don’t mean that we’re smelly and make people cry, but that we consist of a multitude of layers. For each of these layers we interact with the world in different ways. Eg I’m a business woman, wife, daughter, sister, musician, Scout leader and for each of those personas I probably show up slightly differently.
It’s still valuable to look at general trends though, even taking into account the caveats mentioned above.
Israeli Business Culture Background
One of the aspects that I find really useful in the book is the compact information on the background of Israeli business culture.
History Key Facts
- The State of Israel was founded in the aftermath of WWII
- It is the only sovereign Jewish state world wide
- Israel is an ethnic melting pot with high immigration
à these two last points have lead to increased tensions with the Arabs
- Whilst not all Israelis are actively religious, most observe the main Jewish feasts and holidays. Religion has a strong influence on daily life (NB. Weekends are Friday/Saturday & the working week begins on Sunday)
Life and business in Israel are often defined by the fact that it is a small country without close relationships with it’s neighbours, & strongly disputed borders. That forces Israeli companies to think internationally as there is no option to just start exporting in a small way half an hour up the road as we might do in Europe.
Israel has a policy of mandatory conscription for both men and women. This, combined with the ongoing border conflicts mentioned above mean that, compared with most of central Europe, Israel is a militaristic society. The military forces are respected and higher ranking officers often make strong civilian careers.
Consequently, in business life, military vocabulary and expressions are often used – in a similar way to football or other sport analogies in Europe or the US.
Hebrew is the main language spoken, although virtually everyone in business also speaks some English. The melting pot aspect of the population means that many other languages are also spoken, especially French and Russian. This also means that many people identify as having at least 2 cultural roots: Israeli and “something else” eg Belgian or Polish. That makes the commercial sector even more international.
I bet you didn’t know that the following were all invented in Israel:
- ICQ – remember the first majorly popular messaging service from back in the 90s?
- Waze (GPS) – bought by Google for $1bn+ in 2014
- drip irrigation
- Cherry tomatoes (yes!)
That’s just to name a few of the most famous ones. You can see from this list though that Israel is a technological powerhouse. The challenging climatic (& water supply) conditions have made them also innovative in agriculture.
Politics in Israel are fragmented and complex due to the number of nationalities represented in the population, combined with the religious and military challenges the country faces. Personally as a business person, I try to keep out of any such discussions, but it is a topic which polarises even within Israel.
Geography and Climate
Israel covers 3 climatic zones: Mediterranean, semi-arid and desert and lies at the cross roads between Asia, Europe and Africa. Water is an issue in the region. Israel has ports both on the Mediterranean side, but also Eilat on the Red Sea.
Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, as the two biggest cities, seem to epitomise the Israeli culture in many ways. Jerusalem has many historical and religious elements (being sacred to 3 monotheistic faiths – Judaism, Christianity & Islam) & a large ultra-Orthodox Jewish population. On the other extreme, Tel Aviv is a party town, highly secular in comparison, & Israel’s economic centre
With a melting pot population, how could the cuisine be anything else? Israeli cuisine has consequently become a player on the world stage, as well as being a focal point for international business visits.
Characteristics of ISRAELI™️ Business Culture
So what makes Israeli Business Culture unique? What are the recommendations for successfully working together with Israeli partners? I’ll detail here also a very short summary of the main points Osnat covers. Israelis are very relationship based so building a personal trust is essential – emotional choices in business are considered quite normal and legitimate. So as in many cultures, it pays off to take time to eat together with your partner (& Israel has some fabulous restaurants) if you want a long term business relationship.
I for Informal
- A casual approach to business dress (the level varies of course though from industry to industry)
- using first names within companies, or even nicknames (& asking personal questions – don’t be surprised!)
- fairly flat company hierarchies, where everyone expresses their opinion
Be careful as a non-Israeli to not judge an informal discussion as unprofessional. I’ve seen business leaders underestimate the professionality of their counterparts in Israel before on the basis of this and it’s really a mistake.
Compared to other countries, Israel scores EXTREMELY low on the “power distance” spectrum. This means that in Israel a manager is regarded as one of the team and it’s perfectly acceptable for the team to argue with or contradict their leader. Independence is seen positively and respect is earned, not given with the job title.
In the end, the manager decides, but until that point, everyone on the team is expected to deliver their perspective.
That is quite different to for example Germany, where many managers expect to receive respect by virtue of their seniority in the organisation. Or China where it’s common to call authority figures by their title and last name (eg Teacher Li or Manager Wang). You can find more about this so called Hofstede power distance spectrum here.
Again, don’t be shocked by this informal attitude. It doesn’t mean that things won’t get done, far from it. It just means that there’s a lot of communication between team members. Certain discussions may take longer to reach a conclusion than elsewhere, but it’s a more inclusive way of working and everyone makes their opinions known, yet in the end the manager decides.
S means Straightforward
- easy, simple, clear communication
- direct and candid (sometimes brutally so for those not expecting it) style of speaking. What they say is what they mean & that can be quite a shock!
- often interrupt others –> demonstrating enthusiasm for the topic rather than rudeness
- absolute, often extreme vocabulary is used for emphasis (impossible!, completely unacceptable! Or the favourite of a former partner of mine: “you’re KILLING me!” – you need to say this out loud in a French accent for the full effect ? )
This level of straight talking can be interpreted as brusque, rude or aggressive by people from cultures used to a more evasive style of communication. Even between Israelis and US Americans (who are considered low context as communication is generally pretty direct) difficulties can arise as the American would probably be more “diplomatic” in their choice of words.
This is the exception to the straighttalking mentioned above. Other characteristics tend to overweigh when Israelis negotiate and they are extremely goal-oriented and combative, focusing often wholly on winning, as opposed to striving for the win-win that a UK or US negotiator might strive for.
Israelis are REALLY tough negotiators, and I’ve had some of my most fiery discussions with Israeli partners over the years. As I mentioned above, I had a partner who regularly declared “you’re killing me!”, but where we reached deals in the end, and 20 years later we still talk regularly. Make sure you get everything down afterwards in writing so there is no leeway for interpretation.
Risk-Taking + Ambitious = Entrepreneurial
Remember that entrepreneurial is a mindset rather than a business model. It can mean looking for innovative solutions and taking risks to achieve them and the lack of hierarchy in Israeli organisations encourages this kind of behaviour in employees.
Israelis are driven to achieve success and show their value. This arises from the history of their culture, where over centuries they have had to fight for whatever they had. This combination of characteristics results in “tiny” Israel having a high concentration of tech companies and scientists, doctors etc. The country is short on natural resources meaning that people are forced into innovative solutions to their problems such as a lack of water for agriculture.
Israelis have embraced the “Lean Start Up” philosophy and embody the fail fast, fail often, fail forward mentality. Younger generations are also looking to pay more attention detail and longer term strategies. These skills can be expected to propel Israel forward in the international arena as they were “weaker” points in the past.
L stands for Loud!
This one of the points at which I had to laugh the first time I read the book, as it really hits the nail on the head.
- high volume & potentially offensive tone
- highly emotional
- lots of arm and hand waving whilst talking
- talking more than listening (watch out to make sure your partner has taken what you’ve said on board)
- living life as intensively as possible
Social distance (original meaning here, rather than our current view of the phrase) is typically lower in Israel than many other societies. This can feel a bit intimidating the first time you encounter it.
Israel is a polychronic culture, so has a fairly flexible attitude towards time, meeting structures, changes of plan etc. don’t be surprised if your meetings are interrupted by other people coming in to ask questions, or by phone calls.
An email marked URGENT may not have the priority that it would if you received it from a Scandinavian counterpart. This could simply mean important (but using a more extreme phrase as mentioned under S above) or just be to get your attention. Make sure that if you are unsure, you ask additional questions for clarification.
Judaism encourages debate, and this is also a cornerstone of Israeli Business Culture too. You should expect a “healthy argument” during your business meetings with Israelis as this shows that the topics are relevant and important. It can be exhausting though if you’re not used to this. Just remember that it’s nothing personal, but rather a sign of the Israeli “personality” which needs to be heard.
It can be hard to get a word in edgeways so just take the “when in Rome” approach and interrupt occasionally!
I is Improvisational
As I mentioned above, Israeli culture is characterised by a certain amount of thinking outside the box and looking for creative solutions.
This can cause conflict with international partners who like to plan things out more rigidly. eg Swiss. The Israeli probably takes more of a “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it” type of approach, which can drive Central Europeans loopy, during budgeting or planning. However, when issues arise, this ability can make it easier to find a way around problems or out of a crisis.
A willingness to push beyond limits and improvise to achieve a goal are valued in Israel. There is a readiness to take risks for a high potential win, even if that is outside the scope of the original project.
It can pay off to try and find a middle way if working with Israelis on projects. Their creativity can bring unexpected solutions, but may blow timing plans and other milestones out of the water. Can a good compromise be reached in order to keep within the timing plan?
Working in & Managing culturally diverse teams
In order to be a successful manager, you have to be open to learning about the cultures of all the team members both internal and external that you are working with. Empathy, asking questions, listening to the answers and then acting upon them are the way towards better teamwork, not on when working with Israelis.
Make your expectations clear, but be prepared to adjust according to who you are working with.
As with anywhere else, it can be hard learning all the subtleties of Israeli Business Culture, however this book provides an easy to consume guide. Osnat includes many examples to illustrate the points she makes as well as offering practical advice about how to work with or for Israelis. There are even specific subsections on the Israeli-US cultural gap, as well as the cultural gap between Israelis and Germans or Chinese.
If you are expecting to do business with Israel, I’d highly recommend this book as it is a truly practical guide to the vibrant young nation of Israel. If I had had this before my first visit to Israel over 20 years ago, I’d have certainly been better equipped to do business there. As it was, I had to rhyme things together myself, by asking questions, observing and through trial and error.
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Personal Tips for a Business Trip to Israel
My top personal tip if you’re planning a trip to Israel (other than obviously reading “Israeli Business Culture” in advance!) would be to try and stay at a hotel along the beach in Tel Aviv, if it’s at all practical. Take the time to walk along the beach in the morning and do some people watching. Or better still, go for a swim or try stand up paddling.
Even if you have a very hectic and short trip, try to manage at least a short walk around Jaffa, and of course, don’t forget to enjoy some fabulous food!
If you have comments please drop them below – I’d love to hear from you.
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