The world’s first modern “Hebrew city,” Tel Aviv was founded just a century ago. Its lack of historicity is reflected in its secular culture, youth-oriented atmosphere, Bauhaus architecture and entrepreneurial business mindset. While the capital city, Jerusalem, lies at Israel’s spiritual and geographic heart, Tel Aviv is the country’s economic and cultural hub: Almost half of all Israelis and 40 percent of Israel’s jobs are located in the Tel Aviv area. Most Tel Avivis are Jewish, but the city has a significant Arab minority and a visible presence of foreign tourists, businesspeople, low-wage workers and diplomats.
Israelis are justifiably proud of their active, innovative high-tech sector and the tremendous availability of venture capital, which have earned Tel Aviv the nickname Silicon Wadi (Arabic for valley). Israel is also notable for its significance in the world’s diamond trade, as well as its innovations in agriculture and homeland security.
The Israeli business atmosphere will feel familiar and comfortable to most Americans. Although the language barrier may sometimes prove inconvenient, Israelis generally speak good English, especially in the private sector, and are flexible and relatively savvy in their efforts to comply with international norms. Visitors can feel free to rely on standard western practices without offending anyone.
When misunderstandings occur, it is most often due to the direct speech common among Israelis, which can be interpreted as refreshingly honest on one hand or rude on the other. “Israelis speak loudly and will cut into other people’s sentences,” says Tamar Guy, executive director of the Israel-America Chamber of Commerce (amcham.co.il). “They wave their hands and raise their voices. It might be interpreted as anger, but they are not angry—they are just talking. They don’t mean anything by it. They want answers now, and they like processes to be fast and effcient. In the business sense, it’s a positive. They get things done quickly, think quickly and grasp things immediately.”
Susan Fisher, director of First Class (first-class.co.il), which provides cross-cultural training to global companies, concurs that visitors should not take Israeli directness personally, but rather should look for its advantages: “Reaching a consensus is not as valued as getting forward. In a way, that’s been responsible for the success in Israeli high-tech. There is a lot of focused discussion in which decisions are made quickly, you say exactly what you mean and you mean what you say.” Guy attributes this quality to the fact that many Israeli business executives are former army officers and intelligence agents who are used to making important decisions quickly and under pressure.
Fisher also points to the importance of cultural values when negotiating. She says Israelis may come across as inflexible negotiators, but for the western visitor, perseverance and assertiveness—though not authoritarianism—go a long way, resulting in friendly and long-lasting business relationships.
The flip side of Israelis’ confidence is their warmth and hospitality, which are as sincere as their straight-from-the-hip conversational approach. Israelis do not draw strong lines between their business and personal lives, so it is not unusual for them to invite visitors to their homes or out for a meal, or to take business calls after hours. Food is offered often and generously, though it is not impolite to turn it down if you’re not hungry. Business dress is also less formal here than in the United States; unless you’re meeting with a top government official or prominent lawyer, business casual is fine. Suits and ties are viewed as marks of foreign visitors.
Israelis are also extremely patriotic and inclined to invite business guests for personal tours of Tel Aviv and beyond. It is advisable to accept invitations for a meal or a tour when you can, both for the added opportunity to talk shop and to indicate interest in Israeli heritage, which locals appreciate deeply.
It is acceptable to discuss politics with Israelis, who are knowledgeable and passionate about foreign policy and the Arab-Israeli conflict—so much so that bringing up either topic will likely result in a long discussion. Disagreeing with a host’s views will not end business negotiations, but remember to be sensitive to Israelis’ collective traumas and the highly personal nature of geopolitics in the region.
When doing business in Tel Aviv, bear in mind that Israelis have a short weekend. Sunday is a regular work day. On Fridays, before the Sabbath (which starts at sundown), Israelis typically work a half day. By 3 or 4 p.m., the chain stores and banks close through Saturday night. Friday evening is reserved for private family time, even by the nonreligious, and is therefore not a good night to schedule a business meal, though your Israeli colleagues may extend an invitation to their homes.
Take some time out
Tel Aviv is known for its café culture during the day and its nightclub culture after dark, including one of the liveliest gay scenes on the globe. The city also offers world-class opera, orchestral music and ballet in its performing arts center (israel-opera.co.il/eng), and both the Batsheva dance company (batsheva.co.il/en) and the Israel Philharmonic (ipo.co.il/eng) are worth seeing.
The Nahalat Binyamin outdoor craft fair, open on Tuesdays and Fridays (10 a.m.–5 p.m.) is an excellent place to buy unusual gifts, as is the artists’ colony near the Jaffa port. The trendy Tel Aviv port and the upscale Neve Tzedek neighborhoods are the places to see and be seen while enjoying coffee or a meal.
On Saturdays, when most stores are closed, take time to enjoy the boardwalk, the city’s interesting museums or the free walking tours offered by Tel Aviv’s government. For the adventurous, private companies offer helicopter tours over the city.
Joan Summerfield, director of Anglo-Israel Events (celebrations.co.il), says that even if you have only a few hours of free time during the day or in the evening, it is worthwhile to arrange a guided tour of Jerusalem’s Old City, just a 60- to 90-minute drive from Tel Aviv, depending on traffic and point of departure. The Western Wall and Church of the Holy Sepulchre are must-sees for any first-time visitor to Israel.
SARAH BRONSON is a freelance writer in Jerusalem.