Simon Vangelder
Be heard despite the herd

The Myths that Satisfy: Authority and Power Games in the Start-Up Nation

Balloons over Tel Aviv By Raphael Perez, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Question: Is Israel’s work/business culture as liberal and free-thinking as many make it out to be?

My Answer: In some very discrete areas: Yes, it is. In many other spheres, no it isn’t.

Implications: Israel is a hard-skills country. It has little time for expertise that cannot be quantified, certified or safely boxed in. Formal credentials are the only game in town. This encourages rigid and conservative thinking. New ideas or methods that are not officially sanctioned and established are ignored. If that’s what the country is willing to accept, then let’s agree on this openly.

Every nation or group (or indeed individual) holds a fair supply of self-satisfying delusions.

Israel is no exception as we shall see.

Many Americans believe that they are indisputably the freest and most democratic nation on the planet. Most British people are under the misapprehension that Britain stood alone against Hitler before America declared war on Germany– conveniently discounting the vast resources it could recruit from its empire. Both nations sometimes peddle the self-vindicating myth that the Allies fought Germany to save the Jews.

While the Swedes, when they are not hunting moose, eating moose and rolling around in the snow, spend their time congratulating themselves on their moral virtuousness. Many have the mistaken notion that by ducking out of wars and abstaining from imperialistic adventures (notwithstanding their invasion of Poland in 1701) they have the right to preach sanctimoniously to the rest of the world. Greta Thunberg never shuts up – (although, to be fair, she has no claims on Polish territory).

The French – almost universally – regard their cooking as supreme. Apart from consuming vast quantities of snails and frogs, they also like to get together for a strange ritual that involves munching on some sort of small bird named the Ortolan Bunting- which is traditionally drowned in liquor and eaten whole (bones included). Supremely weird, if you ask me.

Here in Israel certain myths flow no less freely from the mouths of virtually everyone.

See if you can spot which of the following widely believed assumptions might fall short of the mark.

  • Israel’s work culture is non-hierarchical and is characterised by personable interactions and mutual consideration.
  • Israel is a refreshingly informal, flexible and relaxed country. Rules are there to be broken
  • Those in positions of authority tend not to throw their weight around and generally don’t like to glory in their status and position. Power is wielded lightly and with tact.
  • Bosses and managers are more approachable and available than – for example – the (supposedly) stuffy and starchy Brits.
  • Israel and its institutions are open-minded and progressive. Israel is The Start Up Nation. It follows that new ideas and thinking are given a fair hearing. A premium is placed as much on applied, real-world knowledge as it is on formal qualifications.
  • Within the professional/occupational sphere people are related to, regarded and judged as individuals – rather than as part of some wider category or group. Stereotyping and shallow, snap categorisations are not the norm.

Just Google Israel’s work culture and you will find articles like this: Link to a Typical Article

Or this: Article from the Government’s Website

As a counterpoint, here’s a short video on the suspiciousness/arm’s length behaviour displayed towards Olim who wish to contribute but are ignored: Establishing Business Relationships in Israel

Now I realise that this is all very subjective. Many Israelis are indeed friendly and curious. Dress codes, formal greetings and an obsession with etiquette are thankfully absent. When there is agreement that things need to be done, they are carried out quickly and without fuss. The army is far less rigid, status conscious and pompous than most militaries in the world. My company commander in the paratroopers was impressively approachable and empathetic – and his example lends credence to Zahal’s reputation as ‘the People’s Army’.

There’s no question that the work culture in the Hi-Tech sector is open-minded, progressive, casual, easy-going, etc.

Similarly, social interaction is spontaneous, welcoming and generally entertaining. People say what they mean and speak their mind. It’s all very bracing, stimulating and invigorating.

This liberal openness comes to a shuddering halt when you are required to apply for a job/impress someone of your qualifications/or challenge received wisdom.  One problem, as I see it, is that demand for resources outstrips supply by a huge margin. The cake in many sectors is small – and millions are clamouring for the crumbs. Many things have an inflated premium and, as a result are very hard to come by, certainly not given up easily – and are not bestowed readily.

In such a competitive pressure cooker, money, social status, job security, time, attention (especially time and attention), the benefit of the doubt, generosity, gratefulness, recognition of others are all assets that are often jealously guarded and rationed. Insecurity is a fact of life; people feel to need to be overly watchful and suspicious – and this often leads to cautious choices and rote/conditioned behaviour.

I’ve heard it said (half-jokingly) that in Israel people are assumed to be guilty until proven innocent. Mistrust is everywhere. No one wants to be a Friar (I mean a chump – not a Christian cleric). Now there are obviously good reasons for this: people lie, embellish their CV’s and inflate their accomplishments to ridiculous levels. My wife studied with one  guy –   who tried to impress his Ulpan classmates by claiming that he was a qualified mechanical engineer, fighter pilot, nuclear submarine captain and chess Grandmaster. He was in his early twenties. A liberal/trusting approach to assessing his CV might not be the best course of action for any responsible employer.

I could go on, but I’ll leave it to my next blog in which I’ll expand on these themes and introduce  some interesting phenomena I have observed under such headings as ‘the Lobbus Principle’ ‘Mismach Madness’ ‘Restoring Order’ ‘Authorize This’ and ‘Binary Options’

About the Author
Simon was born in London and has spent the last 30 years working in the communications and marketing industry. He lived in Israel between 1979 and 1986, served for 2.5 years in the IDF and subsequently studied English Literature and Theatre Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He returned to London in 1986 and worked as a qualitative researcher and communications coach for leading organisations such as Nestle, Bosch, Diageo, Hewlett Packard, Starbucks, Nationwide Building Society, Waitrose, Wrigley UK and Saatchi & Saatchi. Since returning to Israel in 2012, Simon has been coaching presentation techniques to the corporate and academic communities.
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