How is working life in Israel

Economic highs and religious stumbling blocks:
A small fortune in Israel

Working in Israel

The world of work in Israel is in a state of upheaval and has meanwhile changed in certain areas
strongly religious society its own laws, like the long-standing
Correspondent George Szpiro of the NZZ explains in an article.
His contribution is part of a series on the topic of 'Working Worlds' in which the NZZ in looser
Episode reports on aspects of everyday working life in different regions of the world.

Working life is pulsating in Israel: the software industry has made Tel Aviv a global high-tech center. However, young entrepreneurs encounter various types of resistance. Investors are less willing to take risks than in the USA, and the sometimes still strict religious rules are not always conducive to business.

In the first decades after the founding of the state, Israel sought economic success in traditional activities such as agriculture or the textile industry. But wage costs are far too high for labor-intensive production today in a regional comparison - with a statutory minimum wage of the equivalent of 1200 francs per month and high social security contributions. Now the economy in Israel is based more and more on high technology. Excellent universities ensure a constant supply of specialized workers, which, however, can no longer fully satisfy the demand. A boom of young hardware and software companies has developed in and around Tel Aviv, and today the city on the Mediterranean is considered one of the world's high-tech centers. The need for “brainpower” has increased so much that the country's seven universities are bursting at the seams. In some cases, the demand for academic degrees is blooming. For example, there is a rule that state employees who have studied at a higher education institution automatically receive pay increases. A second-rate college from England quickly set up an overseas campus that teaches a very rudimentary program. Today the school has more students in Israel than at home. After completing such a lightweight BA program, for example, many police officers were able to collect salary increases of over CHF 1000 per month.

Ongoing training

Zipporah is one of the dynamic, aspiring young women typical of the “yuppies” in Tel Aviv. She studied English and French at the University of Tel Aviv and then worked as a receptionist in a large hotel for six months. Her languages ​​served her well, but academic studies were superfluous. The salary and the chances of advancing into an interesting position were correspondingly low. After thirty years of work, your direct superior earned the equivalent of CHF 2,000 a month. Frustrated by such prospects, Zipporah moved to a high-tech company where she was hired as the right-hand man of the vice president of marketing. After two years her salary was a little over 3000 Fr. But Zipporah was aware that with her language studies she would never be able to take on higher management positions. So she took a programming course and a promotion became a possibility.

But two years after joining the company, the company was sold to an American company. For Zipporah this was an opportunity to change the scene. She received her severance payment in the amount of two months' salary and began looking for a new field of activity. Initially, she registered with the Ministry of Labor as unemployed and received allowances for half a year. However, the unemployed have to accept every job advertised, and Zipporah found it difficult to refuse jobs as a gardener or carer in an old people's home. An advanced course in the Java programming language, partly financed by the ministry, followed. After completing the course, Zipporah found a job in the advertising department of a technology company, working in marketing and communications. Her salary started at CHF 2500 and jumped to CHF 3500 after just three months. Always on the lookout for career-enhancing jobs, Zipporah enrolled at the Israeli Institute of Academic Studies, a branch of Manchester University in England. During the two-year part-time course she can be trained as a Master of Business Administration at a cost of CHF 18,000. She hopes that this diploma will open further doors for her. Zipporah is expecting her first child these days. Then she will claim the three-month maternity leave she is legally entitled to and later climb the career ladder.

Jewish dietary laws as a stumbling block

Norbert immigrated to Israel in 1995 with his wife Annemarie and their five children. In Frankfurt he had been a successful filmmaker and businessman, but he no longer liked life in Germany. In particular, Norbert, who was brought up as a religious Jew, did not like the anti-Israeli attitude of his mostly far-left friends. Norbert was relatively wealthy and wanted to afford a change. The couple's business endeavors in Israel can be aptly described with a common joke: “How can an immigrant make a small fortune in Israel? The best way to do this is by immigrating with a large fortune. "

Annemarie, who has a PhD in art history, and Norbert decided to open a restaurant in Jerusalem. In the Holy City, the two said, the potential customer base adheres to the Jewish dietary laws, and that is why the "Habustan", an attractive old building in the middle of the city, should become a kosher restaurant. The Jewish dietary laws stipulate a separation between meat and dairy dishes, and every restaurant has to choose one or the other menu. Since the meat restaurants are more strictly monitored by the representatives of the rabbinate, Norbert and Annemarie decided on a “milky” restaurant in which fish, spaghetti and cheese products can be offered.

In order to receive the corresponding «kashrut» certificate, the restaurant had to remain closed on the Sabbath, from Friday afternoon to Saturday evening. As a result, operations were idle on weekends when restaurants all over the world generate a large part of their sales. Another problem was that wines and spirits in kosher restaurants only account for a little more than 10% of sales, while in comparable non-kosher restaurants at least twice as much alcohol is consumed. Added to this were the additional costs, such as the fees for the kashrut inspector's several times a week inspection visits. In addition to the restrictions of the religious dietary laws, Annemarie and Norbert also had to struggle with a typical immigrant problem: ignorance of local conditions. The cook, who until he was hired at Habustan, had only been a sous-chef, pretended to be a chef with typical Israeli arrogance and demanded a monthly salary of 6,000 francs. This was around a third higher than the usual salary (although after deducting all taxes and social security contributions, an employee only has around half left). The five kitchen helpers, Arabs from East Jerusalem, received - much more modestly - 1,600 francs each. The service employees received their income from tips, which on good days amounted to up to 200 francs per day.

Immigrant naivete

But there was no success. After ten months, when all the red lights went on at Norbert, the losses amounted to 150,000 Swiss francs. The couple decided to radically reorganize the business. The kosher “Habustan” became “Al Fresco”, a restaurant for secular customers. Shrimps and mussels as well as steaks in cream sauce - all dishes that the kashrut law had previously banned - were now on the menu. Loud protests from the strictly religious environment followed, of course. Every Sabbath, two to three hundred Orthodox Jews gathered in front of the restaurant and demonstrated against the presence of the "wicked" company. Mounted police made sure that the mischief did not get out of hand, radio and television reported on the event, and «Al Fresco» was at full capacity.

However, as sales increased, so did losses. The cook had persuaded Norbert and Annemarie that in Israel a cost share of up to 70% of sales was quite common for groceries, and it took them a while to find out that this was not true. Eventually the cook was fired. He received the severance payment of one month's salary per working year, but in the litigation-friendly country, where there is one lawyer for every 350 immigrants, he promptly sued his former employers. According to the contract, he should have shared in the restaurant's profits, and he claimed that despite the red numbers, he was still entitled to 35,000 francs. In the meantime, Norbert is angry not only with his former head chef, but also with the court, which immediately granted the plaintiff's request for the restaurant's income to be confiscated. All credit card income from the restaurant will now go directly to a blocked account of the chef's legal representative until the court hearing. - But even with a new chef, profit did not soar as Annemarie and Norbert had hoped. At the beginning of May they therefore decided to change course again. After a renovation - more dim light, more intimate atmosphere, more comfortable seating - the establishment is to operate under the name «Leila» in the future. Instead of gourmet cuisine and expensive wine, the landlords want to attract a younger clientele with more home-style cooking and more affordable prices and keep them going.

Fast moving atmosphere

Before his military service, Dudi obtained various degrees as an electrical engineer. He then served in the army for six years, the last three years as an engineer. The salary was good, around 5,000 francs a month, plus large tax breaks. But he had little experience in the army. The apparatus was too big, the decision-making process not flexible enough. For the promotions one depended on politics and intrigue. Dudi just couldn't get on professionally and switched back to civilian life. In Tel Aviv, he joined a high-tech company as a product manager. He left the company three and a half years later because the promotion he had hoped for did not materialize. At a symposium, Dudi met two young men who had founded a “startup company”. Generally, in Israel's fast-paced atmosphere, employees only stay around two to three years, and each time they change jobs, workers expect a 20% to 30% increase in wages.

At his new employer, Dudi was the number 19 employee. Today there are 150 company employees worldwide. Dudi travels a lot and spends around half of his time abroad. He was already wondering whether it would be worth moving to the United States. His employer would very much appreciate that. Ten years ago emigration was almost equated with treason and Israelis abroad were ostracized. But times are changing in Israel too. But Dudi is willing to accept a drop in salary in order to stay at home. The quality of life in Israel is simply better. He would, however, consider moving away to found his own “startup company” because the environment in the USA is more conducive to the establishment of new companies. There, the money from the venture capital funds flows much more abundantly, and young entrepreneurs are given a freer hand. Here, investors operated “micromanagement” and would only make additional funds liquid under strict conditions. But before Dudi makes such far-reaching plans, he wants to complete his additional MBA degree.

haGalil onLine 01-06-2000