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…