Proteksia, Bureaucracy and The Strike

Cathy Tuttle and David Notkin (c) 1997

Life is not a felafel sandwich. Part of life in every country is dealing with bureaucracy. It's especially challenging to make sense of bureaucracy in a foreign country, more due to cultural differences than language. (Even friends who have moved from the U.S. to Canada have told us this.) The first time we were brought face-to-face with bureaucracy in Israel was getting our five year-old daughter, Emma, into kindergarten. We tried to find a place for her while we were still in Seattle but the pre-school at Matam (the high-tech park where David's office is) was full. And the school at the kibbutz down the road was full. (We were excited about the kibbutz because it is a dairy farm and has a swimming pool. What could be better for a five year-old!) But everyone assured us the public schools would have space and be just fine.

On our second or third day here, we took a walk through our neighborhood, stopping for coffee and cookies at a bakery, and just wandering around. We peeked into one building on our street where we heard children's voices and---lo and behold---it was a kindergarten, a "gan." In fact, it was two of them, side-by-side. The answer to our dreams, just a short walk from our house, and filled with neighborhood kids who might become playmates. But the teachers on each side said, "I'm sorry, we're full, we have our full complement of 35 students." At the playground we talked to some mothers who said, "The school is full, 35 children in each room is the limit."

Then our friend Eitan offered to help us find a school for Emma. He got copies of David's and Emma's passports, called the school system, and was told that our neighborhood school was full. So was the next closest one. And, we think, the next closest one, too. But Eitan said he'd call some friends in the government. For a day or two, we didn't hear much. Then Eitan called and told us, "OK, she's been admitted into the gan in Ramat Eshkol (our neighborhood school). I'll bring the papers by tonight. And tomorrow, ask for the teacher named Ety." Cathy was concerned that the teacher would be angry because we were adding an overload to her class, and that it had taken some personal pull by Eitan to get it to happen. But Ety looked at the paper, gave Emma a hug, and that was that.

In fact, everybody in Israel says that this is just how the place works. There's even a word for it, proteksia. Basically, using connections and pushing on people is the way a lot is done here. We asked another friend about building codes; they apply unless you have the right proteksia. A friend who moved here from Australia calls it "Vitamin P."

Bath-sheva, Eitan's wife, was equally helpful in helping Cathy get Akiva through the medical system. We've taken Akiva back to the same (excellent) pediatrician several times, but we only paid the first time. We have no idea why or how to handle it in the future. Bath-sheva says, "Just don't worry about it." Of course, we do anyway. Bath-sheva also taught us the usefulness of having an infant. After seeing the doctor, we went to pick up a prescription for Akiva. There was a long, long line; and Bath-sheva basically said, "We have a sick baby, let us go first." And people did. We've had old women let us in front of the line at the supermarket because we have an infant, too (of course, they also yelled at us for not keeping him warm enough).

Getting David's work visa was a bureaucratic nightmare. IBM had the necessary papers, except for insurance approval. After some twists and turns, the University of Washington wrote a letter saying that David was insured for just about everything. By taking this letter and the insurance booklet to a special person at one of the hospitals in Haifa (and paying 58 shekels, about $17), David got an insurance waiver. Then it was off to the Ministry of Interior Affairs for the work visa. The first day he got there, the line outside the building was about 50 people long at 8:40AM (the doors opened at 8AM). So the next day he got smart and showed up about 7:45AM: the line was still the same length. The doors opened promptly at 8AM and, after about 45 minutes, he got to the main desk and was given number 81. He asked which office to go to and found it at the end of a long, extremely crowded corridor. The door was closed, with a sign that looked like it should have "Number 12 being served" written on it. But it didn't. Somebody said that they were serving number 16 and that it was their coffee break. (Bureaucrats here take coffee breaks in full view of everybody, which can be maddening.) Well, to make a long morning short, at 12:45PM, David was seated in front of an immigration officer. This was very pleasing, since they were supposed to close at noon, but perhaps they serve everybody they've given a number to. When David told a friend how long he had waited, the friend commented that most of the people in line were probably Russians (they were) and thought nothing of the long wait.

The immigration officer was quite helpful, ripping off and re-stapling some pages to get David the right visa (the one that lets him re-enter the country during his working period without waiting in line again, well worth the extra 110 shekels). At one point the officer asked, "Have your parents ever lived in Israel?" David said his father and his grandparents had lived in Palestine for several years in the 1930s, when they came to run a small pension in Netanya, before returning to the U.S. The clerk kept tapping at the keys of her computer, occasionally asking questions like, "Are you sure your grandmother wasn't from Yugoslavia?" A supervisor came over and asked the same questions. At the end, they were still baffled about why they didn't have anything about on record about these early Notkins, even though they lived here over 50 years ago, before Israel's statehood. And David was baffled about why it would really matter. But the immigration official took the 220 shekels, stamped the passport, and David went off a tired, but happy, camper.

Our son, Akiva just over two months old and he has never been in a baby carriage. This situation arose, not because we have any moral objections to strollers, but because of a set of fiascos that has kept our luggage from us for two months. Some of the blame for our lack of luggage is clearly ours. We decided to ship our belongings, instead of taking everything for the sabbatical on the airplane with us, as we did when we traveled to Japan. We have learned our lesson. We will never, ever, ever, ship household goods for a sabbatical again.

But we reasoned we had a baby and needed all sorts of awkwardly large baby things: a stroller, a wide range of baby clothes, a jolly jumper. And to make the move easier for Emma, we decided to send over boxes of little kid toys and books. And we had heard English language books are expensive in Israel (they are), and then we decided we wanted a TV and heard they cost three times as much to buy here as in the US (they do). And by the time we had collected all sorts of things to send, we decided it would be cheaper, safer and faster to send all of this stuff by boat. We were wrong. We paid a lot of money and bought the smallest space we could (100 cubic feet but we barely managed to fill half of our container) from an overseas shipping firm. A week after Akiva was born we said goodbye to most of our favorite clothes, books, toys, and stroller. Our stuff traveled for eight long weeks, by truck, train, and boat, from Seattle to Haifa. And then the bureaucratic headaches began.

It turns out our used books and old worn clothes were more valuable than we expected. According to our Haifa shipping agent, we needed to pay several thousand dollars of duty. We were stunned. People making aliyah (immigrating to Israel) are allowed to bring in a limited number of "essential" items: one TV, one refrigerator, one washing machine (but not a dishwasher). Because we were not immigrants, and electrical appliances are so expensive here, we had been told by our shipping agent in Seattle we needed to guarantee we would not make a profit on the electrical items we had shipped. We expected perhaps to sign a document to show we had not sold our TV here. But once our household goods arrived in Haifa we were told we had to pay taxes on all of them, used baby clothes and all. David was told he could get a letter from IBM lawyers saying we would take our stuff home with us. For a week or so, he unsuccessfully tried to get this letter. Then we found out from friends who had gone through this process that they put a large sum of money in a one year bond at the bank as a guarantee. Of course we decided to do this but were at once faced with bank bureaucracy. After Cathy pleaded that she needed a stroller to convince a grumpy bank official to expedite paperwork (Akiva helped by crying in the bank), after endless paperwork, after two days and hundreds of dollars (not to mention thousands of dollars tied up in an Israeli bond), we had a piece of paper that our shipping agent could take to custom officials to release our household goods.

Then the next morning the custom officials went on strike. Actually the whole country went on strike. In all, 700,000 people (the total population, including kids, is about 6,000,000) were on strike last week in Israel, including Emma's kindergarten teacher and the public health nurse that Cathy was scheduled to see with Akiva. Banks and the post office were closed. Garbage wasn't collected and buses didn't run. The airport was closed to international traffic for four days. The strike started when the Labor Minister insulted the unionized workers of Israel by calling them "time-bombs waiting to explode." When we asked friends when the strike would end, they seemed quite blasť about it, saying strikes happened all the time and this one would end in a day or two. If a comparable strike were held in the US, 25-30 million people would be on picket lines. Considering its magnitude, there little commentary in the newspaper about the strike, so we were left a bit perplexed about why the strike began or how it ended.

But after a week or so, the strike did end, and our shipping agent took our papers to the customs agents. Now that our belongings have cleared customs, we are waiting for delivery of our stroller (and our passports, which the shipping agent has held since this ordeal started). But the rainy season just started, and we found out the shipping company will not deliver in the rain.

At this point, we find we have been presented with a great opportunity to simplify our lives by simplifying our possessions. Cathy finds a certain pleasure in only having two pairs of pants to choose from in the morning: the black polka dots or the brown flowers. Emma thoroughly enjoys her small box of toys and has spent a great deal of creative time with a sketchpad and markers. We are less than enthusiastic about the imminent arrival of 23 boxes filled with stuff to clutter our household again. But we do miss the stroller.