Aliyah diary: Take a number

Aliyah diary: Take a number

Israel’s governmental bureaucracy has a reputation for wrapping every transaction in vast amounts of red tape and attitude.

Admittedly, the reputation is well-earned. I’ve heard plenty of horror stories and experienced a few myself (like the one-armed postal clerk who took a leisurely pita break as swarms of us waited in a hot, cramped vestibule). But I see more than a glimmer of hope that things are changing for the better.

Most of our bureaucratic experiences since making aliyah two and a half years ago have been unexpectedly pleasant, even easy. The concept of customer service is taking hold in Israel, along with take-a-number ticket dispensers (Israelis are incapable of orderly turn-taking) and more sophisticated methods to boost efficiency. Though some departments still enforce a maddening siesta break from 1 to 4 p.m., that’s changing too.

Abigail Klein Leichman’s neighbor, Elisheva Reichman, takes a number at the Ma’aleh Adumim post office.

When my husband and daughter went to the Licensing Bureau to apply for Israeli driver’s licenses, the clerk checked our family ID numbers on her computer and offered to take care of my paperwork as well, even though I was not there. What a nice surprise!

The Ministry of the Interior’s Jerusalem office is infamous for its long wait times. But at the branch in Ma’aleh Adumim, we have never waited longer than 10 minutes before successfully completing a passport application or address change.

For my annual routine medical screenings, I simply called our health plan and was guided through making appointments at its central Jerusalem clinic. A swipe of my member card took care of paying the nominal fees, to be added to the modest amount automatically deducted monthly from our bank account. Each appointment took place reasonably on time, and as I left I received a CD with a backup of all results for my primary care physician.

Not bad for a young Middle Eastern country that spends most of its meager budget on the necessities of bare survival.

Nevertheless, I was prepared for the worst as I went looking for the tax authority branch nearest the offices of one of my part-time jobs.

Anyone earning two Israeli salaries – and that encompasses many of us – must go to a tax bureau and apply for a waiver from income tax on all but one job.

Naturally, the day I chose to accomplish this dreaded errand was the only inclement one that week. Rain was coming down in sheets and wind was whipping my face. Inside the tax bureau, I took a number and waited less than three minutes before a young Arab clerk called me over.

Speaking excellent English, Salim joked amiably as he assisted me in filling out the application. “How much do you estimate you’ll earn this year?” he asked. “Not much,” I replied, and we both laughed.

Two minutes later I was out of there, precious waiver in hand.

I could have faxed it from home. Instead I chose to walk the six minutes to my employer’s office. I arrived wind-blown but triumphant – until the bookkeeper informed me that Salim had entered one detail incorrectly and I would have to go back for a new form.

The security guard at the tax bureau recognized me from before, took pity on my drenched state, and ushered me right past the metal detector.

As it was now 5:30 p.m., I didn’t know if the office would still be open. But it was. Salim’s jaw dropped as he read the note from the bookkeeper. “Ooooh, I am so sorry,” he exclaimed, and quickly printed out a corrected waiver. “I will fax it to her myself,” he said. “I must make up to you for my mistake.”

My toes were squishing around in my water-logged boots by then, but I couldn’t help leaving Salim’s office with a smile and a sincere “thank you.”

For those who will retort, “You just got lucky! My Uncle Sam waited five hours at the Licensing Bureau just last week!” it must be noted that Israelis do not have a lock on bureaucratic tomfoolery.

What American has not waged battle with licensing agencies, insurance companies, or the IRS? Who has not spent hours pressing menu options in a vain attempt to talk with a human? Who hasn’t been sent home from the local motor vehicles commission for failing to bring the correct documents?

A cousin of mine pointed out that many Americans moving to Israel think bureaucratic hurdles are higher here, but that is only because they never experienced being immigrants in the United States. Or in Canada, where the same government bureaucrat who explained to my cousin how to process his immigration paperwork informed him the very next day, when he showed up prepared, that the rules had changed that morning.

No matter where one relocates, paperwork and bureaucracy are unavoidable. But I give Israel credit for trying to improve an imperfect system.

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