Horrible encounter with disgusting Israeli bureaucracy

I’ve been dreading this day ever since I got a notice last week that we owe the Israel Lands Authority $2,000. We don’t. My lawyer confirmed that. But it meant I had to go to Tel Aviv, stand in line and fight the bureaucrats. My lawyer said it would take all day–just waiting in line would be the most of it–and I was not likely to get a satisfactory answer. Then I would have to decide whether to just pay the bill or fight it in court, knowing that the legal expenses and lost time would amount to more than the $2,000. Joy.

I packed my sheaf of documents and my tablet, planning to get a good start on a new book while waiting for my turn. My lawyer said some people come in early, get a number, then come back three hours later when the number might be coming up.

I was on the train to Tel Aviv at 7:30 this morning. During the comfortable 25-minute ride, I read one of the two free Hebrew newspapers handed out at the train station. The soldier across from me reached up and plugged her iPhone charger into the electrical outlet fitted in the cars just for that. There’s free wifi, too.

The address was the “new government center,” not far from the train station. Government centers I know and love are dingy old buildings with narrow hallways, snarling clerks and scuffling citizens trying to be push their way into the same office ahead of everyone else.

Well…the “new government center” is this high-rise. I asked the woman sitting at a counter at the

“New government center,” Tel Aviv

entrance if this was the right place (I couldn’t believe it), and she said indeed, it is, and started speaking to me in English. Some immigrants, especially veterans like me, take offense at that, but I understand she was just trying to practice her English. Why not. On the way out I heard her speaking to a couple of tourists in English, so maybe I got her warmed up.

I walked briskly up the stairs to the fourth floor (I no longer take that for granted, as I’ve written here) and found myself in the Lands Authority office, a bright if somewhat spartan complex of cubicles and offices. There’s a machine that spits out numbers, but not before you punch in your ID number, then choose specifically what you’re there for. I got number 6. I figured they were counting backwards from 650 or something, and started looking for number 17, the cubicle where I was supposed to wait. The cubicles went up to number 15. Figures. I asked a clerk, and she smiled and said 17 is in the hallway.

Sure enough, it’s a room off the main hall. I sat down in the row of chairs across from the door. The guy next to me had number 5. He went in and settled his business in 10 minutes or so, and then it was my turn. Altogether I waited 15 minutes.

The clerk took my papers, and while she was getting my file up on her computer screen, she said, “There are a lot of these now. It’s usually a mistake.” Sure enough, it was a mistake from nearly 20 years ago, and it had been accruing interest charges ever since. She just canceled the entry, canceled the bill and handed me the file with the coveted “zero” at the bottom. That was it.

OK, so you could say that I wasted three hours of my time getting to the office, getting the mistake corrected and getting home. I don’t look at it that way.

Instead, after two years living and working in Egypt, where the government offices are like the dingy ones I was expecting, where the only way to get anything done is with bribes or insiders, and usually you just hire someone to get it done for you, I understand how unusual it is for a Middle Eastern country to work as smoothly as Israel does. I’m glad I live in this one.

And I can run up the stairs to the fourth floor, too.

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