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Navigating Israel’s bureaucracy

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JERUSALEM, Dec. 22 (JTA) — “You have to arrive two hours before they open, or you’ll never get in,” people told me. “Even if you bring your whole filing cabinet, they’ll say you forgot something and that you have to come back tomorrow,” several friends warned me. “You heard about the baby, the one that needed emergency surgery in the U.S. and almost couldn’t leave because she didn’t have a passport picture?” a friend asked. For immigrants and natives alike, the Ministry of the Interior, or Misrad Ha’Pnim, is the stuff of Israeli urban legend. Of all the bureaucratic red tape that Israeli citizens must wade through, the Interior Ministry seems the most impenetrable. Here, the supposedly simple tasks of renewing a passport or changing one’s address are transformed into a nightmare of six-hour lines in a lobby bursting with wrestling children and nasty clerks. Maybe not all the Interior Ministry stories are true. But you don’t hear tales like these spun about any other government office. The time came where I could no longer defer my visit. I needed an Israeli passport to leave the country, and there was only one way to get one. As I walked heavy-footed toward the lobby, cursing myself for not having arrived at 6 a.m., I expected to see patrons pushing one another, fighting to be first to confront the hostile clerk. But when I walked into the lobby, there were only a handful of people waiting. And when I checked the numbered ticket in my hand, I realized there were only 15 people in front of me. One was a hippie-looking guy with flowing clothes, a long beard, peyos and a big kipah playing Shlomo Carlebach tunes on his guitar. For a moment I was convinced I had the wrong office, till someone came out from the back and yelled at him to stop. Before I even had time to read a chapter in my book, my number flashed on the board. I eyed the clerk from the seating gallery. She looked pleasant enough, a bleached-blonde, middle-aged Israeli woman with a seemingly mild disposition. Still, I approached cautiously, one hand in front of me, tiptoeing toward her as if she were a rabid dog. I greeted her with the most pleasant “Shalom” ever recited, and neatly laid out the necessary documents, all completed in full. Without a word, she started entering the information into the computer. Her nameplate read Shlomit. “That’s a nice name,” I thought, “but it must be a cover.” Under the desk I had cash, check and credit card ready, as well as my flight coupons just in case she tried to send me home without my passport. “OK, 271 shekels,” Shlomit said, which came out to about 60 dollars “Excuse me, I thought that olim were suppose to get a discounted rate of 71 shekels,” a difference of about $45, I said. “Sorry, that’s only during your first year,” she responded. “You’ve been here for almost a year and a half, right?” “Are you sure?” I asked, finding myself getting pushy. “Yes, I’m sure,” Shlomit answered briskly. “Now, how do you want to pay?” Part of me wanted to live out my Interior Ministry fantasy in which I demand to speak to a manager and scream to him about my rights as an immigrant and a citizen. Instead, I handed over my credit card. “How long will it take to arrive?” I asked, fearing one last hurdle. My flight for the United States was in less than three weeks. “It will arrive at your post office in three days,” Shlomit answered while typing. “I’m sorry, did you say three days?” I asked in shock. “That’s right,” she said. She handed me the receipt and said, “OK, you’re done.” This was going much too easily. As I got up, I leaned over to her and said, “You know, Shlomit, people tell horrible stories of their experiences here.” “Really?” she said in complete shock. “Well, I’ve never heard any of these stories.” I walked out of the office about an hour after I had arrived, whistling the Carlebach tune I had heard in the lobby. Sure enough, three days later I got a slip in my mailbox for the passport. I thought to myself how exaggerated the stories about Israeli bureaucracy were. People have deferred their aliyah because of these kinds of stories. Admittedly, I haven’t yet bought a house or car, and yes, offices do run a bit slowly and inefficiently. But jumping through the bureaucratic hoops didn’t raise my blood pressure one digit during my whole absorption process. That is, until I enrolled for my Master’s Degree at Bar-Ilan University. On registration day, I wandered like a zombie from one office to the next, forms in my hand, clueless as to my next step. By the time I found the office I needed, it was after 3 p.m., and it had closed. So I had to make the hour-and-a-half commute from Jerusalem the next day as well. After several hours of varied offices and lines, I finally had my registration form ready. All I needed to do was to have it signed at the English office and pay at the bank. I walked in with a smile, waiting to exhale, sheet extended. But the secretary got up from her desk, yelled “No changes,” and closed the door in my face. I pushed it open a crack and said, “But I’m new here. I don’t even know what’s going on.” She ignored me and kept typing. “I don’t even understand why you’re yelling at me,” I said. “What am I supposed to do now?” I asked out loud, throwing up my hands. Seeing my frustration, another student in the office came over and told me that today was the last day of registration. “It’s already past noon, she said. “The only way you’re going to get help is from the other woman in the back. When she’s done with that student, tell her your situation and she’ll help you.” Thankfully, the other administrator did stay late and help me. But the lack of compassion and frustration inherent in bureaucracy already had affected me. I saw how these clerks hold the keys to your life in their hands, and their lack of concern hit the most sensitive of nerves. On the bus ride home, I tried to sympathize. Israel is still a young country, and I have to be patient while it works out the kinks. And maybe the system isn’t so much the problem; should a few rotten apples spoil the whole bunch? Plus, is this type of bureaucracy completely foreign to the United States? Every American can tell horror stories about the Department of Motor Vehicles, and I’ve heard that U.S. immigration offices are no carnival. It says in the Talmud that there are three things that cannot be acquired without great difficulty: Torah, life in the next world, and the Land of Israel. Amazing that our sages even then could see how sticky the bureaucratic tape would be in the future.

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