January 6, 2015

Chik Chak

Chik chak.”

That’s what he said when he left the Misrad Hap'nim, the Ministry of the Interior. Black Israeli humor at its finest; there is no chik chak in government offices.

Here we were sitting, standing, fidgeting, playing with smart phones, hemming and hawing, checking our watches…all waiting to receive our new identity cards, the much acclaimed teuda zeut chacham or intelligent identity card.

 A few weeks back, we had waited in what seemed like the longest line ever. There we filled in a form, had our photos and fingerprints taken and were told to come back and pick up the card. Waiting time for pick up? No more than ten minutes. Sounded pretty straightforward.

Wow. Teudat zeut chacham, the smart identity cardHere we were, exchanging our regular ‘dumb’ ID cards for the ‘smart’ version, a biometric card that reads your fingerprint and is innovative, top-of-the-line, progressive, fraud-safe.

As the office told me, I received a text message saying my card was ready and went to the pick up area in the Misrad Hap'nim, imagining it would take ten minutes tops. I entered a packed waiting area. Most seats were taken and people were starting to mill in the hallway. I grabbed a seat and noticed that after 20 minutes, only one person had been served.

“Mi ha’acharon?” Who is last? Each new arrival asked our growing group, as we all pointed in unison to the last in line, like tattling children in a kindergarten. This was a chatty crowd, as are all ‘waiting’ Israelis. Be it a bank line, a grocery queue or a bomb shelter, everyone has something to add.

"What are they doing in there?" "How could it take so long to pick up a card?" People craned their necks to get a peek inside.

“Seems to me this smart identity card is not so smart,” a man chimed in, twiddling his thumbs.

Everyone chuckled in agreement.

“No one values our time,” one woman said, shooting off a text message with a whoosh.

“Ma la’asot?” an older woman added. Everyone groaned in agreement that there was nothing to do and returned to their phones. The woman’s phone then chimed the most toxic ring tone and, pressing every button, she could not shut it off.

"Ein ma la'asot." A newcomer said, adding a cherry to the top of the last comment.  And the group growled and clicked away on their smartphones.

Hold it. I'm getting a smart I.D. card and it is taking longer to pick it up than apply for it. Is this normal? I know biometric sounds impressive, but is this process really efficient and smart?

I looked in the office. There was one clerk at a desk. It reminded me of the interminable lines at the post office. Aside from the single clerk, I saw two open drawers that looked like they could have once been filled with socks. There were index cards inside with hand-written letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Not very biometric-looking to me.

A woman came out, a new employee on the scene. We all looked up hopefully and stared at her. She announced that if we gave her our old identity cards, she would help make the process faster. Yippee. We all leapt from our seats and gave her our cards.

She then went to the sock drawers and started paper clipping the new card to our old ID cards. But nothing happened.

Thirty minutes had passed.

“Now we can’t even run away from this mess,” one woman in the crowd remarked. “They have our old ID card and our new one.”

Prisoners of this bureaucracy, everyone in the room and in the hallway grunted and went back to their text and emails and cyber lives. (At least they did not confiscate our cell phones, like they do at the Canadian Consulate in Tel Aviv.)

Israel is progressive…yet is not. A case in point. Recently, the parliament tried to pass legislation to charge shoppers for plastic grocery bags. I, an ardent canvas bag carrier, was exuberant. Yet the bill did not pass. Why?  It was unfair to the plastic bag manufacturers, it would cost the consumer too much and the tax ministry (not the environmental ministry) was poised to collect the windfall. 

After forty minutes, it was finally my turn. My new card was put into a computer reader, I was asked for my fingerprint and was given an envelope to activate the card. Voila. I was ready to go forth to a biometric future. I ran outside to find a ray of sunshine and wait for my husband who was next in line.

Ten minutes later he called to tell me they couldn’t find his card in the sock drawer.  Twenty minutes later he called exasperated. Maybe the letter beit from his surname was filed under the letter tzaddik. He eventually came outside biometrically card-less.

We were halfway home when we received a call that the card was finally located, making a sharp U-turn and heading back to bureaucracy.

This morning's trial showed us yet again that Israel is surely a country of miracles. Who runs Israel? Certainly not the Interior Ministry. Not only has Israel survived 66 years surrounded by enemies, faced with wars, entangled in intense bureaucracy and internal political strife, its economy has grown exponentially, it has made countless scientific discoveries, medical advances and is a leading start-up nation.

Who runs Israel? My husband and I looked beyond the bulldozers carving out highways and the multitude of cranes building blocks of apartments. We looked way, way up to the blue sky above. And we smiled. In Israel, we are often reminded about Who runs the show and Who ensures the existence of this tiny country every moment of the day. Chik chak.

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