Thursday, October 14, 2010

Passport over Purgatory

I have a story to share that will forever serve as an antidote to bad bureaucratic experiences in Israel.

We start in Afula, that most unassuming of towns in the Jezreel Valley. On Tuesday morning I arrived at eight o'clock sharp at the local government office. In five minutes I had half a dozen passport photos, produced after the store kindly provided a spare t-shirt to wear in place of my military uniform (unbeknownst to me, military insignia cannot appear in passport photos). Ten minutes later I left the office building with a guarantee that a new Israeli passport (why? check out NbN) with my name on it would be ready in five hours, later that afternoon.

Yes, you heard that right: Same day passport service!

The government clerk, a snappy middle-aged lady named Dina, had first told me that a passport would take a few days. Yet when I explained that I am a lone soldier trying to fly overseas as soon as possible, she crisply replied that I could return in the afternoon and my passport would be ready.

The passport was waiting for me on my return. A quick check revealed that everything was spelled correctly. Except...

"I think there has been a mistake," I stammered to Dina. "Under nationality, it says Israeli. I'm-"


Really?! Yes. Israeli. Wow, when did that happen?!

My surprise was probably only a delayed reaction to having received such smart and efficient service. Especially when the rest of my life has become a front row seat to the worst of Israeli bureaucratic purgatory. On paper I while away the hours at Tel Hashomer awaiting reassignment. In practice? Welcome to the Rubber Room, Israeli army style.

What is the Rubber Room? According to past residents,
* It is a system designed by Kafka and carried out by Mussolini.
* Rubber Rooms are like a gulag, the DOE version of Guantanamo.
* They call it the Rubber Room because if you are not crazy to start with, it will drive you crazy if you are there long enough.

Rubber Rooms are a NYC invention, "reassignment centers" designed to house suspended teachers whom receive full salary to sit in empty rooms and do nothing. My own experience bears uncanny similarities, especially with the sentiment one NYC teacher and US Military vet used to describe the rooms: "They can send this old soldier back to Iraq. Anywhere else is better than the rubber room. I would much rather face Al-Qaeda bullets and bombs."

My own plan to escape the Israeli Army's version of the rubber room was protekzia. When my contacts failed to quickly pull me into a new unit, it was time for plan B: Grab a flight and spend the weeks overseas until the formal reassignment wheels get rolling in mid-November.

Trying to persuade the army to grant me a free flight to America, a one-time perk provided to lone soldiers (soldiers whose parents live overseas) by the American charity Friends of the IDF, opened up an even more intimidating Pandora's box. Countless lines had to be waited in, doors knocked on, and excuses swallowed to make even the smallest headway. Part of my problem is I have become the loneliest of lone soldiers, stripped of any unit or command structure that will intercede and manage the bureaucracy on my behalf. Some days my life feels like a scene from The Matrix,
as Neo discovers that everyone save himself exists in pods connected to spiraling energy towers. Despite the apparent logic of using this dead time to fly overseas, hacking through the maze of military obfuscations is proving very trying.


The most mind numbing experiences often are full of funny asides. My time in Tel Hashomer is no exception.

One day I trooped off to a nearby office complex, filled to bursting with nineteen year old army girls. I came hoping to find someone who could fast-forward my flight request. Instead I found a strange world whose every inhabitant seemed to be either plucking facial hairs or munching on chocolate. Some of the female jobniks were even doing both at the same time! I was greeted with unfailing politeness, as girl after girl looked away from her reflection long enough to direct me to yet another unhelpful office. Wisely, I soon fled, fearing that if I stayed any longer I too would join their ranks.

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