“Not My Problem”

by Brian on June 12, 2006

in Only in Israel

We finally moved last week. After months of renovations that I began chronicling in the post Ka-Ching, by the time you read this we will be firmly – if not entirely comfortably – ensconced in our new home.

The process went remarkably smoothly. For the amount of work we had done on our new apartment, the timeline was quick (a fast three months) and the screw-ups were minimal.

Except for one.

We were about half way through the process. We had hired a carpenter recommended by our architect. He had come to install the cabinets under the sink in the children’s bathroom. This required some drilling into the ceramic tiles on the wall.

For reasons that I still don’t understand, Menachem the carpenter aimed his drill into the wall in a line directly under the sink faucet. I wasn’t watching at the time, but in retrospect this seemed as likely a place for a pipe to be placed as any. So it shouldn’t have been surprising that, as the drill bit went in, water began spraying into bathroom.

“Uh oh,” Menachem muttered to himself and then began calling out those three little words you never want to hear during a shiputz (renovation): “Yesh lanu baya.” Houston, we have a problem.

Tomer, the contractor – who was standing a few feet away in the adjoining bedroom – came running.

“Why why why?” he groaned, which is the Israeli equivalent of “oy” and “you idiot!”

“Why didn’t you ask me first?” he demanded of Menachem who shrugged helplessly.

Tomer immediately got to work with one of his crewmembers. They had to shut off the water, drill away the tile to reveal the plumbing guts within, patch up the pipe with several metal connectors, put a new tile in, and reapply the roba (“grout” in English, which sounds to me more like a disease than a plumbing material) which seals the tile against moisture.

While he was working Tomer turned to my wife Jody and me. “He’s going to have to pay, you know. 1200 shekels. That’s the cost of this.”

Was NIS 1200 – about $260 – the right amount? We had no way of knowing if it was too high or low. But the concept seemed fair. You cause damage, you take responsibility. The matter was forgotten for the next six weeks until it was time to settle up with the contractor.

As Jody reviewed the bill for all the carpentry work we had done with Menachem, she deducted the NIS 1200 from the total and showed him the final number.

“No,” Menachem said as he looked at the paper.

“No…what?” Jody responded.

“No, I’m not going to pay for that,” Menachem said matter-of-factly, pointing at the NIS 1200. “It’s not my problem,”

“How can this not be your problem?” I interjected. “You drilled a hole, you hit a pipe, you made a mistake.”

“No,” Menachem repeated. “How can I to know what’s behind the walls?”

“The contractor was standing right there!” My voice was getting louder. “You could have asked.”

“It’s your house. It’s not my problem. I won’t pay.”

Now, if it had been a matter of negotiating over how much to pay, I could have dealt with that. But for a supplier to clearly cause damage and then deny any responsibility whatsoever, that was beyond my comprehension.

Of course, I’ve heard about this kind of attitude – it’s typically Israeli. You see it among our politicians every day. One government office passes the buck to another.

Remember the horrific tragedy in 2001 when the floor of Jerusalem’s Versailles Wedding Hall collapsed killing 23 Israelis? The owners blamed the contractors, the contractors blamed the inventor of the ill-fated “Pal-Kal” system, and everyone blamed the vacancies in the city’s Building department for a shortage of inspectors.

But up until today, I imagined this as a quaint anachronism to be suffered from a distance. Something to laugh about if it wasn’t too personal.

But Menachem’s approach was as in-your-face as it comes. And he wasn’t planning on leaving until he got his money.

All of it.

Now, there are two emotional elements at play in this drama. Resistance to being a freier – the Israeli epithet for “sucker,” someone who gets taken advantage of – and a strong distaste for conflict.

For an Israeli, being a freier is the worst possible outcome of any encounter. Jody and I, on the other hand, abhor conflict. We hate it when a previously positive relationship is marred by a disagreement.

We hate being freiers too, but if we have to choose between being a freier and conflict, we’ll invariably opt for the latter. We want to be able to run into our contractor if we’re walking down the street and shake hands with a smile.

You’re probably thinking, what are the chances of that? But Israel is a small place. You’d be surprised.

“Let’s split the difference,” Jody said to Menachem. “You pay 600 and we’ll eat the rest.” We were clearly being freiers, but we also had a nagging suspicion that maybe our contractor, wasn’t being entirely fair either. NIS 1200 for a job that took a couple of hours while he was already on the premises…wasn’t that laying roba on the bricks a bit thick too?

Again we were stonewalled. “If you don’t want pay, what can I do?” Menachem said, disparagingly. “But I’m not agreeing to pay anything,”

“Fine, if that’s the way you want it, you get nothing,” I said. In this battle of wills, we still had the upper hand: we had the money.

“35 years in the business and this has never happened before,” Menachem muttered under his breath.

Sweat was pouring down Menachem’s face. Our hearts were beating (well, mine was, I can’t vouch for Jody’s).

And then Menachem blinked. Just a little. He started scribbling on our page with the numbers. He wrote a new amount. It was the total minus NIS 200. He shoved it in our direction.

“And what, we’re supposed to just absorb the remaining 1000?” I responded to his “generous” offer.

“It’s not my problem.”

Not again…

Jody and I huddled but held fast. Menachem continued to sweat and then scribbled some more. He upped his proposal to NIS 400.

It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right. But we took it. We’d raise the issue of the remaining NIS 800 with our contractor. Maybe he’d come down. Or maybe we’re just the biggest freiers in Jerusalem. Probably not that either, though that’s how it felt at the moment.

Immediately, Menachem’s face relaxed. He smiled for the first time in a long while. He asked for a glass of water.

Jody pulled out the checkbook. Then we walked Menachem to the door and shook hands as if nothing had happened.

And that’s the flipside to Israeli stubbornness and the absolute rejection of ever being branded a freier. Israelis don’t hold grudges. They are quick to forgive.

Once Menachem had given in enough to feel he’d “saved face,” the matter was closed. He never admitted any responsibility but at least he felt magnanimous. We could meet on the street or share a cup of coffee on the beach. It took a little bit of mental carpentry, but ultimately we were able to craft out our own happy ending.

One worry remained: were we setting a bad example for our children…that one shouldn’t stand up for one’s convictions? Why should they fight for causes they believe in if their own parents give in over such a clear-cut open and shut case of negligence?

Well, that’s not my problem…

Have you had an experience in Israel where you’ve encountered the “not my problem” won’t-take-responsibility syndrome? Post a comment on the blog and let’s share the misery!

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Anonymous June 13, 2006 at 1:53 am

After having spent six years in Israel, I was returning to the US, and shipping a few things back. I went to my local bank to change dollars into sheckels, to pay for the shipping. I did not know how much the shipping would cost, so I purposely converted alot, just to be sure to cover all shipping costs. Before doing this, I confirmed with the bank officer, that I would be able to convert the sheckels back into dollars, at the preferred bank rate after I paid for the shipping. (In those days, there was a higher rate to buy dollars for “travelers.”)
I sent my boxes home, and then returned to the bank to change the unused sheckels into dollars. I was told that the local bank (Maalot Bank Hapoalim) did not have any dollars there, and that I would need to go to Nahariya to complete the transaction. I got to Nahariya, and was then told that I would have to buy dollars at the higher travelers rate, because it had not been six months since I had converted the money. I then told the clerk that I had been assured in Maalot that I could buy the dollars back at the rate that I had paid for them. The clerk basically laughed in my face. I gave him a lecture about why so many Olim from North America return home; that we did not like being cheated by him and his ilk. He did not care. I then bought the dollars back at the higher rate, and left knowing that I had once again been the “friar” in Israel.
The looking for the friar is so prevalent in Israel. I can remember going to a falafel shop, and ordering a falafel, and the owner giving me only four falafel balls, instead of the customary six. I told him to give me six, and he did so, but also lost a customer. I remember in Tel Aviv, buying newspapers, and always counting my change, because the clerk would usually shortchange me by a few argorot. I remember wanting to take a sherut from Nahariya to Maalot on a Friday afternoon, and being with group of Israelis. The driver told us it was three sheckels, instead of two. I was ready to pay, but my group told him to stuff it. He eventually agreed to two.
Looking for the friar is simply part of the Israeli mentality.

2 Anonymous June 13, 2006 at 1:20 pm

You never even seemed to raise the queston of why the contractor didn't go to the carpenter directly for the 1200NIS? The Contractor said to your wife that HE (carpenter) wil pay for this, so why didn't he send the bill for these repairs directly to him??
(I know, I know .. not my problem)

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