by Brian on July 25, 2008

in Only in Israel

It was supposed to be a simple process. 16-year-old Amir had lost his teudat zehut – his identity card – when it fell out of his pocket on a bus a few months back. By Israeli law, once you turn 16, you’re supposed to carry your ID with you at all times.

Getting a replacement card meant a trip to the dreaded office of the Interior Ministry. Actually it’s not so bad…anymore. But when I first got to Israel 20 years ago and I needed to renew my student visa, it was a nightmare. A crowded room full of hundreds of people, all smoking, waiting to meet with the surliest of Israeli clerks. Nothing was computerized back then. The process could take hours.

Nowadays, smoking is forbidden, people wait their turn, and the clerks…well, if you’re really nice, they may almost smile.

Armed with two photos and his Israeli passport, Amir headed downtown. He walked up to the information booth and told the woman behind the desk that he needed to replace his ID. “Did you bring a parent?” she asked. “No,” he said. “I didn’t know I needed to.” He was, after all, 16 now and this was a replacement ID.

That was on Monday. On Tuesday, I accompanied Amir back to the Interior Ministry. We arrived at 1:30 PM and the door was shut. We knocked. A man poked his head out and, just like the guard in the Wizard of Oz, told us abruptly “We’re closed,” and pointed at a sign clearly stating that opening hours were from 8:00 AM until 12:00 PM.

“But I checked on the Internet,” Amir said. The Interior Ministry’s website reported that the office was open until 4:00 PM non-stop. The sign on the door, however, clearly hadn’t been updated in the 20 years since I first visited. “The Internet lies,” Amir muttered as we trudged away.

We went to a nearby coffee shop and ordered two mocha ice coffee blends as consolation.

Two days later we were back, this time well before 12:00 PM. We got in and took a number. As we sat in the waiting room, I studied the people. There is probably no better cross section of the Israeli public than a government office. The room was a hodge podge of different communities: ultra Orthodox, ultra secular, Russian and American immigrants, Arab residents of East Jerusalem. A majority of the women seemed pregnant, or so it appeared from a quick sampling.  

After about an hour we got called up the station 4. “Good afternoon,” I said in my best Hebrew with a sprig in my verbal step. Yardena, whose nametag indicated she was the head of the division, managed a wan upturn of a lip.

Yardena asked Amir some questions, took his papers and pictures and asked to see his passport. All the while other clerks were asking her questions or thrusting applicants’ papers in her face.

Although chaotic, everything seemed in order. She busily stamped and signed this document and that. And then she cried: “Oy! I cancelled your passport by mistake.”

Horror spread across our faces. “But he’s traveling overseas in two days!” I said.

Cancelling a passport is not an error that can easily be rectified. Yardena in her confusion had gone so far as to cut the corners of his passport to make it invalid. Even though Amir has dual Israeli and American citizenship, an Israeli citizen needs to leave and enter the country on his Israeli passport.

Yardena thrust a yellow paper in front of us. It was an application for a new passport. “Do you have two more photos?” she asked. Fortunately Amir did. We quickly filled in the form. Yardena meanwhile was working the phone. She dialed then hung up and redialed the number of an official in the passport department at least 50 times, all the while avoiding eye contact with us.

Finally, Yardena got up, took our paperwork and hustled out of the room. My mind began to imagine the worst. Amir would miss his flight. The airline would rebook him and charge us double. The passport would take weeks to arrive in the mail.

Yardena didn’t come back for a quarter of an hour while we sat alone at her desk stewing as the office of the Interior Ministry closed and the waiting room began to clear out.

Finally, Yardena returned. This time she was smiling. “It’s all taken care of,” she said. Go to room 207 and wait there. You’ll get your passport today.”

We breathed a sigh of relief and thanked her, although I’m not exactly sure what for. 10 minutes later we walked out with Amir’s new passport, “hot off the press,” Amir remarked. I thought of bagels.

Instead we went back to the coffee shop and ordered another round of ice coffees (I had vanilla, Amir had white chocolate, we both asked for extra whipped cream to celebrate). It was a semi-sweet reward for several days of dealing with the worst of Israeli bureaucracy. Coming up next: Amir gets his driver’s license. I shudder even thinking about visiting the local DMV.

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