I certainly hope that no one was shocked by the "revelation" this past week that the Department of Health has no concrete plan to reduce smoking in Israel. Though more than 10,000 Israelis die each year from tobacco, and the percentage of Israelis over 18 who smoke has stayed steady, at about 25%, for the last several years, our Health Minister Ya'acov Ben-Yizri is pretty calm about the whole thing. And why shouldn't he be? After all, he himself has smoked two to three packs a day for six decades, and he
is still around. So why get all fired up over this smoking thing?
Some years ago, the Health Ministry did
try to come with creative legislation to curb the deadly habit. Smoking in government offices and public places was outlawed, and cafes and restaurants were required to install separate, ventilated areas if they wished to have a smoking section on premises.
But these laws proved to be toothless and completely ineffective. They are totally dependent on enforcement and penalties, and these are practically non-existent; so much so that Mr. Ben-Yizri refused to divulge the amount of fines that have been collected from those establishments that break the law.
But I have a solution: It's called Civil Disobedience. And it works.
HERE'S A true-to-life example: I was halfway through my meal a couple of months ago at a local, indoor restaurant, when diners at a nearby table decided to light up. I called over the waitress, who verified that there was, technically, no smoking section in the place. I asked her to please ask the other table to put out their cigarettes. I watched as she went over to them and requested that they stop smoking, but they continued on their merry, carcinogenic way. She then returned to my table and reported that she had, as I requested, done her due diligence and asked them to refrain from smoking. But they had refused, so that was all she could do.
I then asked her to bring the manager to my table. I informed him that not only was he in violation of a city ordinance, but that if the cigarettes were not put out in the next 60 seconds, our party would leave - without paying our bill. After all, if there are no rules, then there are no rules! The manager - sensing the seriousness in my voice - immediately went to the offending table and demanded that they put out their cigarettes at once, or he would do it for them. They grudgingly agreed - probably saving themselves several minutes of life - and the matter was resolved.
When the government does not act, then the citizens must step forward and do what is necessary. This is what Henry David Thoreau suggested when, in opposition to the United States' support of slavery, he refused to pay taxes in 1846. He spent a night in jail and remarked, "Under a government which imprisons anyone unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison." His subsequent essays on civil disobedience provided an antidote for helpless citizens who feel they lead lives "of quiet desperation."
OUR DECISION to be pro-active about the "little things" which chip away at the decency of everyday society does not have to be restricted to anti-smoking measures. Polite, yet determined disobedience can take on many forms. You can refuse to "save" strangers' places in line at the bank, which creates endless arguments and confusion as the queue suddenly trebles just as you are about to take your turn. You can block crazed motorcyclists who have decided that the sidewalks are now an extension of the thoroughfares for their reckless driving (remember the old bumper-stickers; "If you don't like the way I drive, stay off the sidewalks!"). And you can speak your mind to "rude-talkers" who carry on loud cell phone conversations at public places, including weddings and even funerals.
Abusers of the law depend upon the inaction and acquiescence of the public. There is no doubt that corruption at the highest levels of our government stems from our failure to get involved, and the knowledge that our combination of apathy and lack of communal consciousness will probably result in our just shrugging our shoulders and muttering under our breath, "T.I.I." (this is Israel).
But it doesn't have to be that way. Even before new elections (may they come soon) we can still vote: with our feet, with our mouths, with our stare and glare - and with our conscience.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra'anana. firstname.lastname@example.org