On paper, it sounds like a pretty sweet gig. In reality, it’s pretty good, too – a fat salary to work outdoors half the year surrounded by girls in bikinis on some of the country’s most beautiful beaches.
Nonetheless, with the summer bathing season upon us, what feels like annual slowdown by lifeguards is also in full force, making the beaches more dangerous, and perhaps a bit quieter as the lifeguard station loudspeakers go silent at 2 p.m. rather than 6 p.m. when beaches are supposed to close.
On Metzitzim Beach in Tel Aviv – made famous by the 1972 Uri Zohar and Arik Einstein film from the golden age of Israeli cinema when budgets were low and sensitivity to sexual harassment even lower – the “strike” had not brought the bathing season to a sandy halt on Tuesday.
There were black flags set up in the water and signs saying the beach was closed to swimming, but there were still a few bathers in the water and a couple of lifeguards overhead in the booth taking in the scene.
A young, pregnant mother, Victoria, packed up her belongings at the beach front, but said she and her two kids were leaving because they’d been there a while, not because of the strike.
She added that, while she doesn’t let her two kids swim alone if a lifeguard isn’t present, the trash and jellyfish in the water are bigger concerns.
Attempts to speak with lifeguards at the beach were met with a level of stonewalling befitting a clandestine intelligence service. At three different lifeguard booths along the north central Tel Aviv beach, all attempts were rebuffed, at times with a healthy portion of hostility. One older lifeguard with leathery orange skin treated press inquiries like a Donald Trump fanatic and denied there was a strike at all. Then, about 30 minutes later, he got on the loudspeaker to tell the public that the lifeguards were packing it in – about four hours before they’re supposed to. This was no accident, said Yaakov Sheen, a representative of the National Association of Lifeguards.
“None of them will speak with you, but it’s not a Shin Bet thing [Israel Security Agency], it’s that most don’t know the details of what the strike is about and don’t want to get it wrong. Also, they’ve all been told by the municipalities not to say anything.”
Sheen, 54, spent 23 years as a lifeguard on Israel’s beaches.
He said the Finance Ministry “has offered all types of things” including canceling their weekend day off in exchange for an alternate day off during the week, but that there isn’t much progress to speak of and that a major sticking point is their pensions.
At the center of the work dispute are the pay discrepancies between “first generation” lifeguards who make far more than “second generation” lifeguards who were hired after 2000.
According to the Finance Ministry, the average first generation lifeguard makes around NIS 30,000 gross per month year-round, while second generation lifeguards make up to NIS 13,000 per month during the six-month summer bathing season and around NIS 7,000 to 8,000 during the winter.
The Finance Ministry estimates that if an agreement is reached, it will include a monthly raise of NIS 3,600 for second generation lifeguards year round. Providing this raise for the roughly 200 second-generation lifeguards (of around 450 nationwide, according to the lifeguard association) would cost about NIS 8.5 million per year, the ministry said, adding that there has been no progress in the negotiations so far.
Sheen gave far lower figures, however, saying the average first generation lifeguard makes about NIS 12,500 per month during the summer and second generation lifeguards make between NIS 10,000-11,000 in the summer and about 4,200 per month in the winter.
Asked if he thinks the public understands the seriousness of their jobs and is sympathetic to the cause of workers who make far beyond the national average to work on the beach, he said lifeguards work from morning to night, almost 12 hours per shift and that “the public knows how hard we work and how important we are; the problem is the local authorities.”
Israel does have a significant number of drownings, with a 2010 Interior Ministry report stating that on average around 45 people drown per year. of the country’s 190 miles of beach, only around 11.5 miles are approved for swimming, with lifeguards on duty. According to Magen David Adom figures, as of Tuesday there had been 10 drownings in Israel so far this season, compared to nine at this point last year.
Announced last month shortly after the start of beach season, the strike has been halted for certain occasions since, including unseasonably hot days and during this past weekend’s Pride events in Tel Aviv.
When it began, National Association of Lifeguards chairman Avi Afia said the Finance Ministry and local authorities have been unyielding.
The Histadrut Labor Federation has called on municipalities including Tel Aviv and Haifa to ban swimming on beaches without lifeguards, but this prohibition seemed to be seriously lacking Tuesday afternoon. Though two municipality workers walked along the beach speaking to swimmers, both said they were advising people about the dangers of glass bottles left on the beach.
At the Hilton Beach – popular with the LGBT community – a few men visiting from the UK said they had no idea there was a strike, though they had noticed things were quieter than over the weekend. One asked if they were on strike “because they don’t like the tourists” with a look of mock dismay, while the others laughed and said they’d swim anyway.
Two other guys visiting from Ireland said they weren’t too troubled because, lifeguards or not, the waters off Tel Aviv are far less dicey than the North Atlantic.
Although lifeguards took to the loudspeakers at 2 p.m. to implore swimmers to get out of the water, without an actual court order or threat of arrest, getting Israelis out of the water can be about as hard as herding cats.
Two men who did follow instructions, however, were Mati and Ilan from Tel Aviv.
Walking out of the surf at Metzitzim Beach, Mati said they would heed the lifeguards’ demands, to a certain extent.
“We’re still Israelis – we’ll get out of the water and then just go back in – in a little bit.”