Out There: Educating the public

There are two things The Wife and I don’t do a lot: we don’t spend many Shabbatot in Jerusalem (we live in Ma’aleh Adumim), and we don’t log a lot of kilometers on public transportation in the capital.

June 29, 2013 22:26
Jerusalem light rail

Jerusalem light rail 521. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

There are two things The Wife and I don’t do a lot: we don’t spend many Shabbatot in Jerusalem (we live in Ma’aleh Adumim), and we don’t log a lot of kilometers on public transportation in the capital.

The last Shabbat we spent in Jerusalem must have been 10 years ago, when a friend celebrated his kid’s bar mitzvah and put all his guests up in a hotel (I wish that friend was blessed with even more sons). And the last time I rode Jerusalem’s Light Rail was soon after it opened, when one could ride for free.

So imagine our thrill when we had the good fortune two weeks ago to again spend Shabbat in a Jerusalem hotel. The Wife and I planned to drive into town, but this was the day the main streets of the capital were closed to let Formula 1 cars race around the city. Instead we drove to Ammunition Hill and took the Light Rail.

There, standing at the train station with dozens of others trying to figure out how exactly to use the ticket machine, and silently joining in the cursing of some guy at the front fumbling with his change and causing everyone in line to miss the next train, we witnessed a singular sight: a smattering of young people in red shirts cordially handing out pamphlets to the not-so-happy passengers.

And what did the pamphlets say? “First exit, then enter.”

In other words, first let people off the train before piling on yourselves.

The contrast was jarring. On one side of the platform were a couple dozen tense people gathered helterskelter around the user-unfriendly machine – not in a proper queue – eyeballing each other suspiciously and ready to kill if someone butted in line. On the other side stood the cheerful teenagers handing out pamphlets, trying to educate the masses on proper train-boarding etiquette.

“Nope” I admonished The Wife within earshot of one of the pamphlet distributors, as a train stopped and she edged ever so close to the door. “First they get off, and only then can we get on.” The pamphlet distributor smiled.

MY FIRST reaction to this exercise in public education was the reflexive condescending snicker of the American immigrant: “How stupid these natives who don’t know innately how to board a train. How utterly boorish these people who must be taught such basic behavior. This would never happen in San Francisco.”

Only in Israel, I thought disdainfully, were public funds wasted trying to teach people something they should know instinctively.

But then I caught myself. First, because anyone who has traveled trains and subways around the world can describe the crush when doors open and the impatient try to rush in before the others step out (except, perhaps, in Japan). And, secondly, because efforts to educate “dull-witted” publics about basic behavior are a world-wide phenomenon.

Walk into the restrooms in restaurants and department stores in New York and over the washbasin you will see a sign screaming, “Employees must wash hands before returning to work.”

Is that stating the obvious any less than those train etiquette pamphlets? Shouldn’t that be instinctive knowledge? (I have always been troubled by those signs because they were only addressed to employees. Does that mean that employees must wash their hands, but everyone else can go out with germ-laden paws?) In Canada signs instruct the public on respiratory etiquette. When you sneeze or cough, these signs read, be sure to cover your mouth. And in Hong Kong notices are posted in potentially jam-packed squares dispensing crowd control advice. “Stay calm,” one sign entreats, “Do not push your way through the crowd.”

Providing obvious instructions, therefore, is not only done in Israel.

IF ANYTHING, Israel is proof that change is possible. This country has traveled light-years over the past three decades in promoting norms of civility and etiquette. The stereotype of the rude Israeli elbowing a grandma out of a bus line to grab a seat while spitting sunflower-seed shells and yelling at a guy sitting at the back of the bus has lost some of its accuracy over the years. Israelis do change; they have changed.

Take smoking in public, for instance. When the Knesset passed a law in 1983 banning smoking in public places the conventional wisdom was that this was a decree the public could simply not bear.

Israelis, it was widely thought, would not give up smoking at coffee shops, in army barracks, or on the buses. Heck, there was deep doubt whether bus drivers would give up smoking on the buses.

But here we are, a mere 30 years later, and smoking in public places has been greatly reduced as that law has gradually been respected. Granted, it wasn’t easy. For years fights broke out in cafes, cinemas and maternity wards whenever someone lit up a cigarette. My father, on one of his visits here, took a picture in a restaurant of a uniformed policeman sitting at a table and lighting up directly under a no-smoking sign.

“See what happens if you point to the sign and ask him to stop smoking,” I urged in jest.

Ever prescient, he declined.

NO, RATHER than roll the eyes and look down the nose at Jerusalem Light Rail’s efforts to educate the public, I say why stop there.

Why not hire monitors in supermarkets to hand out leaflets at the “express lane” saying 10 items means just that, 10 items, and that Coke and frozen orange juice are considered two items, even though they are both from the beverage family.

Why not place people at stoplights to hand out pamphlets to drivers saying it is not really worth it to honk during that nanosecond before the light turns from orange to green? Why not place supervisors at bowling lanes reminding folks that if two people are up to roll at the same time, the bowler on the left must let the one on the right go first? And why not place people at ATMs around the country with flyers extolling the virtues of standing a few steps back from the guy in front when he draws his cash out of the machine?

Rather than looking at the Jerusalem Light Rail campaign as a reflection of our national loutishness, I recommend looking at the glass half full: the campaign reflects Israeli hopefulness, a basic belief that behavior – even the most ingrained – can be modified. Indeed, the belief that Israelis may change the way they get on and off the train bespeaks a fiercely optimistic people.

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