Israel's taxicab confession

You can learn a lot about a society from its taxi drivers. Every day, they come into contact with almost every class, caste, and type. From the driver’s seat they sit and listen and watch. In a way, they’re blue-collar sociologists.
In Israel, taxi drivers have a bad reputation. They’re often considered greedy, dishonest, and aggressive. If you’re a tourist, you’re told to hang onto your wallet. Ask some probing questions before getting in that car. Keep your defenses up.
But after enough years (and a good enough command of the language), you can rely on your instinct to know how a taxi ride is likely to turn out.  So you say hello, ask how the day is going, and what’s on the mind of the man driving you around.
This is when you can learn something. Recently I had to get to the dreaded Misrad HaRishui, Israel’s DMV, in Holon. On its best day, Misrad HaRishui makes the worst American DMV look like a Swiss spa. But there is no choice. If you want to drive a car in Israel (legally) you’ve got to jump through the hoops, pay the money, endure the insults and the headaches.
That morning I got in the taxi after a bit of a negotiation. The driver knew all too well what I was headed for in the city of Holon so he took heart, gave a little sympathy. Together we griped and eventually I asked him what he thought about the recent “Cottage Cheese Affair” when Israelis rose up as one to protest cottage cheese prices so exorbitant they would make a Frenchman blush.
I asked my driver if he thought the whole thing – the Byzantine DMV, the electricity prices, the cottage cheese – isn’t just a question of protesting these kinds of issues. The man’s response was fiery: “In Israel it’s not even a question of a question!”
There’s a lot of anger in Israel today. It’s not at a boiling point, but it’s heading in that direction. And it’s not about the cottage cheese, or the DMV, or even the conflict, per se. It’s that on a whole, on a national level, nothing really changes. There is no recourse. No one’s reading the suggestion box. No one cares.
The result is not a country falling into decrepitude, but a society in which every one is an expert at looking out for number one. When there’s no social solution (and too often there isn’t) you turn the key of Israeli life: the combina, the fix, the workaround, the scam.
In Israel today, the average household income after taxes is $1,600 a month. Gas costs around $9.00 a gallon. Cars are subject to a 144% import duty, despite the fact that Israel doesn’t manufacture cars at all. In Tel Aviv (where the jobs are) the average price of a home is around $500,000. And next year electricity prices are expected to rise 20%. (In the US, by comparison, a 0.7% rise is expected for 2012.) Clearly, cottage cheese is the least of our worries.
On top of all this is a constant bureaucratic pressure whereby the power of the clerk’s stamp rivals -- and often exceeds -- the power of the citizen’s vote. Shuffled between ministries, clutching your little number ticket, waiting hours for that precious stamp, the sound of which is so disturbingly satisfying when it finally comes, you begin to understand the nature of “your” citizenship and the relationship with “your” government.
I ended up spending 10 hours and more than $400 just to transfer my driver’s license. It’s neither a unique, nor a new, nor an interesting tale. But it offers some context. The taxi drivers of Israel have to endure seven separate courses to get the first stamp that will allow them to get the second stamp in the long procession of stamps that winds its way to a license. If they want to become an independent driver they need to buy another stamp from the Ministry of Transportation for more than $60,000. That is what we call a combina.
No wonder they’re looking to squeeze every last shekel out of their more hapless fares. Things being as they are, they have no choice. But the taxi drivers are more than just the folk-sociologists of Israel, as I characterize them above. They’re also a metonym of not just the Israeli persona, but the relationship between citizen and state in this country.
The growing crisis in Israel is neither economic nor political at root. It’s emotional. In the face of powerlessness to change even the slightest aspects of the system, Israelis learn to fight for them and theirs. The notion of the common good is out the window -- though it’s hard to say if this is the cause or the effect of the situation.
In writing this, I’m a bit like the taxi drivers – offering a description of the problem, but nary a solution. Actually, I’m exactly like the taxi drivers: I could kick up a fuss, create a Facebook group, and chain myself to the fence of the DMV in protest. But why would I ever do such a thing? I already passed my driving test.