The frustrated fortysomething American in glasses was speaking for more than a few people last week when he burst out, "You people make me hate this country!" Delivered at the Jerusalem office of the Interior Ministry, the sentiment would have struck onlookers as overdramatic under normal circumstances. In this case, however, it was hard not to sympathize. Even by the low standards set by other government offices, the staff of the Interior Ministry's west Jerusalem office is easily the most unpleasant I've dealt with - a distinction future contenders will match only with great skill and the exertion of lots of conscious effort. And conscious effort seems to be exactly what many ministry employees put into their work, as they ignore, dismiss and deride the foreigners who arrive daily seeking official permission to continue working in Israel. Foreign workers - be they Filipinos, Romanians or American Jews, caretakers, janitors or journalists - had cause for mild optimism last fall when signs went up announcing that all future appointments at the ministry would now be made by telephone. Gone would be the primitive former system according to which workers lined up, Soviet-style, early in the morning - not for an interview, but simply to schedule an appointment that wouldn't take place for at least two months. In practice, though, the change in procedure has only made things worse, because for the new system to work, someone at the Interior Ministry needs to pick up the phone. And in its genius for wasting people's time and sowing bad feelings, the staff of the Interior Ministry in downtown Jerusalem seems to have achieved a unique accomplishment. OVER THE course of the past three weeks I have joined the ranks of those wasting countless hours on the phone listening to a recorded message that seems to mock callers with its suggestion that they "wait and enjoy" their time on the phone. Any "enjoyment" callers gain from the experience is cut short, however, because the phone line automatically cuts callers off after 12 or 15 minutes on hold, at which time they get to dial back and start the whole pointless process again from scratch. Faxes, needless to say, are ignored without exception. Inevitably, a situation emerges which is exactly the opposite of what the new system was supposed to fix. Unable to get through by telephone, foreign workers return to the Interior Ministry office, where - Kafka would love it - they're rudely told that their requests will only be addressed on the telephone. It's at this stage that the process reaches its nadir, in the form of ministry staffers' repellent face-to-face treatment of those their job requires them to help. The issue is not simply a matter of etiquette or bureaucracy. Waiting in line will always be annoying; government offices will always be accused of inefficiency. What's different here is the ministry's callous and actively offensive treatment of foreigners who arrive in this country legally and attend to every official requirement to secure their status. That many of these workers arrive from the Third World to take jobs most Israelis would never perform deepens the scandalousness of their treatment; that Hebrew-speaking American Jews are treated the same shows how thoroughly rotten the system has become (or maybe just that the ministry is non-discriminatory in its nastiness). Israel was established so that Jews, the perpetual foreigners, wouldn't be treated as such, and it's an embarrassment to see ministry workers' demeanor toward those they're supposed to assist. In a country as obsessed with its international image as Israel, it's also a bitter irony to see how that demeanor creates feelings of the sort expressed by the man in glasses last week. 'WE ARE certainly aware of the issue of service and behavior," a spokesperson for the Interior Ministry wrote to The Jerusalem Post last week, in a tone noticeably more conciliatory and helpful than she'd used on the phone. (Unlike those responsible for foreign workers, it appears that Interior Ministry spokespeople answer their phones.) "We're now emphasizing this in our general operations." Claiming improvements in the visa application process that were invisible at her agency's west Jerusalem office last week, the spokesperson ignored questions about the inanities of the new system. She also declined to respond to enquiries about whether anything might be done to monitor and eliminate ministry employees' contemptuous treatment of foreign workers, most of whom have no advocate or ability to publicize their abysmal treatment. No reasonable person would expect to "enjoy" a visit to the Interior Ministry, but the disarray and aggressively bad manners displayed at the agency's downtown Jerusalem facility are a daily disgrace that should be dealt with immediately. Being a stranger in a strange land is hard enough, as historically-conscious Israelis are well aware. It's not the role of the ministry to recreate that experience for others. The writer is the assistant editor of Billboard.