Repercussions of Israeli banks closing down branches and moving online - opinion

The closure of branches and live services has caused thousands of bank employees to be fired, and many of them have difficulty finding suitable alternative employment.

  ‘I ACCIDENTALLY tore a NIS 200 banknote, and was unable to paste it together again.’  (photo credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)
‘I ACCIDENTALLY tore a NIS 200 banknote, and was unable to paste it together again.’
(photo credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)

For over 30 years I banked with the Union Bank (Bank Igud). It was always a small bank that took pride in its personal service, and I must say that over the years it never let me down.

I was especially impressed when one morning I received a phone call from my banker to inform me that someone in New York was buying gas for his/her car, and various electronic gadgets at my expense. It took almost no time to discover that the number of one of the credit cards on my accounts, belonging to one of my daughters, who had briefly visited New York around that time, was being used, after the number had been illegally copied.

If my banker hadn’t paid attention in real time, it would probably have taken several weeks before I would have noticed. I received all my money back from CAL, which had issued the card, almost immediately.

If my account had been held in one of the large banks, my banker would not have noticed, if for no other reason than that in the large banks one no longer has a personal banker, or a personal investment adviser, unless one happens to be a tycoon or some other favored client.

Recently the Union Bank was taken over by the Mizrahi-Tefahot Bank. For several years Mizrahi-Tefahot has been dedicating all its commercials to the fact that, unlike the other banks, it believes in personal service – the fact that its clients can approach human beings and not only its website.

A man enters a branch of Mizrahi-Tefahot Bank in Jerusalem August 29, 2011. (credit: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER)A man enters a branch of Mizrahi-Tefahot Bank in Jerusalem August 29, 2011. (credit: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER)

One of its past commercials that caught my attention showed its presenter – actor, comedian and TV presenter Dvir Bendak – talking to singer Arkadi Duchin about his bank, and emphasizing that one contacts it through human beings. Duchin frantically searched his smartphone and then answered in frustration: “but I cannot find an application called ‘human being.’”

I don’t remember when exactly most of the Israeli banks started closing down branches, limiting the services of the branches that remained open, and offering most of their services online.

The first time I realized the absurdity of what was going on was one day when I was in the smallish town of Kiryat Tivon, near Haifa. I accidentally tore a NIS 200 banknote, and was unable to paste it together again. In the center of Tivon there are branches of both Bank Leumi and Bank Hapoalim. I walked into both, but neither of them has cashiers. At the advice of Bank Hapoalim I walked into the local post office, where I was told I should contact the Bank of Israel. When I returned to Jerusalem I walked into the Union Bank, and within minutes my torn bank note was replaced.

I am not saying that the banks shouldn’t digitalize some of their services. It is very convenient if I want to transfer money to other accounts, to check my bank balance, view my investments, or to arrange for a standing order. But if, for example, I want to change the makeup of my investment portfolio, I certainly want to talk to my regular investment adviser and not some random adviser, who doesn’t have the faintest idea who I am, and is not familiar with my portfolio and preferences. Besides, from time to time, if I need a large sum of money in cash (more than the cash machines will provide), I want to be able to walk into my bank and get cash.

Recently the regulatory authorities have started to encourage the public to move from one bank to another by various means, allegedly in order to increase competition between the banks. This has resulted in a flood of commercials by the various banks.

Bank Leumi is now advertising by means of its presenter – actor and singer Gal Toren – its “exciting” new services, which include getting a mortgage on Zoom, and having one’s credit card delivered to your home by a messenger. It speaks of the convenience of its customers.

Sorry, if I needed a mortgage – which I don’t – I would rather sit opposite a person, and there are many people who require various services who do not use Zoom – especially senior citizens. And what is wrong with getting one’s credit card (once every five years) by means of the post, as we have always done, or dropping into our bank branch to get it, assuming that a branch exists?

All these “goodies” cannot make up for the closure of branches and the limitation of services in those branches that still exist.

Socially speaking, an exaggerated limitation of human contact, which is what the new policies imply, is extremely harmful, again especially to senior citizens, whose number is constantly growing.

In addition, the closure of branches and live services has caused thousands of bank employees to be fired, and many of them have difficulty finding suitable alternative employment.

Financial services are not only about maximizing profits – they are also about the lives and welfare of human beings. Perhaps it is time that the government lay down rules about the basic services that banks must provide in order to receive a license, in addition to better supervision of what they do with our money – which is a separate problem.

The Discount Bank, whose motto in the distant past was “we are not just a bank – we are a friend,” is now saying that “we want you!” and offers to make living with an overdraft more bearable (whereas what is really needed is to teach people to live within their means, whenever possible, which is not necessarily the interest of the banks, which make money off overdrafts).

That Discount Bank’s presenter is TV presenter and actress Rotem Sela, who appears in so many TV shows and commercials that one is inclined to get tired of seeing her pretty face, certainly doesn’t add to the effectivity of its commercials.

INCIDENTALLY, WE are also being flooded by commercials for insurance companies. These commercials, like those for the banks, also employ some of Israel most famous talents as their presenters, and most of them are extremely creative and amusing, though it is difficult to remember which commercial belongs to which insurance company.

Some of the commercials highlight the fact that their premiums for various categories of insurance (but especially vehicles) are much cheaper than those of their competitors. However, they say absolutely nothing about their policy regarding payments to their customers who need to call on their insurance because of an accident, burglary, natural disaster, sudden illness, etc. Most of us are more concerned about the monthly premiums we are asked to pay than about the likelihood that the insurance company we chose will pay up, if unfortunately we need it, without raising difficulties along the way, or finding excuses to dodge its commitments.

Personally, I am very conservative in my choice of an insurance company. As a friend recently said to me, “At our age [in our 70s and 80s] we feel safest and most comfortable with someone we know, who has served us well over the years, and has agents we can talk to. If it costs a little more – let it be. Leave the gimmicks to the younger generations.”

The writer was a researcher in the Knesset Research and Information Center until her retirement, and recently published a book in Hebrew, The Job of the Knesset Member – An Undefined Job, to be published in July in English by Routledge.