Wednesday, December 23, 2009

There was a heck of a machloches – fight – at the post office today.

As usual, there were never fewer than 25 people standing in line in that tiny airless room. Slots for four clerks exist but only two were working, one of whom was “helping” a Beduin woman when I came in and continued helping her until I left 45minutes later.

The other clerk -- a flaming red haired lady who perpetually seems to be in over her head -- was ever so slowly helping everyone else, one by one. When the next man in line presented her with a gift box, paper and bow, and asked her to wrap the box for him, I couldn’t believe it. You’re kidding, right? The post office clerk is supposed to wrap your gift for you?

Apparently. That’s what she did. Ever so carefully. Then she put the wrapped gift into a mailing envelope, painstakingly addressed it in Russian and taped that shut. Finally she took the money for postage from the customer who walked out as stony-faced as he’d come in. What did it take? Ten minutes, maybe? Everyone else was going nuts.

That’s when the fight broke out.

A boisterous gent had been getting increasingly antsy – he’d come in late himself, and put himself near the front of the line. No one seemed to object. He was holding a bill and some cash, so presumably all he wanted to do was to pay a bill, something that in any rational world would take about two minutes. Even so, as far up as he was in line, it was going to be a good half hour before he’d reach the clerk. What drove him nuts, I think, is that some line breakers were getting ahead of HIM. He’d broken into the line himself – and now others were breaking in ahead of him.

That, apparently, was intolerable. He started to challenge the other line-breakers, people who were also walking in off the street and talking places in line ahead of him.

How does this work? There’s a curious Israeli custom at play here. All that’s needed to hold one’s place in line is to make an appearance. You ask who’s at the end of the line, tell them that you come after them, and then you’re free to leave to go do other things. When you return, you expect to be able to resume your “held” place.
But what sometimes happens is that the absent errand-runner stays away too long. When he – or she – returns, the person he was behind is already gone. Does that mean that the returnee forfeits his preferred place? Absolutely not. He – or she – demands his right to take his place at the very head of the line -- even though no one else standing waiting has ever seen this person.

Obviously the system is ripe for abuse. Virtually anyone can walk in and insist they’d been there before, and were now entitled to be served next. So that’s what was happening this time -- maybe five or six people came into the post office and assumed their positions – or so they claimed – at the very head of the line, eclipsing everyone else who was standing there, including the gent and the 20 or so people behind him. That’s what set him off, I think.

Personally, I stopped fretting about this years ago. I have been shunted to the back of the line by crashers so many times I hardly notice it anymore. Yesterday I knew the clerks would lock the doors at 12:30. Even though I’d arrived at just after eleven, I knew the worst that could happen is that I’d be the very last one they helped – maybe at 1:00 or so. It couldn’t go longer than that.

It took me awhile to adjust to this cultural element, I admit that. I’m rarely passive in the face of injustice, but here in Israel, I just know there are some fights I can’t possibly win. For me, the combination of a California-a-nice-day mentality, coupled with inadequate knowledge of Hebrew curses, simply renders me incapable of going to war against these professional line-breakers. These are people who, for hundreds of years, managed to survive only because they could find ways to get to the head of any line without waiting. The mechanics of cheating in lines is embedded in their DNA. For those of us who have the ‘please and thank you’ gene instead, it’s utterly hopeless.

But what really was interesting was that yesterday, two of those industrial-strength, pro-level line-breakers were going head to head, a cheater trying to cheat another cheater – Godzilla meets King Kong, maybe. Or Hamas and Al Qaeda fighting for the right to kill you first.

For no reason other than coincidence, I don’t think, all of these late-arrival line breakers were men, except for one, a bleached blond grandmother, I’d guess, decked out in a gaily colored pants outfit, scarves flying, earrings dangling. Apparently all she wanted was just to pay a bill, too. In any event, she walked in and with total confidence, placed herself modestly about three people back from the head of the line.

Maybe the boisterous gent decided enough was enough. Maybe he thought a woman would be easier to pick off than the array of men who were also breaking in, maybe something else ticked him off, but the woman was the one he decided to challenge. Not that the woman wasn’t asking for it – instead of orderly “queuing up” as our British friends say, waiting neatly one behind the other, the woman was making everybody edgy by first standing alongside the next in line, appearing to edge up, little by little, ever so slightly. Was she going to make a break for it, and present herself to the clerk – if and when the clerk ever finished wrapping that damn gift? It looked like it – I admit it did. It looked like she was going to do an end-run around the two line-breakers ahead of her, and score the clerk herself first.

That’s what sent the boisterous gent off his rocker – not that it should have mattered. ALL the late-returnees were equally guilty. What did it matter what order the cheaters presented themselves? All of them had placed themselves ahead of the gent anyway. Why did he care?

I have no idea, but he did. He launched his verbal challenge, telling her that there’s a line – as though she could have missed it – and that she belonged at the end of it. She was incensed at his attack. Nose in the air, she announced, “ANI PO!!” – “I’m here!” -- over and over, apparently asserting a might makes right justification. The gent didn’t give up. He kept shouting, pointing to the end of the line even as she grimly kept asserting her place.

Then he finally lost his cool entirely and went overboard – he put his hand on her forearm, maybe trying to get her attention because indeed, she was quietly continuing her crocodile-creep, stealthily edging her way ahead, even as he yelled.

At his touch, SHE went berserk, throwing her arms up, backing away, shouting invectives in a language that wasn’t Hebrew but probably came from some old country where such curses had actual power.

Then everybody jumped in, some to restrain the boisterous gent, some to restrain the woman. Utter chaos ensued, as everyone else in line took to explaining to everyone else what needed to be done here, to stop whatever it was that was going on, to decry the lack of moral values in this country, where even cheaters have to fight for their right to cheat other cheaters.

A quiet and very dapper man was just behind me. Arms folded across his chest, he shook his head, then pushed his eyeglasses farther up his nose and pronounced, “Balagan!” a word for which there is no real translation – some combination of ‘chaos’, ‘farce’, ‘pointless insanity’.

Like a bunch of chickens who’d ruffled their feathers during a fight, then calm themselves and restore order to the feathers again, people gradually stopped shouting and settled down. The threat of an actual fist fight was over. The boisterous gent left his place in line and went to stand next to the Beduin woman, who was still silently continuing her endless transaction with the other clerk. Apparently the gent had decided that he’d likely be served quicker there, than remaining in line where he was. That’s against the rules, too, of course, but at this point, no one was inclined to point that out.

The woman, too, accomplished her goal. Once that blessed gift was wrapped, she’d maneuvered herself ahead of the other two male cheaters who’d actually been in line ahead of her. She paid her bill – indeed a two minute transaction – and walked out.


Actually, she got to the door, then in a fit of true esprit d’escalier, came back in. She walked up to her protagonist, the previously boisterous gent, leaned over to speak directly in his ear, and proceeded to chew him out in no uncertain terms. I got lost in it all, but clearly she ripped him a new one – and he, in silence, stood there and took it.

This machloches was in a sub-branch of the Beersheba post office, a tiny place in Old City, not worthy of note anywhere else in the world. It had no significance whatever.

But it’s pretty much the same thing that’s happening the world over, vicious fights over issues that do indeed have significance. We’re at each other’s throats, all of us, all over the world.

In Israel, we’re tearing each other apart over some very serious matters: Hamas still holds our captured soldier, Gilad Shalit, and we’re torn between two competing pleas. Hamas says they won’t release Shalit until Israel releases some 1000 imprisoned terrorists, Arabs who have already murdered Israelis. In past such releases, the tragedy is that 176 additional Israelis have been killed by these freed terrorists – men who swore, on their release, they’d stop their terrorist activities, but who apparently had their fingers crossed. On the other side is Shalit himself, and his family, who keep up the tearful public appeals for the safe return of their son, bolstered by Israel’s tradition of never abandoning a soldier, dead or alive.

It’s an issue that bitterly divides us. To release one captured soldier, we put thousands, maybe million, of other Israeli lives at risk, because there’s no doubt at all these freed terrorists will kill again.

Then, too, we’re battling a Prime Minister who appears -- once again! -- to have turned against the people who elected him, choosing instead to placate the tyrant in the White House. The “settlement freeze” is racist, there’s no other way to see it. If, in any other country in the world, a Jew was forbidden to build a house because he’s a Jew, it would rock the halls of justice. What? Anyone else can build a house but a Jew can’t? Stinks, right up there with the Nuremberg Laws.

To top that off, Ehud Barak, Israel’s Pillsbury-Dough-Boy leftist Defense Minister, shut down a popular hesder yeshiva after a political battle over whether Jewish soldiers should be called on to execute a war plan against Jewish residents of Judea, Samaria and parts of Jerusalem. It’s unthinkable – that Jewish soldiers are being trained to fight against Jews. The Rabbi of the hesder yeshiva pointed that out.

The Dough-Boy says that all the Jews of Judea and Samaria need to do is follow his orders and he won’t have the IDF kill them. That's supposed to be reasonable, I guess. How can anyone argue with that?

How could we have sunk so low? This was not the program Israelis voted for in the last election. Again, we’ve been swindled.

It’s not just here. In the US, tonight at midnight, the Community Organizer and his Merry Men gleefully plan to pound the final nail into the coffin of American democracy, installing in its place a socialistic state that not only guarantees economic devastation for the foreseeable future, but in the process, corrupts the moral values most Americans hold dear. It’s unconscionable – and try as the opponents have, it’s now unstoppable. The Democrats “public be damned, we know best” position is nothing short of a rape of democracy – but who can prevent it? No one at all.

The worst of it is, the citizen-against-citizen battles in the US won’t end with the Democrat “victory” tonight – it’s just starting. This massive government expansion of power will turn American against American, young against old, employed against jobless, rich against poor.

Rush summarized it best:

“This massive new entitlement is going to obliterate tolerance. This whole notion of live and let live, the way to summarize that is tolerance, and there isn't going to be any more of that. Every American is going to be looking at neighbors with jealousy, resentment, and anger at whatever medical care he or she receives because not everybody's gonna get the same. That's the way socialism works. There is never equality of outcome; there is never sameness even though that's the objective; there are going to be differences, and it's going to lead to big, big problems. Every American is gonna end up being extremely judgmental about the behavior of fellow citizens that would in any way be considered risky because the attitude will be you're taking money from my family's future medical care.”

I don’t know. I don’t understand: what on earth is going on in this world?

If indeed this is the season of ‘peace on earth, good will to men’, I don’t see it. Not here. Not there. Not anywhere.


  1. Your description of the queue at the post office is classic. The rest is great and so very true, but the post office queue is classic. It should be framed.