Israeli Bureaucracy for Dummies

stack of binders stuffed with files

Part of my job involves obtaining visas for staff members and volunteers. This 2-step process involves first going to the Department of Christian Affairs to obtain a recommendation for the applicant. (The recommendation is a sort of stamp of approval that the applicant has been vetted by the Department and that it's ok for the Ministry of Interior to give the visa.) Once we have the recommendation, I fill in the visa application form and gather all the necessary paperwork. I then go to the Ministry of Interior (affectionately nicknamed "The Center of Darkness" by a former colleague of mine), the second step, and pray that the clerk I intend to see is in a good mood. And no, I'm not joking about that last part.

The Ministry of Interior is a very interesting place. The really fun part is that every so often, they will surprise you with new requirements. For example: a few weeks before your applicant is set to land in Israel, you might arrive at your appointment only to discover that they suddenly require an original document from the applicant's country, complete with apostille (the acquiring of which might take a couple of months). OR they might suddenly decide that they can no longer accept said original document, and instead, want a letter from you. See what I mean? This fun element of surprise designed to keep you on your toes never grows old!

Recently, however, we encountered an amusing new variation on this element of surprise.

As usual, we'd applied to Christian Affairs for the recommendations we needed. This first step is usually an easy formality. But time went by and we were told that the head of Christian Affairs (naturally, the only person in the country who could sign the recommendations) was out, but expected back soon. Perhaps next week. Accustomed as we were to the caprices of Israeli bureaucracy, we weren't initially alarmed. But the next week we received the very same message: perhaps the following week. Same response the following week. Then we began calling daily. Time was running out. I was supposed to be leaving for Montreal in one week and thanks to the beauty of Israeli bureaucracy, I was the only person currently in the country permitted to request visas from the Ministry of Interior.

The admin person who had sent in the recommendation requests for the 10 people set to arrive shortly had been calling Christian Affairs every day, and then she left for vacation. I took over the daily calls to Christian Affairs.

My first call, I was asked: "And who are you? We need a letter stating that you are a contact person for us."
MY name is on the recommendation!
"Nevertheless, we need a letter from the head of the organization."
I sent a Power of Attorney written for me only 6 months ago.
"Don't you have a more recent one?"
I contacted the head of the organization, on vacation in Norway, potentially outside of internet range.
Finally, after a rigamarole of a bureaucratic merry-go-round of requirements (including getting someone on vacation in Norway to write a PoA), I was deemed worthy of consideration.

I called and asked, "Are the papers ready?"
"Not yet, they're on the new director's desk. Call again at 4:00."
I called at 4:00.
"Call at 8:00, tomorrow morning."
I'm electing to spare you the rest of this, but you can let your imagination run wild as to how many times I called. I've lost count, anyhow.

Now, if there's one thing I've discovered, it's that in Israel, polite persistence (aka "gently making a nuisance of yourself") pays off. I choose not to engage in the typical Israeli misbehavior of yelling and threatening. I choose to be politely, persistently Canadian until the person I call is so sick of hearing my soft, gentle, respectful voice that they give me what I need. It's a system that usually works for me.

I courteously explained that we needed the papers soon, that people had plane tickets and that their arrival was imminent. I called again and again and again.

I began to lose heart; my usually fail-proof strategy seemed to be failing me. Time was running out and I needed to employ a new tactic. I contemplated my options (screaming and raging? it's really not me) and decided to try something different:

New plan! I would go... sit there... and... wait.

I would sit in the reception area, and the woman who kept putting me off would see me. ALL the Religious Affairs employees would see me... sitting there... waiting. I would bring a book... and sit... and wait. When they left their offices to speak to a co-worker, they would see me... sitting there... waiting. When they left their offices for a break, they would see me... sitting there... waiting. I would be a constant reminder that they still hadn't given me what I needed.

And thus I settled upon my new course of action: inaction.

If my plan was to be passive and pacifistic, I determined I'd need to look as intimidating as possible. I put on a very serious I-mean-business black dress. I sprayed on some Poison (is there a more intimidatingly-named perfume?). I wavered between pearls and heavy gold necklace: which one would be more formidable? I put on the pearls. I placed an austere, lady-like black hat on my head. I completed the look with a fearsome leopard-print tote which sometimes scares me when I happen to come upon it unawares. I gazed at my reflection in the mirror and saw someone who could Get Things Done. The only improvement I could have made: red lipstick, which only occurred to me after I'd left home. Next time.

glamorous woman in glittery dress, red lipstick, tiara and black gloves
This is what I would have looked like (minus the tiara and the black satin gloves).

Just before heading out the door, I made one last call to Christian Affairs.

The woman who had been fending me off tirelessly was out (of course), but an unusually helpful government employee offered to check whether the recommendations were ready. (I hadn't even considered that they might be.)

Unexpectedly, they were signed!

Thank God. Because frankly, I think my new strategy was rubbish.

I hopped in a cab, got the recommendations, and then headed into work, feeling fierce and yet silly, at the same time.

Of course, now that we had the coveted papers, before me lay the still-challenging hurdle of going to the Ministry of Interior. The Powers That Be must have decided I'd been through enough, and only required me to jump through a few more hoops.

And it was there that I made a discovery. The source of the delay at Christian Affairs (not only for our recommendations, but for those of every other Christian organization in Israel)? The director - the person who was supposed to sign the recommendations - is under investigation.

Welcome to Israeli Bureaucracy!