Bureaucracy is scary because your life (and particularly your financial life) is often dependent on successfully navigating through it. It makes you feel out of control: per the etymology of the word, your life is being ruled by desk-sitters. The remedy for this is to arm yourself with information and regain control.
To preface all this, in my view there are many scare stories which give a distorted picture of how bad the bureaucracy is and deter Aliyah. On 99% of occasions, Israeli bureaucratic processes go fine*. Moreover, thanks to the work of Olim organisations and a government trying to reduce the bureaucratic burden, things are increasingly automatic and there are fewer steps than ever.
Still, issues and complaints persist. The bureaucracy continues to be burdensome. Like Sauron forging his ring in Lord of the Rings, I have poured into this article all my tricks, tips and strategies for dominating all Israeli bureaucracy. Unlike Sauron, I am happy to share this power with all who wish to grasp it.
- Israeli bureaucrats love sheets of paper, physical stamps and physical signatures. Never throw anything away; keep it all in one file in as organised a fashion as possible. Have access to a printer, and keep digital copies of your Te’udat Zehut, Te’udat Oleh, etc.
- Research carefully all the things you need to bring for a particular bureaucratic process. It’s very disheartening to realise you have to do it all over again because you missed one document.
- Before going to an office / bank, look up their opening hours – every time, as these sometimes change, and there are random closures too. But also make sure you’re going to the right office. For many government offices you must go to the one that serves the city you’re registered as living in on your Te’udat Zehut annex (this is not true for Misrad HaPnim though, for instance). For banks, you usually must deal with the branch your account is held in.
- Getting to the office early doesn’t necessarily help. If anything, more people go early (because they need to go on to their jobs). You can arrive right up until closing time – they still have to see you.
- Use myvisit.com to book appointments at government ministries, the Post Office, and others. Use the bank’s website / municipality website etc to book appointments at the respective institution.
- Learn your Mispar Zehut (ID number) in Hebrew off by heart. Learn your phone number in Hebrew off by heart. You will be saying these all your life – in Hebrew.**
- Consider order of operations: which bureaucratic process is a blocker for the others? For instance, if you don’t have a Te’udat Zehut, you’ll need that before doing anything else.
- Hebrew: learn to speak as well as possible. Learn all the relevant terms for the activity you want to do. Learn to type in Hebrew. Jump in at the deep end and do phone calls in Hebrew (much harder as there is no body language or visible lip movement, and sound quality is reduced).
- It cannot be overstated how important Hebrew is for winning bureaucratic battles. Knowing more will make it feel like less of a battle in the first place. It will open up new channels such as telephone, internet and automated machines. Like it or not, offices will more often than not have no (decent) English speakers. Practice, with a friend or a friendly mirror, a role play of the anticipated conversation in Hebrew.
- Every time you change address, make sure to update Misrad HaPnim.
Intermediate: reducing bureaucracy in the first place
- Outsourcing may be an option. Need to set up Osek Patur status and do annual accounts? Paying an accountant 1500 shekels / year may be cheaper than your time. Not receiving rent subsidy? Nefesh B’Nefesh will sort this out for you. Use co.il to disconnect from telecoms providers. Ask more veteran Olim how to pay a bill or set up a phone contract. If you’re stuck in the bureaucracy of the healthcare system, the Shira Pransky Project may be able to help.
- Get online! Anything you want to do, first ask if it can be done online, because computers are available 24/7 and there is no need to travel to the office, queue or deal with a sour-faced paper pusher.
- Set up the online accounts at Bituah Leumi and a general gov.il account (which enables you to do many Misrad HaPnim related activities).
- Ask for your online banking details when you set up your bank account and get familiar with the interface – you can do a surprising number of activities online. Learn to use ATMs in Hebrew.
- Make sure to have online banking for your overseas bank too, so that it’s more immediately available!
- Get your healthcare online (for booking appointments, correspondence with the doctor, lab test results, etc.).
- Set up an account with the electricity company and pay your bills online (you can pay the other bills online too).
- Top up your Rav Kav Learn to use the machines (in Hebrew!!) rather than speaking with drivers or station staff.
- Pay for your driving licence and vehicle licence renewals at the Rishyomat machines.
- For non-urgent requests to other ministries and authorities, they will often have an online request form.
- Check your pension balance online. Do your grocery shopping online. Do a Te’um Mas (tax adjustment) online. Apply to change Arnona account holders and to get a discount on Arnona online (in many cities). You can even have an online account with the Absorption Ministry, though I don’t know what it’s used for (ask them to give you the password for this when you go in). Have I missed anything? Please let me know. The more I can do online, the less I have to deal with terrible office hours, queues and patronising control freaks.
- Get your rental contract checked by a lawyer. This can be done for free (one time per Oleh) through Keep Olim in Israel Movement, or if you’re a Tel Aviv resident then Mazeh 9 has a service for this.
Advanced Certificate of Excellence in Dealing with Israeli Bureaucracy
Congratulations, you are now qualified to tackle Israeli bureaucracy! Your licence has been dispatched and will arrive at your registered address within 20 working days. But wait around: if the above was the science of dealing with Israeli bureaucracy, then what follows is the art of it. Many of these are pioneering techniques which you will not find in Aliyah organisation brochures as they are still in the testing phase.
- Think like a bureaucrat. What does a bureaucrat want? A simple case with an obvious process that he or she knows how to carry out. Therefore, make everything as simple as possible. Start by simply naming the process you want to do, and always phrase things in their terms when you can. Never offer them information that makes things more complicated unless they ask. Let them be the ones to create problems, not you.
- Have an immense amount of patience. Eventually, you will win your bureaucratic battle and go back to normal life. But government is often very slow to do things, and different departments don’t talk to each other nearly as much as you’d imagine. Don’t expect instant results. Give yourself plenty of time for each bureaucratic meeting; assume you can only do one bureaucratic step per day – anything more is a bonus.
- Politeness helps – start by asking what their name is, and how they are doing. Begin with full patience and calm. Remember that you are dealing with a human, and they have to deal with frustrated and angry people all the time. If you’re nice, they will want to help you.
- Now remember their name. Use it a couple of times throughout the conversation (without sounding weird of course). “A person’s name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language” said Dale Carnegie. You’ll feel more Israeli for doing it, and they’ll feel more valued and respected. Knowing their name can also help if things go nasty – if you ask for it only then, it will seem aggressive.
Preparing for the worst – arsenal
Unfortunately, often the deck is stacked against you and you’re stuck in the bureaucratic void where there seems to be nothing you can do, due to some deranged Catch-22 in the processes (for instance, when two government departments blame each other and say you must go to the other to sort it out). At this point, it is time to take out the big guns.
- The broken record: stand your ground, and phrase this as a problem that needs solving. Don’t worry about sounding stupid by asking the same thing repeatedly. Escalate the question of how to solve this problem:
- How can we solve this problem?
- How can you solve this problem?
- I’m sure you can solve this problem.
- I don’t understand. I don’t know what to do here – I rely on you, that you know how to solve this problem. It doesn’t make sense that (insert problem here) – there must have been a mistake here, and I’m relying on you to resolve this.
- Dealing with mockery or condescension: most bureaucrats are good people, but sadly some enjoy abusing their power and mocking or condescending vulnerable people who depend on them. If this happens, win the moral battle by showing that they are the jerk. Say: “I’m very stupid. You’re very clever. Please help me, I am so stupid.”
- If you’re particularly paranoid, or have reason to worry in a particular case, record the conversation with them: this can protect you later if things go really bad.
- Evidence: try to get things in writing, keep copies, and proof of date of submission.
- Threaten to start billing for your time. This can be extraordinarily effective, but be warned that this is a very threatening and aggressive step so it can backfire. Only use it as last resort, and if particularly suitable to the occasion in question. If you do, make sure to sound convincing. It’ll work better with banks and private institutions – this will be less effective at public institutions.
- Complain to the ombudsman’s office (Netsivut Telunot HaTsibur) – don’t wait to do this in the hope that things will be resolved. It can only add to your case and help pile pressure on the authority to fix the issue. You might even be entitled to some sort of compensation. Moreover, you’re helping improve the government’s statistics on complaints. A report is periodically pubished and discussed in the media so you could be helping the government identify and improve consistently bad areas.
- Phone the CEO’s office or Minister’s office of the government ministry in question and complain to them. Their contact details are public information! You’d be surprised at how easy it is to reach them.
- Ensure you have a financial cushion. This makes everything less stressful or urgent. In case of an Ikul (foreclosure / restraining order on bank account), ensure you have quick and easy access to a financial cushion outside of the country. But keep on top of debts to reduce the likelihood of this in the first place.
Bonus: Top Ten Israeli Bureaucracy Traps That Olim Fall Into All The Time
- Not activating biometric Te’udat Zehut: you need to activate it after you receive it, otherwise it can cause problems down the line.
- Throwing away the entry pass from the airport. While you’re receiving Sal Klita or any other benefit, this proves that you re-entered the country and you need to show it to unfreeze the benefit (for some reason they conveniently know that you left but not that you returned).
- Not paying Bituah Leumi for unemployed months, or when travelling abroad for an extended period. It’s not so well-known, but you have to pay a minimal amount to Bituah Leumi each month that you’re unemployed (you have a year’s exemption from this after making Aliyah). If you’re travelling abroad, you must notify Bituah Leumi – either to terminate your residency or to continue payments while abroad. Those unaware of this get hit with a nasty unexpected fine when they return.
- Not cancelling old service contracts and utilities (or changing the name when moving properties): three years later suddenly you find an Ikul (foreclosure / restraining order) on your bank account. Stay on top of all of these and ensure all are fully paid or terminated.
- Overpaying tax: Olim are particularly likely to start work in the middle of the year / other circumstances which lead to overpaid tax. Reclaim the tax after the tax year is over (up to 6 years later).
- Ignoring letters and texts because they’re in Hebrew: come on. At least get someone else to tell you what they say. Better still, try to understand it yourself and improve your Hebrew. They just might be important warning letters about which you need to take action…
- Paying full fees at the bank: when you’re first opening an account, you have the most likely chance of getting out of fees. If you can’t get a student / Oleh account, set up one of the Maslulim which give a set monthly fee and a quota of activities that are free per month.
- Not understanding and checking payslip and pension: so often there are mistakes on these and if you don’t do this nobody will do it for you. Understand how pensions work here and what products you have.
- Not making an appointment through MyVisit first: save yourself a lot of time in the queue.
- Applying for a passport in the summer: it’s cheaper if you buy it November – February (inclusive) and online.
*This is figurative and not based on actual measurements.
**Bonus points: say “Shtrudel” instead of “at” for the @ sign in your email address.