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Thursday, 14 March 2013

Modern, Yet Behind The Times

There is no doubt that Israel is one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world. This is what the statistics say. Silicon Wadi, the concentration of hi-tech start-ups along the coastal strip from Tel-Aviv up to Haifa is second only to Silicon Valley (and actually beats Silicon Valley in some statistics). Take start-ups out of the equation, and you still have the dozens of huge international companies who have chosen to set up one of their few offices outside the USA, in Israel. Of course, the cynical amongst us (me included, at times), would argue that one of the main reasons for this is the relatively low cost of labour here compared to the high productivity - I wouldn't be surprised if Israel tops the world 'productivity / labour cost' list. However, when it comes to day to day interaction with this country, one could be forgiven for thinking that it is only just emerging from the middle ages - and I'm sure some would argue that this is because people have bigger fish to fry here than to worry about the small stuff, but I would argue that it's because technology companies are so focused on the big money, that it's much more lucrative simply to export to larger markets, than to try and work within the Israeli market. So what exactly am I talking about?

It is all very well that we have the Sabbath, the holy day when Jews are not supposed to do many things, including driving. The fact of the matter is, that many (most) people in Israel are more than happy to travel on Saturday. The lack of public transport however makes owning a car a necessity. Take Haifa for example, the  one major city that still has public transport on the Sabbath. However, if you want to take a bus between the end of the 'week day bus schedule', which ends at 16:30 on Friday, and the 'night time bus schedule', which starts at 22:30, you are simply out of luck. Result - you buy a car. Consequently, Israel can be seen as the complete opposite to Denmark in that respect.

Too many buildings (like this one at the end of
my street) remind me of downtown Dakar.
Staying on the theme of the environment, despite what some Israelis think, the culture here is to use and abuse. Want to divide up your trash and recycle what you can? Sure - but be prepared to put in a lot of effort to find the relevant recycling bins to put your papers and plastics. I haven't yet seen a green waste bin, and although shops are obliged to give you a 30 agorot (8c) deposit refund on glass bottles, actually returning the bottles is hardly ever done. I imagine this is partly due to the low incentive, and from stories I've heard, the unfriendly checkout staff who consider it a hassle to process the refunds.

Ignoring the actual part of throwing your rubbish and recyclables away, there are many behavioural aspects which which are closer to what I experienced in Senegal, than in Australia or Denmark. Firstly, the filthy habit of smoking. In this respect, Israeli law isn't far behind Europe, but enforcement of this law is. You can find people smoking almost anywhere, even if it is directly underneath a 'no smoking' sign. Going along with this, is the hatred of walking more than 2m to throw rubbish in a bin. Throwing cigarette buts, chewing gum wrappers, and just about any other small piece of rubbish on the floor or out the car window, is a national past-time. The only reason I can think that nothing is done to change this behaviour is that the country would not know what to do with the throngs of street and side-walk cleaners that pretty much make up a full army.

Then there are the high tech marvels which one comes to expect after living in modern countries like Denmark. The ability to find information online, a uniform system for public transport tickets, or the ability to do things online or over the phone. Take information for starters: during the times that buses don't run, group taxis, known as sherut, do many of the routes. Try and find out through any method apart from asking someone who knows, whether a sherut can get you from X to Y and whether it runs on a certain evening, and there is very little chance you will have success. Sure you might find a phone number, but the likelihood of anyone actually answering your call is very low.

Despite living in a modern apartment, like
most Israelis, I have to flick a switch 20
minutes before I want to take a shower
(assuming I want hot water), and then
remember to turn off the boiler afterwards
(assuming I don't want a massive electricity
Have a question for a government department? Feel free to go to the office (which is only open, of course, for a few hours a day), wait in a queue, and ask the question. Some departments don't even have public phone numbers that get you through to a live human! Forget about getting the particular information you need on a website (and many commercial websites aren't that much better...)

Want to travel on public transport? Buy a paper ticket from the driver! Have a smart-card but need to recharge it? Again, buy a recharge off the driver! Seriously, the concept of saving time by dealing with a machine, or someone other than the driver is only just starting to appear here. And if you have recharged you smart-card, but then want to use it in a different town, even though the ticket price is exactly the same, you then have to buy a recharge for that town, again, off the driver. Want to check how many trips you have left on your card? Ask the driver to print out a report for you. Yes, this is the height of taking an advanced technological concept and implementing it in one of the most inefficient ways possible.

My pet peeve, which I find more amusing than anything. This country is based on cheques. Yes, those pieces of paper with handwritten information about how much you want to pay someone. Time to pay the rent for your house? Then hand over 13 post-dated cheques - one for each month plus a security deposit. Ask the average Israeli why this is done rather than something slightly more sophisticated, and the answer comes back because this is just how it is done, and it's secure, the landlord has the cheques in his hand. Sure, because cheques cannot be cancelled or bounced.... hmmm.... This is amusing to the point where at a recent hi-tech event, someone pitched an idea to give people the ability to write cheques on their mobile phones! Wake up Israel! We are living in the dark ages here!

For a country famous for its bureaucracy, there are certain things which should have some red tape, and sadly, don't. I decided to sign up for an Edi Card, the Israeli organ donor registry. Without any sort of ID verification, I am now in the central register as an organ donor. Just like that - I hand over a couple of details, which I could enter about just about anyone else I know, and voila, the person is an organ donor. Just a little too easy...

Despite all this, despite all the flaws. I love the place. It's a balagan, and I'm happy being a part of it. Yes, I miss things that work, clean air, clean streets, polite people, efficiency and the ability to do everything online. Instead though, I am glad to be amongst liveliness, honesty, reality, real life and a Northern hemisphere country where you can relax on the beach in March!

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