Friday, June 8, 2012

A Visit from the Television Police

Shalom, chaverim! Our last month of Ulpan has begun, and the clock is ticking more and more loudly. Next week we have the first part of our final exam, which is an oral examination administered by one of the Ulpan staff. Personally, I would prefer the type of oral examination given by a dentist, rather than sit in the hot seat trying to speak Hebrew intelligibly. Part of the oral exam is the requirement that we tell the examiner a personal story of some sort. Nothing racy, of course--just a short speech about a hobby, or one's family, or some challenge faced in life. I was tempted to tell a fascinating story about a stubborn case of athlete's foot I defeated with the scientific application of affirmations and positive thinking, but I changed my mind. Instead, I will tell the story of how I was, at the tender age of nineteen, hauled off a bus on the Yugoslavian border by Bulgarian soldiers and shaken down for fifty Deutshmarks for a bogus "transit visa." Fortunately, we have been given plenty of time to prepare for this section and I will be able to find out the Hebrew word for Yugoslavia, the country which no longer exists, as well as the word for "bogus."

Earlier this week, I was assiduously avoiding working on my spoken presentation by wasting time watching English (not even Hebrew) television. There was a knock at the door. A woman and a younger man, each with clipboards, very politely and thoroughly identified themselves. I let them go on for awhile. As I nodded and smiled, I was tried to understand anything they were saying so I could figure out what they wanted. Police? No. People taking a survey? Not quite. Government? Well, not quite that either, but I was getting warmer.

Eventually I realized they were television license inspectors, and that they wanted to see how many televisions we had. I let them in and showed them "our" two televisions, which actually belong to our landlords. We didn't have a license for them, and I don't know if our landlords have licenses for them, either.

After I had struggled along for awhile in my bad Hebrew, the young man finally asked me if I was Russian. I explained that I was an American, and immediately he switched to impeccable English. Doh! It turns out that in Israel, you have to pay an annual license fee for every television you own. Apparently no license had been paid for the apartment we now live in, so they made a personal visit to inform us of the situation. I wasn't that surprised, really, as I was familiar with the same system they have in England and Ireland, where I lived for some time.

The visit would not have been particularly noteworthy, really, if it weren't for a couple of funny things that happened. When we explained that we were renters and that the landlord owned the television sets, the man asked me to write that information down in Hebrew on their form and sign it. I said something to the effect of "you'll get this done a lot quicker if you write this information down yourself, and I'll just sign it." He did write it all down, and then asked us to read it to make sure we understood it.

Well, I don't read Hebrew very quickly, much less with any degree of comprehension in a situation like this. Elul was having a hard time reading this man's handwriting, and told him so. The man replied, "I see. I'll just put down that you didn't understand what I wrote, and that you refused to sign it because you didn't understand what you were signing. And that's perfectly okay!"

So in Israel, even if you are dictating to a government official your own position about a matter, if you can't read what is being written down about your own statement, you are not even required to sign it. I suppose some people could find ways to abuse that policy, but to me it seemed very enlightened, sensible, and protective of a citizen's rights. Note the contrast between this situation and the sad plight of this U.K. student being harassed by her own government's television licensing people, in the clip below. (Warning: contains strong language, including a liberal sprinkling of f-bombs. If you can't see the link below, go directly to my website at

What was even funnier was how the visit ended. The lady of the pair asked me how long we'd been here. I replied that we were "olim chadashim" (new immigrants) and had been here about five months. She didn't speak any English, but I can interpret rolled eyes and a sigh of frustration in any language. Apparently, as new olim we are not even required to pay the license fee for the first year we are here. She gave us two official-looking pieces of paper that somewhat resembled bills, one for each television. I asked them what we needed to do with them, and the fellow responded "Nothing. You can throw them away if you want. Goodbye."

Now that's the kind of official government visit I like!

Shabbat shalom, everyone!


  1. I am enthralled by your blog since I am in the very beginning stages of making aliyah myself, within the next two years. I cant stop reading and am glad to hear that some of the fears for lack of a better word that i am feeling are not just me. It sounds like you are settling in and enjoying the experience.

    Thank you for sharing and I look forward to the updates! David

  2. Thank you for reading, David. Congratulations on deciding to make Aliyah. It's not an easy decision, of course, but doing so can lead you to so many wonderful and moving experiences. I look forward to reading about your progress in getting home to Israel!


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