I’d like to preface this story by saying some of my best friends are Filipino, but that wouldn’t be the truth. Despite the significant numbers of guest workers, and even immigrants, who come to Israel from the Phillipines, I’ve only had one conversation with anyone Filipino that consisted of anything more than mutual smiles and nods while making space to pass by each other on a narrow path.
The one interaction that I did have only succeeded in making me feel guilty and uncomfortable. Two of our neighbors employed Filipinas as caregivers for disabled family members, but I rarely said anything to either of them besides hello. Then, one Shabbat friends lost power to their house, and I asked one of the Filipinas for help. She graciously walked three blocks to flip the breaker, and duly thanked, we turned around and headed back to our street.
I felt it would be impolite to walk back in silence, so I asked her a few questions about herself.
“So, how long have you been in Israel?”
“Oh, about eight years. Of course, I’ve been back to visit my family twice during that time.”
My heart sank. At that time, I had only been in Israel for five years, and I hadn’t gone back to America at all; nor have I been back to the “old country” in the two years that have passed since this conversation took place. In one sentence, the Filipina, who could speak both Hebrew and English fluently, had shown she was more dedicated to both Israel and her homeland than I was.
The recent problem all began with the strike. The Israeli post office, like many postal systems around the world, is facing hard times. And as fewer people take advantage of Post Office services in this age of email, mobile phone, WhatsApp, and Skype, the government-owned company needs to either raise fees, or accept more funds by way of subsidy. And in Israel, when a public company is faced with making a decision between charging higher prices and causing higher taxes, it says, “I’ll take both, please!”
Finally, the Postal Company decided to stop the spread of the profit-eating bacteria with which it has been infected, and began laying off workers. After the firing of 130 non-tenured employees out of a staff of over 7,000 people, the employee union called for a one day strike on March 10th, 2014. As news of the strike did not hit the English media until late on that Monday morning, I had waited fruitlessly in front of the post office doors for 10 minutes, reading and reading the sign stating the opening times. It took that long before an Israeli took pity on me and the group of Filipinos who were also milling around by the door, and told us about the strike.
Feeling discouraged and annoyed, I went on with my day. Little did I know that that was to be the tip of the annoyance iceberg. I returned the next day, after confirming the strike was over. The quiet in front of the building belied the utter chaos with which I was greeted inside. I was given the number 72. The sign on the screen said “Now serving number 30”. Not encouraging. And yet, based on my past experience, this length of wait would normally take around 45 minutes; not so bad, right?
But I had not reckoned with the weird way the Israeli post office segregates how it handles customers. I had noted upon arrival that there seemed to be far more than 40 people in the waiting area when I arrived, half of whom were Filipinos, busily chatting with each other in an unobtrusive corner. It took me 15 minutes to realize that with a few exceptions, the only people being served at the counter were Filipino.
And then it hit me: the 10th of the month, the day of the strike, was the day that the Filipino guest workers, and indeed much of Israel, gets paid. And when Filipinos get paid, they head straight for the post office, in order to send funds back home. So, by striking on the 10th, the post office had basically encouraged every Filipino worker to go as early as possible on the 11th. And since foreign transactions have a separate numbering system than general post office services, the Filipinos were being called first.
Even the least observant people in the waiting room eventually made the connection. For nearly 30 minutes at least three out of five slots, and typically four or five slots, were filled by tellers serving Filipino guest workers, many of whom had arrived long after the rest of us. As I finally got up to the teller, a type A Israeli man finally had enough, and began yelling. Of course, I didn’t understand exactly what he was saying, but I heard the word Filipino and saw lots of pointing at the Filipinos, so I’m guessing he was upset about the Filipinos. There was some general grumbling in agreement throughout the room. I left before things got ugly; well, uglier.
I don’t know if the postal clerks didn’t realize what was happening, or just didn’t care. Or even worse, maybe they planned it as another phase of the strike. But the postal service managed to set back Israeli-Filipino relations to pre-Rose Fostanes levels, at least. In Israel, the only true apartheid is between those sending money outside the country, and the rest of us. And it seems that the post office, like many parts of the Israeli government, is better at providing surly than service.