One of the first slang terms I picked up as a new immigrant in 1985 was rosh katan, an IDF original which literally means “small head” but points to a peculiar side of human nature that doesn’t translate well. “Playing dumb” comes to mind, but doesn’t quite capture the nuances of this military expression. In the IDF vernacular one can “play rosh katan” by simply obeying orders, with an emphasis on the “simply” and in such a manner as to enrage one’s commander. For example, a soldier is told to clean his M-16 rifle and does so without bothering to reassemble it, leaving the oily rag on the barrel and the other parts scattered all over the place.

In one of my thankless assignments as a “jobnik” (a soldier who performs non-combative dirty work) under the Home Front Command, me and another low-ranking trooper were loading a truck with small box containers of field rations. After a short trial and error exercise in the midday heat of a July hamsin we figured out the quickest way to get the job done: One soldier positioned behind the truck removes a box from a stack on a pallet, gives it a little heave and sends it sliding across the floor of the truck’s cargo holder over to the second soldier, yours truly, who catches it and stacks it in columns. In this fashion, we managed to load a truck measuring some eight meters long and two meters wide in about an hour, losing buckets of sweat but keeping our cool. We had to load another truck nearby and for this task we decided to switch places: I would do the sending and my companion would be on the receiving end inside the truck, which was unbearably hot.

At length a forklift driver delivered more cargo to load onto the second truck. Our commander came by in a jeep and dropped off another three soldiers so we could “work faster.” We figured, so how about two receivers in the truck and three senders outside? We explained our work method to the newcomers, and even got inside the truck to demonstrate how one can catch each box on the slide and stack them, but these slackers exchanged glances of pure rosh katan and came up with an easy way out: Why slide the boxes across the cargo holder when they could simply deposit them at the rear end of the truck, leaving us to bend down to retrieve them, carry three or four at a time across the length of the truck, stack them and then come back for more? Baffled, we watched as they loaded the boxes in jumbled piles at the wrong end of the truck, sealing us in and cutting off what little air circulation we had. We came bursting out, knocking over the cartons that blocked our way; angry words were exchanged, and the freeloaders decided it was time for a cigarette break. Later the commander demanded an explanation as to why it was taking so long to do the same job with more personnel. I paraphrased a piece of military wisdom I remembered from The Caine Mutiny, the classic novel by Herman Wouk. Always ask yourself: How would I do this if I were an idiot? – Well, I said to the commanding officer, these guys are showing us how!

Rosh katan is by no means confined to the military, though its antithesis, rosh gadol, i.e., one who doesn’t “just do his job” but also takes initiative, is encouraged in the Israeli work place and is usually the norm in the private sector. But in the public sector – forget it. Anyone who has ever been through the halls of the Israeli National Insurance Institute and Income Tax Authority can tell you how demeaning it is when your financial well-being and very sanity is left at the mercy of bored bureaucrats who don’t know what’s going on beyond their office space. These unresponsive paper pushers may be kings and queens in their own little domains, but they couldn’t direct you to the nearest toilet to get sick in or window to jump out of. As a small businessman who seeks to cut through all the red tape and meet payment deadlines in hassle-free fashion, I know what it’s like to tango with a public servant who plays rosh katan and end up with a ke’ev rosh gadol (big headache).

But nowhere is rosh katan more of a public health hazard than under the umbrella of our Health Ministry. After a recent experience with this state-run medical monstrosity, my ninety-two-year-old father can attest to their infuriating casualness and lack of regard for a patient’s distress over an afternoon of health care.

It happened like this: around midday I received an ominous phone message: my father fell down a small flight of stairs, landed heavily on his shoulder, bruised his forehead and had sharp pain in his ribs. This was the result of negligence on the part of a certain dentist in Netanya who was too rosh katan to put a handrail on the staircase at the entrance to his clinic. My father was at the Kupat Holim, getting first aid and awaiting an ambulance. I wasn’t sure if I’d make it there on time to join him, so I called the Kupat Holim and asked them if the ambulance had arrived to bring my dad to the hospital. The answer I got was nothing short of a rosh katan masterpiece: “Why don’t you call Magen David Adom and ask them if they sent an ambulance? Why don’t you call Laniado and ask them if he arrived at the hospital? It has nothing to do with us!” – zeh lo kashur eleinu! And I thought that after all these years of exposure to Israeli institutions nothing can shock me.

So much for Kupat Holim Meuhedet in Netanya, with all the public service that is supposed to imply. Onward to Laniado Hospital, where my poor old father was coping with his pain but overdosing on the collective rosh katan which best describes the behavior of the hospital’s doctors, nurses, technicians, receptionists, attendants and “drivers” who wheel patients from one part of the hospital to another. The lack of coordination between these human resources is matched only by their ignorance of each patient’s individual needs. This failing was typified by the attendant who quickly moved my father’s wheelchair aside and up against a wall, right smack on his hurt shoulder, to clear a wheelchair traffic jam in a waiting room; and the technician who impatiently positioned my father on the Cat Scan apparatus as if he was not aware of the pain in his shoulder and ribs, or didn’t see why a check for internal bleeding following a head injury should have anything to do with those other body parts. How could the technician indeed know, when his only channel of communication with the doctor who received my father in the emergency room was a scribbled form? Where is the attention to detail? Where is the human factor?

In the seven hours it took to get an X-ray, a Cat Scan and the results, my father and I spent most of the time asking indifferent staff members “how much longer?” and listening to them gloss over the fact that things move along with seeming incompetence. In brief, the right hand doesn’t know or care what the other hand is doing for the simple reason that it doesn’t fit that hand’s job description.