Growing up in Israel in the 80’s everyone I knew was doing something criminal. My school teachers, my friends, my neighbors. This was long before the internet and cable age when we had one television channel in Hebrew (Channel 1) and one channel in English (Middle East Television, or METV). METV broadcast out of Lebanon and their programming was a strange mix of American sitcoms (Family Ties) and Evangelical propaganda (The 700 club). You can imagine my joy when they started the whole “pirated cable” throughout our neighborhood in Holon. Shadowy figures would hook our antenna up and for roughly 50 NIS a month we would have two or three newly released movies every night. It was illegal, sure, but the whole building, the whole block, the whole city of Holon was aiding and abetting this crime. We would watch every Kevin Costner or Steve Guttenberg or Meryl Streep movie that came out. Every once in a while the authorities would come and cut the wire and we’d be forced to sit through yet another rerun of Little House on the Prairie but it wouldn’t be long before our saviors, the cable pirates, would reconnect us.
All my teachers at school taught privately in the afternoon. It was all under the table, beshachor, in the black, as they call it here. No receipts were issued at the end of my private math lesson. No authorities were notified. The tax man was cut out of the loop and it was the only way a teacher could get by. Or a tennis instructor. Or a dentist. Or a driving instructor. Or a plumber. Matter of fact I think everyone I knew was working off the books back then. It was the only way to survive.
Coming back from the States always involved cheating the government by not declaring any of the various electronic items you would inevitably bring back. To this day the practice remains intact. Back then it was VHS cameras, a walkman and a Nintendo Gameboy. Today it is an IPhone, IPad and SLR camera. You walk coolly along the green “nothing to declare” line past the surly customs officer and try not to look too conspicuous. Like a Columbian drug mule. Everybody I know has done this at one time or another.
When I was growing up I used to er… friends used to buy weed in small matchboxes. It cost them something like 50 shekels for some seeds, stems and dirt. So they told me of course. Nowadays it’s hashish. Even though it’s illegal everybody smokes it. Even people you would never suspect in a million years. Like my old guidance counselor from high school. Or my boss. Or my next door neighbor who is religious. Or a grandmother that I know. The list goes on. Sadly (for them of course), the Israeli government erected a fence along the Egyptian border and the goods stopped flowing in from Sinai. Now that the country is dry a lot of my friends have suddenly, and quite mysteriously, contracted glaucoma and/or PTSD.
Back in the 80’s we didn’t have currency exchange booths on every corner like we do nowadays. If we ever needed to get dollars for the trip to the States (to buy a new VCR), we would head to the strip mall in Kiryat Sharet, where at any given time you could find a dozen or so Georgian (the country) money changers playing backgammon in the midday heat. Right outside the bank! God only knows what the rates were and how much the commission was.
We could never afford any brand name clothing. If we wanted a pair of Levi’s we had two options; The first was to go to the shuk, the open air market, and buy a cheap knock off Levo’s brand jeans. Or, if we could spend a bit more, my brother’s friend J. had a bunch of jeans in some warehouse in Bat Yam that his dad owned. We never asked any questions, we just hoped he had something in our size. Nowadays, not much has changed. Levi’s are still prohibitively expensive and if we want a pair we order them online and instruct the seller to mark the item as “gift” on the customs form, lest we have to pay customs and VAT charges.
In the 80’s my dad used to run a tennis center in Jaffa. The maintenance worker was a Palestinian from Gaza named H. This was before the Intifada and before it became illegal – and dangerous – to employ Palestinians. One day he sat down beside me in the office and drew a flag I had never seen before. He told me it was the flag of Palestine. He immediately tore it up and threw it away, saying that if anyone saw him doing that he would be thrown in jail. Nowadays it’s extremely rare to see Palestinians working in the center of the country. Instead, most café owners, restaurants and construction contractors illegally employ African migrants from Sudan and Eritrea.
Recently I accompanied an acquaintance to get his car fixed near the settlement of Alfei Menashe at a small Palestinian village called Nabi Elias. This small village is entirely dedicating to fixing, washing and servicing automobiles. Before the second Intifada many Israelis would go there on the weekends to get their cars serviced for a fraction of the cost of any body shop in Israel. Israelis will coexist happily if it saves them a few shekels. Nowadays it is pretty much vacant and there is a huge sign near the checkpoint as you enter forbidding any Israeli from getting his car fixed in Palestinian territories. The transgressor, in this case my acquaintance, would likely serve jail time if caught. He wasn’t caught, nor was his car fixed. It had a strange problem in which the gas gauge read backwards. The more he filled it the more the gauge pointed to empty. The more he drove the more it pointed to full. I guess that’s what you call carma.
As we approach Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, in which Jews ask for forgiveness, I think every one of us Israelis (not in jail) should thank God for letting us off the hook despite our many, many, many criminal transgressions.