Any Israeli will tell you that the worst thing you can be in this country is a friar, which translated loosely means a sucker or a fool. When we made Aliyah in the 80’s my dad, the unsuspecting American, always seemed to end up a friar. When he bought his first car, a sky blue Subaru with 1300cc he was a friar for not getting the 1600 model. When it died on a road trip to the Golan Heights and he purchased a friend’s second hand Austin Montego, once again he was a friar. Who the hell ever heard of an Austin Montego?
Perhaps the most egregious act of friardom was when the representatives of the Israeli Broadcasting Authority came knocking on our door late one night demanding payment in full of our Television Tax. When he paid without arguing he was laughed at by almost everyone. Only a friar pays the television tax. What you’re supposed to do, if you’re not a friar that is, is turn off all the lights and pretend you’re not home, regardless of how early or late the television tax man comes knocking. That’s the Israeli way. Once the Israeli Broadcasting Authority has you on record, they’ve got you for life.
My wife and I hate watching television. Let me rephrase that. I hate the exorbitant cost of both major cable providers (anywhere between 200-350 NIS a month), particularly since they choose what I should watch and when. My wife hates reality shows, game shows, news and sports which really leaves nothing else. Since we didn’t own an actual television set there wasn’t much to consider. We both enjoy reading and we could think of dozens of better uses for the money.
A few years ago I helped my dad sell his used Mazda. As a way of showing his gratitude he went out and bought us a new flat screen television. It sat there in the living room for a few months collecting dust, it’s multitude of connections unwired and unconnected. Eventually I hooked up my laptop computer to it and used all of its glorious 40 inches as a computer monitor. I watched hours of Sesame Street and Pocoyo with D. during the day. At night M. and I would download episodes of Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones from torrent sites. It was truly wonderful. We got to watch exactly what we wanted, when we wanted. We got to have our cake and eat it too. We were nobody’s friar.
Then one night they came. M. heard them in the hallway with their walkie-talkies and their clipboards. The grey IBA uniform with the circular stripes. The name tags. The knocking on the door. We did what any Israeli in the same situation would do. We closed D.’s door, turned off all the lights and hid in the bedroom closet like Anne Frank. My wife and I looked at each other as the knocking ceased. Was this a ploy? Should we wait another few minutes? Thankfully they were gone. But they had left a note. We were three years delinquent in paying our television tax. We had to submit a check in the amount of 3600 NIS to a law firm that was acting as a collection agent on their behalf. Failure to do so would result in the repossession of any and all property in our apartment.
We were trapped in some Kafkaesque nightmare. We’ve only owned a television for a few months and we weren’t connected to any cable provider. We couldn’t watch the Israeli Broadcasting Authority’s programming even if we wanted to since all transmission had been shifted from Analog to Digital a few years ago. It was the worst kind of shakedown, since it was government sanctioned.
The tax men came back several times over the next few weeks. Sometimes in the morning. Sometimes late at night. Each time the same routine. Lights out. Hiding in the closet. Hoping that D. isn’t awoken by the loud knocking. Each time they would leave a threatening notice on our door warning us that failure to pay would result in the repossession of anything valuable in our apartment. Ironically the only thing of value was the television set.
My wife begged me to sort it out. We couldn’t keep this up forever.”I’m no friar” I yelled at her and started scouring the internet for any possible loophole to this impossible situation. If I’ve learned anything from living in Israel it’s that there’s always a way.
The Russian television technician was short and skinny with a funny looking moustache. He was thorough. No small talk. I offered him coffee or a glass of water and he refused. He dismantled the television as quickly as a seasoned Russian soldier would disassemble an AK-47. He took his hot glue gun out of a holster and proceeded to fill in all the HDMI and RCA inputs. He used a tweezers to pull out the tuner. He quickly had it reassembled and before I knew it he was handing me a formal letter to the IBA. “Next time they come you give them a copy of this letter. They no come back.” My brand new LCD television had undergone gender reassignment surgery and was now only a computer monitor.
The next time the tax men came knocking we let him in and offered him cookies and coffee. He was generally surprised by our hospitality. He was a young kid, a few years out of the army. He confided in us that he hated his job and that he had to deal with assholes pretending not to be home all day. He also admitted that he thought the mandatory television tax was a scam and that most Israelis don’t even watch Public television. He asked to see our television and I handed him the letter from the technician and explained that we didn’t own a television, but rather a computer monitor, and according to the bylaws of the IBA, the tax should be levied only against those who have a television. He examined the television and said: “You didn’t need to glue all the HDMI and RCA connections. Just the Tuner.”
The tax man filled out a form and we signed it. We haven’t heard from the IBA since. Like most wars, in my battle against the Israeli Broadcasting Authority and friardom in general, I don’t think I can be declared a winner. In the face of the IBA, all of us who hide in our homes or destroy our television or cough up all those unnecessary funds, we’re all friars.