Avi Rockoff
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A tale of two banks

Israelis love to excel, but are you sure they are the best at bureaucratic incompetence?
Illustrative. A man, frustrated with tech support. (iStock)
Illustrative. A man, frustrated with tech support. (iStock)

It was the worst of banks. So was the other one.

My wife and I have an account in an Israeli bank. I will call it the International Bank of Kfar Saba. The name has been changed to protect the guilty.

Despite my best efforts, the bank’s website threw me out and asked me to pick a new password. “Did you know,” said the bubbly headline on its homepage, “that you can now easily reset your password on-line with no help?”

Of course. This is Start-up Nation!


I followed the website’s instructions, then entered my account and passport numbers. To verify my identity, they needed to text my mobile. Fine.

But they can only text a mobile in Israel. They cannot text one in the US.

This bank that specializes in International Banking.

I called my branch in Kfar Saba. They could not help. They do not deal with the website. I had to call the Help Center.

This not so easy when you are seven hours earlier and have to go to work in the morning, and the Help Center closes at 3 PM, Israel time.

“Hello,” I said. “I would like to speak with someone in English.”

“No one speaks English,” she said.

In this International Banking bank.

So between her broken English and my broken Hebrew, she told me what to do. I did it. It didn’t work.

Over the next two weeks I tried two more times, same process, same outcome. I called my branch again. They said they do not deal with the website and I had to call the Help Center.

So I gave up. Next time I visit, I will either get an Israeli to help me or go into a branch and yell.

At this point, someone is likely to say: Typical Israeli bank! Typical Israeli anything!

Not so fast. If you are Israeli, don’t flatter yourself. Israelis love to excel, but what makes you so sure you are best at incompetence?

My bank here in the US is the Yankee Doodle Bank. It used to be run by a Scottish bank, until the frugal Scotsmen mismanaged themselves out of business.

I needed to add a man to my business account. My contact at the bank gave me instructions. I could easily do it online. What I should not do, he emailed, is assign the new user his own username and password.


At my computer late one night, I went to the bank website’s Add New User page and put in the new man’s name. Then the website asked me to choose a username and password for the new user. A clear violation of an explicit mitzvat lo ta’aseh, a negative prohibition. But to press Next, the website said I had to transgress.

Retribution was swift — an Error Message.

Rinse and repeat.

After three times, I called the bank’s help line. The man who answered spoke English, but he could not help. Would I please hold for an On-Line Banking Specialist?

This fellow spoke English too. He suggested I switch browsers, from Chrome to Internet Explorer.

Same Error Message.

At this point, guilt overcame me. I read him my banker’s email, the one explicitly forbidding me from assigning the new user a username and password.

“Sir,” said the name, “I apologize for your being given erroneous information.”

This was nice, a little like learning that eating a cheeseburger had really been OK all along. But it still didn’t stop the Error Messages.

“I will give you a Trouble Ticket,” he said. “Someone will call you. Or you can call them. Maybe somebody on the day shift can help you fix this. Or you can go into a branch, and they will do it for you. It should be easy.”


I called them and got instructions to leave a message. They would call me back and help me fight with the website. In the middle of my workday.

Eventually, I went into a branch and got it done.

So there you have it. Typical American bank. That took over from a typical Scottish bank.

Or maybe what is typical is not where opaque bureaucracy lives but bureaucracy itself, each with its own opaque rules and procedures that are unknowable to outsiders until the poor sods trip over them, rules that may also be unknown to insiders in different parts of the same outfit. Maybe what is typical is that the assumption we all make — that people who deal in things we know nothing about are smart and competent — is often wrong.

We make that assumption because we have to. Do you really want to second-guess your electrician?

Besides, the thought that people who run the world are ignorant fools is just too painful to live with. At least that couldn’t be true.

Now could it.

About the Author
Avi Rockoff came on aliyah with his wife Shuli in March 2022. They live in Jerusalem. His new book, This Year in Jerusalem: Aliyah Dispatches, has been recently published by Shikey Press.
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