Suing Bituach Leumi: A Cautionary Tale

This is a long story and starts three years ago. But I haven’t written a proper long story since the Snow Storm of 2013 so I’m due. Take a deep breath.

Three years ago we arrived in Israel. It was November 16th. The next day we started taking care of business at all of the government offices. We needed new ID cards, health insurance for everyone in our family, we needed to sign the kids up for school and also register as new immigrants or, in my husband’s case, a returning resident. It was a lot of time and forms and hassle and lines but we got through it all and no one died.

Fast forward about 15 months. I’m having a conversation with a friend about the recent elections and she is grumbling about how budget cuts have reduced her government child allowance by nearly half. Right. Sucks. So I go home and ask my husband if he has seen a difference in our child allowance in his pay stub. I figured it was a line item there and that the money had been going into our account from day one.

Now I want to take a moment and let you know that my assumption that this money was going into my husband’s salary is not completely idiotic and here’s why. The National Insurance (Bituach Leumi), who pays the allowance, takes money out of his paycheck every month to pay for state disability and health insurance and things of this nature. So if the mechanism exists to take it out, I assumed it also existed to put it in. Bad to assume.

My husband confirms that in fact there is no line item at all for child allowance. Huh. That’s funny, in a ‘crap, where is our money?’ kind of way. I check our bank account going back 15 months and there is nothing deposited. So I call the National Insurance Agency and they inform me that I never signed up for child allowance. Well that is not possible because we sat in that office on our second day in country and filled out a zillion pieces of paper and the clerk knew that we had three kids because we just enrolled them in a health care fund so surely she also provided the child allowance form and we signed it.

No form on record. And if I want to submit a claim I need to come down and do it in person.

So I schlep in to Jerusalem and find a place to park and get a number and wait my turn and finally speak to a woman who tells me we didn’t fill out the form and so she will sign me up now and I’ll get three months of child allowance retroactively according to their statutes. But what about the entire year before that, I ask, bewildered. Sorry, you can file a claim and she handed me a form to fill out, which I did, in my third grader Hebrew.

A few weeks later I receive a letter that my claim is denied. Well that just gets my goat so I go to a National Insurance field office and tell my story again and the clerk calls up the central office and gets the same answer. I ask if there is someone higher up with whom I can speak and she says I could try to contact Ahuva. But she can only be contacted in person because if the Agency ever published a list of the people who worked there then the very fabric of Israel society might unravel. So I go down to the office again and take a number and wait. I explain again and ask for Ahuva. Who is this Ahuva you speak of? I know you know who is Ahuva so stop being coy and tell me where to find her. Turns out she’s in the other building. What other building. The one up the street.

For the next two hours I go back and forth between the two buildings because once I was at Ahuva’s building I was told I needed a referral from the other building. Return to building one. Do not pass go. I get my referral and finally get passed the security and onto the elevator to the fourth floor where I meet Ahuva.

First, a word about the fourth floor. Whereas the first floor and entrance to this building is teeming with with screaming babies, sneezing elders and various other disgruntled citizens of Israel crammed into poorly ventilated rooms left to decay while time passes incrementally slower than it does everywhere else in the universe, the fourth floor is a welcoming oasis of potted plants, lighted rooms and open windows. I feel hopeful.

I tell Ahuva the story and she is incredulous. She already has my file in front of her because she’d been alerted that a crazed American mother was on her way up. She sees the form for the health care fund listing my three kids, but no form for the child allowance. It shouldn’t matter, she says. It’s obvious you have three kids. You’re telling me! Look at this pouchy tummy! She makes some calls and fills out another claim and tells me she is 90% sure she can get me the money. I take her phone number, thank her and drive home feeling like I have finally made some progress.

A month later I get a call from National Insurance that the appeal that Ahuva had submitted on my behalf was also denied. But that I could approach Legal Aid and take the National Insurance to court. Well that sounds daunting so I call Ahuva. Dead line. I get in the car and drive to Ahuva with the same referral that I had stashed away from a month before even though it is date stamped as such. I find parking and head into her building, wave my little outdated paper and mention Ahuva and they let me into the elevator. I’m getting good at this.

Ahuva is somehow waiting for me even though I come unannounced and I scan the walls for cameras. She is shocked and saddened by the news. She tells me to go up the street to Legal Aid and open a court case against National Insurance. Her employer. I am so mad I barely understand what she’s saying but I walk over there anyway and wait in line again until a clerk explains how I can file for a court date in another building halfway across town. So I get in the car, go to the courthouse, file for a court date, come back, show Legal Aid my date (three months from now) and then I sit down with a legal counselor and explain the situation. The counselor doesn’t think I have a chance. He says there is no precedence for handing back unclaimed monies for more than the standard three months. But he will do further research and send me his final decision by mail. And then he asks, why are you here? Why would you want to leave America? I tell him the grass is always greener. He says he would do anything to move to America. At this point I am thinking the same thing.

A month later I get a letter that Legal Aid will not represent me because there is no precedence and there are discrepancies between my original written appeal and the information I gave them at our meeting a month ago. Well son of a gumball. I am now suing National Insurance on my own in two months without legal representation. So I call Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization that assists new immigrants. They never call back. I call my cousin who is a lawyer and he says it’s a lost cause and to move on. Finally I call a friend who is also a lawyer and she says, well, get your story straight, practice it a bunch of times, dress nicely and in your most earnest new immigrant fashion, convince the judge.

Two days before the court date, which was in July, in the middle of the war, a lawyer for National Insurance calls to ask if he can move our court date because he thinks he can get his side to settle. I am both suspicious and delighted. I agree to the postponement. He gets the date postponed until September. I get his phone number and then I call him once a week for the next two months. He always answers his phone but has not received an answer. Finally he calls, two weeks before the trial, to let me know that he doesn’t think his client will settle but there is still one more avenue to take and he’s doing his best, which is weird since he’s not even my lawyer. But I get irate anyway and tell him to forget it. That I will see him in court and National Insurance will pay me what they owe me plus punitive damages for the mental and emotional trauma this whole ordeal has caused and I hang up on him. I can be impetuous.

Friends, if you are still reading this story, then hats off. The end is near.

Two days before the trial I am at the dentist with my two older kids and I get a call from the lawyer. They settled and indeed, the money is now in the bank. Maybe I should have held out for punitive damages…

I WON. And I proved to myself that even with limited language skills and only a cursory understanding of my rights in my adopted country, I can successfully navigate my way through one of the most densely bureaucratic agencies in Israel, maybe in the world. You may ask, was it worth all of the driving and gas and parking and waiting and calling and fuming? Yes. Because once you’ve tackled National Insurance, everything else is peanuts. Tax Authority? No problem. Ministry of the Interior? Walk in the park. Or worst of all, Israeli PTA? Bring it. I just might run for Prime Minister. CHILD ALLOWANCE FOR ALL!

About the Author
Susie Lubell is a self-taught artist and illustrator whose paintings feature vibrant folk imagery coupled with verse from Jewish liturgy. Her work has been included in galleries and private collections in North America, Europe and Asia including the Lucille Packard Children's Hospital of Stanford University which hosts her entire collection of watercolor animal illustrations. Susie has a long and complicated relationship with Israel and made Aliya for the second time in 2011 after ten years in California. She's hoping it sticks this time.
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