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Brusquely kind

Her Israeli passport had expired. But her pleas to renew it quickly only met with bluntness – at first.

By Gabriella Pessin, with Andrew Pessin / October 5, 2009

A group of immigrants from the US were greeted by friends at Ben Gurion airport, near Tel Aviv.

Tsafrir Abayov / AP

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I don't realize I've allowed my Israeli passport to expire until I pop over for a family wedding last month. At customs on arrival, where I present my US passport, the official merely says, "Madam, when in Israel you are first an Israeli. If you expect to return home in" – he peers at my ticket – "three days, then you must obtain a new passport immediately."

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It is Thursday around noon. From my hotel I go directly to the Interior Ministry and take a No. 27 ticket. I explain to the passports clerk that I hadn't realized my passport had expired. She says, "The clock doesn't move forward overseas?" She asks for my passport photos so I pass her the envelope. She thrusts it back and says, "Take them out." OK, I think to myself; must comply. I ask if my new passport will be ready in time for my Sunday evening return flight. She looks at me and says, "What, I can predict the future? Take a number and ask the manager." Now I'm No. 63.

The manager says, "You must allow 72 hours for processing." I say, "But I must leave in 72 hours. I have two small children waiting for me at home." He says, "Sometimes longer." I say, "Please, can't you expedite matters somehow?" He says, "Look, you come back first thing Sunday morning." Is that a hint of a helpful tone? I ask, "May I call you to check on its status?" He says, "I have time to answer phones?"

It is almost 5 p.m. There is nothing to do but go celebrate the wedding, and wait.

Sunday morning I arrive at the ministry and take a No. 15 ticket, and then am told that my passport isn't there and I should take another number to speak with the manager. As No. 38 I again confront the man. I ask him if he might have my passport. He says, "I carry passports around in my pocket?" He disappears into a back room, and emerges many long minutes later. "It was mailed to you, as you requested."

"Mailed?" I stammer. "I didn't ask you to mail it. I must fly home tonight to my two small, very needy children. I asked you to hold it."

He peers at my receipt. "Ah," he says. "You were here July 3. That was Wednesday. When you didn't show up on Thursday, we mailed it." "But July 3 was Thursday," I say. "You said it wouldn't be ready for 72 hours and I should come back Sunday." "No, madam," he says smugly, "July 3 was Wednesday."

"Excuse me?" I erupt. "Wednesday I was over the Atlantic. I was here Thursday. Check your calendar!"

"I have time to check calendars?" he says. "Check your calendar."

"What?!" I exclaim.

"If we can be of further assistance," he says, "take a number and ask the passports clerk." He resumes moving important papers around his desk.

I'm No. 47. It's that woman again. "Please," I begin. "My two sick, very sick children at home need me. Please help me go home." I start to cry.

"Listen," she suddenly whispers. "I have a friend at the Central Post Office. Go, speak to her." She scrawls a name on a slip of paper and passes it to me.

My flight is in 3-1/2 hours.

At the post office I take a number. Three digits. I ignore it. I push my way to a clerk, show him the name. He directs me elsewhere, another clerk, another line, I push past them all, I'm one of them now. I finally stand face to face with my only chance of making it home. The woman nods at me. She leads me into an enormous room, a warehouse, with bins and carts everywhere piled with mail. She leads me to one particular cart containing a mound of mail seven feet high.

"It's in there," she says. I look at her. "I don't have time to dig through that," she says.

I immediately start digging.

"No, no," she says. "You're not permitted to touch the mail."

I stop. I am done. I am never going to see my babies again. I am going to spend the rest of my life in this place, in this post office, in this room. I start to cry.

"Oh, wait," she says. She stands on tiptoe and plucks an envelope off the very top of the mound and hands it to me.

"Have a nice flight," she says.

During the long hours of the return flight I couldn't help but reflect on what an odd place Israel is, located on that fuzzy border between the first and third worlds. In the United States people typically aren't so rude to you, but then again they also don't steer you to their friends in the bowels of the Central Post Office.

But maybe the indifference to civility is part of a more general indifference to bureaucracy, to the nameless, faceless rules of a system; after all, politeness means treating people all the same, while impoliteness requires tailoring one's responses to each person in his own way. And so maybe incivility is what it actually takes truly to respect you as an individual. And so maybe, just maybe, that's what it really means to be polite.

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