“Argument closes off the doors of the senses. It always masks violence. Continued too long, argument always leads to violence.”
Frank Herbert

A Personal Story of How Society Breeds Crime

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It seems that my life-long relationship with Israel has finally come to an end. As it did, a new observation surfaced in my awareness, I had become a criminal. Though my story is specific and relates to my life in Israel, I do believe that similar patterns exist in other modern societies and therefore I think it may be worth recalling and noting. The story is made up of many small and seemingly unimportant events. There is no one outstandingly dramatic and moving peak event. It is in this long series of small events that an unperceived and threatening transformation lies.

Marriage

Andreea and I met in 2001 through a very-blind date (a couple of my friends knew another couple who knew Andreea – neither knew both of us). She was a foreign worker from Romania in Israel. When we met she was still holding onto a work visa which expired a few months into our relationship. Our relationship seemed to outlast her legal status – which presented a problem for us. We knew of three ways around this problem:

  1. Bribery/Corruption – buying Andreea an illegal legal status.
  2. Conversion to Judaism – which, at the time, was the only legal mechanism for non-Jews to gain citizenship in Israel.
  3. Marriage

From our research at the time we had two corrupt possibilities. One was to fly in an orthodox rabi (I don’t know if that should be capitalized, but if even it should, I can’t) from France who for a hefty sum would convert her over-night. The other was a bribe (even heftier then the rabi) through an intermediary lawyer that would have gone directly high up in the Ministry of Internal Affairs which would have “resolved” our problems (though to this day I don’t know quite what that means). We couldn’t afford bribery and didn’t want to plant a seed of corruption at the heart of relationship and life together.

Andreea had already applied for conversion but she was ultimately rejected. Conversion (at the time) was controlled by Orthodox Jews (holding government positions) and was therefore a very strict process with long term implications. For example, Andreea would have had to agree to place her kids in Orthodox kinder-gardens and schools. Many of these things would not have been enforcable when she became engaged in a relationship with me – a most Unorthodox Unjew. She was however offered to get together with a young Orthodox Jew (they have special clubs where she could meet and choose one) and then she would have been accepted for conversion. So that didn’t work out either.

Though I list marriage as an option it really wasn’t one. Marriage in Israel was (at the time) completely controlled by the same Orthodox institutions. Even Israeli & Jewish couples who wanted to get married (in Israel) could only do so through the religious authorities. Muslim or Christian couples were also channeled through religious channels. Inter-marriages were not an option. Period. Even the option of visiting a foreign consulate and getting married there was closed off. The only option for marriage was to leave Israel, get married somewhere else and then register the marriage back in Israel.

For example, many Israeli couples who did not wish to marry through the religious authorities would go to Cyprus (30 minute flight from Israel and a nice place for vacation), get married there and then register their marriage with the Ministry of Internal Affairs as a bureaucratic measure (an important one if you want to have “legal” children, or inheritance rights … essentially if you want your marriage to be recognized in Israeli society). Thousands of Israeli couples a year did this (and probably still do) so much so that tourism companies offered all-inclusive marriage packages.

I should say that marriage as an institution was never important to me – or actually it was important for me not to be married (it is however more important to Andreea). I would have preferred to be in a relationship without the technicalities of marriage (which is essentially bringing social norms and rules into the intimacy of a relationship between two people). So, at the time, I was not even interested in “marrying” Andreea. I was very much interested in continuing our relationship without the fear of her getting caught and deported on her way home (at the time Israel was employing specialized immigration police units to catch and deport illegal workers – they would, for example, weight at bus-stations and request ID’s).

So, wanting to continue our relationship we went to meet with Newfamily, an NGO that aids couples (like us) that are alienated by the laws and customs of the land. They offered to perform a legal marriage – a legally binding contract – and then to represent us in communicating with the Ministry of Internal Affairs. We came back after two months of deliberation … I really wasn’t keen on marriage and I was even less keen on going head-to-head with the “system” which I tend to avoid as much as possible.

Fear of Betrayal

After two months we came back, signed and notarized a contract and an appeal was written to the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The appeal was to either acknowledge the marriage or for a one time visa that would permit Andreea to leave the country and return with me – so that we could go to Cyprus to officiate our marriage.

We now had to go the Ministry local offices and hand in our application – this had to be done in person with the both of of us present. However we were afraid to do this. Andreea had heard of cases where illegal workers went to straighten out their affairs and as they were being processed the immigration police were called and they were taken away. We didn’t want to take any risks.

We spoke to a good friend of mine who is also a prominent lawyer and he happily agreed to help. He had Andreea sign a Power of Attorney document which enabled him to legally represent her in her absence and he went with me to file our appeal. It is said that in times of pressure our true nature is tested and revealed. So it was for this government office – the woman who happened to represent the state of Israel that day attempted to refuse accepting our appeal on the grounds that Andreea wasn’t present.

This is both illegal behavior and also a sign of the kind of treatment we would be facing for the next 7 years. The system operates according to rules and regulations which honestly represent the interests of the government (especially those of the political party who traditionally occupies the ministry – usually an extremist religious party). In the case of marriage these rules and regulations (put in place and removed based on the whims and preferences of those in power) are neither legal or illegal as there is no proper legislation when it comes to marriage in Israel – it is governed by orthodox religious tradition. However refusing to respect a power of attorney is an illegal act. The system attempted to stay true to its own north even when that led to illegal behavior. It took some forceful explanation – but our appeal was accepted.

Ignored

I no longer remember the time lags – but responses were always slow to come (many weeks at best) and often it took many months due to frequent (two to three times a year!) government employee strikes. The responses were usually in the form of a small hand-written note saying that “Andreea is requested to leave the country”. It was as if they were completely ignoring the fact that the request was coming from me, a legal citizen, there was absolutely no contextual answer relating to the fact that we had married by contract.

The process went back and forth numerous times for almost a year and a half. Newfamily tried to appeal higher up in the ministry offices including as high up as a direct assistant to the minister. Nothing helped. There was even something cynical and outright evasive about some of the responses in the spirit of “she is welcome to leave the country” with an unwritten subtext “but she isn’t coming back in”. We were literally being ignored. All this, mind you, was legal … since there was no law, only regulations.

Politics

As this chapter of the journey neared its end, a revolutionary (though short lived change) in Israeli politics came to our rescue. A new political party (Shinuy) riding on the wings of an anti-religious agenda established a substantial political presence. Shinuy (which translates as “change”) won enough votes and electoral power to assume control over the political-religious-stronghold on the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The new minister enacted a new regulation which affected us directly.

I recall that during those elections one of the propaganda films aired on TV by the powerful religious party (Shas) that controlled the ministry in the past, claimed that Israeli society was diseased by (1) violence;(2) drugs and (3) inter-marriages. Though I offer this piece of information with some cynism I also offer it as an honest insight into the de-facto agenda that was beint actuated by that party. It was Andreea who reminded me, in the midst of this process, that I was acting against against the interests of the Jewish Country.

The new regulation (not law!) enabled an Israeli to petition for a “family reunion” or as I like to think of it “spousal import” in cases such as ours. The regulation indicated that petitions would be processed within maximum 30 days. This was better then the previous estimates that indicated that had Andreea left Israel black-listed as an illegal resident it would have taken anything between 5 months and 5 years for her to be able to return.

We were still scared of Andreea leaving Israel because this was just a regulation and though the minister was an enemy-of-an-enemy and therefor “on our side” there was still an entire government office (populated with many religious position holders which did not change jobs with the currents of the political system) that held sway over us. Also, no one knew how the regulation would be administered, what catches and obstacles it held waiting to jump us.

In the end our fear was conquered by circumstances beyond our control. Andreea’s passport was about to expire. The Romanian consulate in Israel was refusing to renew/extend her passport because, due to Romania joining the EU, it was under orders to only issue new passports (which supposedly had some improved compatibility with the EU). The consulate refused to issue a new passport for Andreea because she was an illegal resident in Israel. All this to say that even if by some miracle someone wanted to give her a visa, she did not have a passport in which it could be placed.

The Ministry’s tactic of ignore and delay worked. Andreea had to leave Israel with unknown consequences.

Cyprus

Andreea flew to Romania where she prepared all the papers she would need including a new passport. When she left, an Israeli immigrations officer smiled at her as he stamped her passport, telling her that she will not be entering Israel again for a long time (she was also strip searched at the airport by Israeli security … just to get that full abusive and terrorizing experience).

At the time, bribery was still very common and an accepted currency in Romania (it is still prevalent but the situation has improved) – this included money and alcohol. She was able to get her papers in order very fast (using the bribes). We then booked a slightly complicated wedding package in Cyprus. Usually couples fly in and out together. In our case Andreea was coming from and returning to  Romania and I from and to Israel.

We arrived at the same day, me in the morning Andreea at night. The next day a car picked us up and took us to city hall. It was quick and painless (they are really good at this by now). The car took us back to the hotel. The following day a courier delivered all the signed and notarized papers. We stayed there for a total of three nights together. I left in the evening and Andreea the following morning. Leaving Andreea in Cyprus was one the most difficult and emotional moments of this journey – the intensity of it caught me by surprise.

I then went to the ministry and filed a request to reunite with Andreea and the waiting began. I don’t remember how long it took (it was less then 30 days) because the waiting was played down by the fact that back in Romania Andreea got sick, very sick. She had a kidney infection that was both dangerous and painful. She was hospitalized in a hospital with conditions that most of the people I know would probably not be willing to leave their dog for treatment. I was in Israel helpless and angry and wanting to bash somebody’s head into a wall – preferable someone from the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

I considered using her illness as leverage to push our request through. I refrained from doing so fearing that they may actually use that as an excuse to NOT let her back in to Israel (fear of unlawful repercussions by the government is a recurring theme … more to come).

We got our approval, Andreea had to make a stop in Bucharest to pick up papers from the Israeli consulate and then flew back to Israel.

6 Years

We then began a process that would culminate with Andreea receiving Israeli citizenship. It is a process that was supposed to take 5 years but stretched out over 6 years.

At first she was given a temporary visa and work permit (for which we paid) for 6 months while she was given a background check. I remember sitting together at the ministry offices. The officer, though a woman, was cocky and holding a list of documents we needed to present. She began to read off the list smiling, expecting us to encounter some missing document. We humbly handed her each document as she asked for them saying “is this the document you are referring to?”. Thanks to Newfamily we knew exactly what documents we needed, in what languages, with what signatures (notaries, consulates, etc.). Missing a document could mean having to fly back to Romania and more bribery. She would have been happy to send us on our way looking for an impossible document to procure. But we had them all.

Due to more government strikes this phase took over a year and another visa extension (more money). After she was cleared we began a process of yearly visits. Every year we would have to show up with a package of papers that included utility bills, letters of intent from the both of us, letters from friends, letters from family and pictures of us together. Every year we would hand in this package which was reviewed as a checklist (I doubt anyone ever read the letters). We were then tested separately with a questionnaire to confirm that we indeed shared a life together. Andreea’s visa would then be extended for another year (more and more money). This was to go on for 4 years … until during the 5th visit we would be able to apply for citizenship.

As the 4th visit (one before last) approached I realized that we may be running into a technical problem. The government officials requested that this process start with a fresh passport valid for five years. This ensures that that the foreign applicant can be thrown out if things don’t work out. However due to delays caused by their strikes and in-aptitude we were already beyond that and Andreea’s passport had to be renewed.

Given our past experience we were afraid they were going to use this as an excuse for more abusive and hindering behavior and I began thinking about taking pre-emptive measures.

Personal Terrorism

My idea was to sue the country for direct and indirect damages. I felt I had unwillingly done the country a great service. We already knew of other couples who later went through a similar process. We actually warned them what to expect, but they went through smoothly. Something had changed. We were a part of that change. We had suffered greatly and I wanted to make this a public affair and to hold the government accountable and punishable for its behavior. I want it to be a large sum – a large percentage of which would go to a highly motivated lawyer and another large percentage would go to Newfamily to support their work.

I consulted on this with two people. One was Newfamily (the organization that escorted us throughout this entire process). The other was the same friend and lawyer that appeared in Andreea’s place 6 years earlier. Both consulted us to refrain from taking any such measures against the country (who’s judicial system is also broken and dysfunctional) fearing any negative repercussions. This was astonishing to me. I wasn’t planning to assassinate the prime minister. I was planning to invoke a legal process, I was willing to place us in the public’s eye, I felt we had gone through something important, something that goes to the core of the country’s existence … and I was being advised against it fearing that the country would take its revenge on me. In a country plagued by terrorism, terrorism was being used against its own citizens.

I dropped the issue. The 4th visit went by smoothly with a renewed passport.

3 Days

Then came the 5th and last inquiry. The visit during which we were going to rid ourselves of this bothersome process and apply for Andreea’s citizenship.

We handed in the fresh package of papers and we passed the shared-life-test. It was more then 7 years since we began our journey together, 6 years after Andreea returned to Israel as my wife.

We were sitting across from the vice-manager of the local ministry office. He was browsing Andreea’s passport and reviewing all of her visa’s and taking notes of the start and end-dates. He jots down numbers, punches a calculator, looks up at us and says “You are missing 3 days”.

Despite the 6 actual years the process took (not counting the abusive year before that) the actual visa dates added up to 3 days less then the required 5 years. We both sat there speechless. I wanted to reach across the desk and strangle him, but all I could manage was “you must be kidding”. He wasn’t. We renewed Andreea’s visit for another 6 months (more money) and after two months, when 5 years had surely passed, we set a date for applying for citizenship.

It was just a matter of more paperwork. Some time later (I don’t remember if it was weeks or months) we were invited back to the office. We were in a queue to the office’s manager. We were called in, she touched our file. Andreea was sworn in (a single sentence) and was granted her citizenship.

Winding Down & Out

During this period we also made major changes in our lives. I left my career and had gone on magical artistic explorations with an occasional income from software design consulting work. I also completed my Yoga teachers training. Andreea had become an aromatherapist and doula (and then some). We were both having a very hard time making a living. The cost-of-living was rising. We were driven out of the city to a large village in the center of Israel. From there we were driven out (after 18 months – again due to rising costs) to a remote village in the north of Israel.

There we found peace for another 18 months. We were not making a living. We were running out of money (some of which was wiped out during a wave of economic collapse while put away as “secure low risk regulated by the state” savings). The outlook was very very dark. Yet we had a peaceful life … more peaceful for me as I enjoyed my monastic existence.

At one point Andreea gave up on a website in hebrew that wasn’t getting traction. Then, out of nowhere, she asked me to create a website for her in Romanian. Feminitate was born. It got amazing traction and will soon celebrate 3 years of existence with over 1 million page views. It was also the seed of our return to Romania.

After years of swearing she would never come back to Romania Andreea came for a 10 week visit to test the waters (the results of the visit were not too great). My family gifted me with a flight-ticket to join Andreea for the last two weeks of her visit. Within a year we would fold up our life in Israel and set out on a wonderfully unknown path in Romania.

Brute Force

I left behind three loose ends relevant to the closing chapters of this story-line:

  1. A bank account – mostly emptied out …
  2. That I stupidly left behind because the guy who moved into the house in our place, purchased some of our things and owed us money he was suppose to transfer to the account. It’s been over a year and he still hasn’t transferred it all.
  3. A relatively small debt with social security.

I left the debt behind consciously. We were almost out of money. We liquidated everything we owned (which wasn’t much) and that, together with a gift from our parents made it possible for us to move to Romania and to sustain ourselves for  8 months. Meanwhile we were making an effort to extract my pension funds from Israel. This was another obstacle filled process – everything from personal fears (these were our last financial reserves) through to technical obstacles courtesy of the insurance companies and a very large tax-fine to the country for withdrawing my pension before I reached the legal! age of pension. All this is to say that we were short on cash and closing a debt with social security was very low on my list of priorities – especially considering that we were checking out of the country and I was harboring a lot of resent.

However these three circumstantial loose ends left me exposed to the brute force of Israeli society and it caught up with me before I got around to closing things off properly. Social security, without any official written warning invaded my privacy and imposed a foreclosure on the remains of my bank account. This prevented me from closing the bank account because the bank wasn’t allowed to do so legally! The bank was also happy to keep the account open as it charges monthly fees (regardless of my inactivity – this is a corrupt norm of Israeli banking).

It is not my point to create drama or suspense at this point so I will skip to the end (and unnecessary details) so I can get to the point. My father took the matter into his own hands and without my approval paid the debt I owed. The foreclosure has been removed and the bank account will soon be closed.

A Soberly Liberated Criminal

Had it been up to me and in my powers I would have made an effort to avoid paying my debt. Had I folded my assets in time and left the debt behind and irreclaimable I would have been happier. I came to the point where I had clear criminal intentions towards the state of Israel. In recent days I was actually trying to think of and look for a way to trick the government into releasing my account, pulling out the money and skipping payment. I would have felt better because I believe that I had a moral right (if not an obligation) to do so. My father said that closing the debt is the right thing to do but I believe it was the easy thing to do not the right thing to do.

Leaving the debt unpaid was a symbolic act of protest. Society, it seems, is setup to overpower me (it is essentially impossible for me to foreclose on the person who still owes me money … more then I owed social security). I paid dearly (I chose my relationship with Andreea as a starting point for this story, though I could go back even further in time with even more drama) for blindly embracing the idea of being a member of Israeli society. But I got something precious in return.

Disclaimers: (1) I may be performing an unfair extrapolation when I generalize about modern day societies; (2) I am keeping in my mind and heart that Israel is an extreme society – but I believe that it shares many qualities with modern western societies and that its extremism merely emphasizes underlying fault lines of modern day social patterns.

I have learned that society is a precious and delicately balanced pattern. It is flexible enough to allow an untamed and challenging individual like myself to mature within it and it is also strong enough to put down threats from within and will do so swiftly and with brute force. The sole purpose of a society is to protect and uphold its individuals, yet it has a life of its own and unless it is wisely guided (with both intellect and spirit) will naturally gravitate towards self preservation even while compromising its very purpose.

I have learned that “legal” is merely a social abstraction for mediocrity: a lowest tolerated social behavior. It does not distinguish between those that aim lower and those that aim higher. Both are criminals. It is OK (=socially acceptable) to break the law (for anyone from ordinary citizens and government officials) if you can avoid getting caught and prosecuted or you can afford the price of being found guilty. When a society gets hung up blindly on laws it loses its moral ground … and that is an intrinsic weakness and threat.

Though I am and will inevitably continue to be a member of numerous societies, I live on the fringe (it’s not a choice I made, it’s who I am). Though I make (or attempt to make) conscious contributions (such as this post, hopefully my last contribution to Israel) to these societies, some are bound to  be  undesirable and certainly unappreciated. In one way or another I am and will continue to be a criminal towards the societies I am bound to. It is a sobering and liberating realization.

I will for the most part take Robert Pirsig‘s advice:

“If you don’t like our present social system or intellectual system the best thing you can do … is stay out of their way.”

I am fortunate to have arrived in a life that favors staying out of “their way” and staying true to mine.

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