Menachem's Writings

What if my Liver were to Explode Half Way Through the Event?
Government Sponsored Citizen Rip-Offs

Every four years an "international" sporting event is held here in Israel. The 18th Maccabiah Games are now taking place. Sometimes referred to as the Jewish Olympics, these games bring together Jews from around the world [this year 51 participating countries] as well as Israeli Arabs, to compete in various sports. Unlike the Olympics, the Maccabiah Games also include sports like cricket, lawn bowls and chess.

In addition to open competition, there are parallel games for "Juniors" and "Masters" (read "old fogies"). Most competitors from overseas pay a lot of money for the honour of representing their home communities, amounts ranging from $5-10,000. The Maccabiah is not a poor man's recreation -- though I hear the entire Indian cricket team is being sponsored by some Jewish families in Los Angeles. A nice gesture. [A nicer gesture would be sponsoring these eleven gentleman to live productively in Israel -- that will be next week's topic.]

Ironically, Yehuda haMaccabi (Judas Maccabeus), the man for whom the games are named, strongly disapproved of athletic games and competitions, because of a clear influence of Greek culture. Sport competitions were introduced into Jerusalem by Yehuda's staunch enemies, the Hellenising Jews. They were abolished upon his regaining traditional Jewish control over the city and restoring the Temple service. The Maccabiah games are modelled on the modern Olympics, which in turn imitate the Classical Greek games, disapproved of by the Maccabis as part of an alien and hostile culture.

Some may argue that the Maccabis of old's opposition was because of the "religious" aspects of the competition, the worship and perfection of the human body, the nakedness and debauchery which accompanies the "sporting" events. Perhaps this does not apply today, not at our levels of competition.

But sport today is big bucks. Greek body worship and hedonism have returned after a two millenium hiatus. But most people involved in sport just sit and watch and get fat scrutinising a few people run around the arena below. Faster, longer, higher, stronger, richer? Koheleth says, "the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong", but judging by today's magnificent stadia and taj mahals, that must be old hat.

The last time I swam competitively was in March, 1973. I was a guest at the Victorian Jewish championships at the 1956 Olympic pool. I swam the 100 metres backstroke, splashing in way ahead of my Melbourian compatriots. After that I lost interest in competitive sport, and anyway, there was no outlet for it in the seventies for someone in his twenties. This remained true until a few years ago.

Even though there were no competitions, I continued training all those years. In the pool daily, and also in the gym, pumping some iron.

About eight years ago we found out that were competitions for oldies, here in Israel. For the previous twenty years. The haPoel ("the workers") sports organisation (under the auspices of the trade union movement) runs a couple of sporting events annually for workers. It's a part of the communist system on which this country was built. A worker gets a couple of days off work to go out and bring glory to his comrades at their place of work.

It's cool how they do it. It may even be better than a couple of days at a dacha (the Israeli system has that too). If you are selected to represent your organisation, you may only book your hotel via a prechosen travel agent. Every year a different agent has a turn. Each worker pays for part of the cost of hotel stay, the company the remainder. Everyone conveniently ignores the fact that you could book the same hotel directly for far less money. And why not? The worker benefits from a cheap holiday and he hopes, glory on the field. The company gives the worker a cheap incentive and the hope of glory -- the companies have a trophy case at their main entrance -- hotels are fully booked, and travel agents receive a share for not too much work. It's communist bliss. A communist dream. Share and share alike -- members only.

Of course the system works fine if you work for one of the big Histadruth trade union concerns. It is for them that the system is designed. Self employed, and employees of small companies, while allowed to compete, are basically on their own. No paid days off work, no hotel subsidy, no team support, no "free" tracksuit.

But we joined in. We were desperate to compete again. The sound of the starters gun. The medals. The glory. The cheers of the crowd.

We meet nice people, have fun, bring home glory. But I started to get a little bored after a few meets. It was always, with minor changes, the same people, swimming in the same events. (You start to pray your main competitor is out of town, maybe a little sick.) Even in your teens, your improvement is limited to your previous training and experience. In my fifties, Gil Daphna will always swim faster than me, even if he cuts his training time back and I triple mine. Reuven Sutnick will always swim faster than me, no matter how fat he gets. At our age, it's a fact of nature. Until the body wears out. These guys would have beaten me by the same amount forty years ago, even forty five years ago, and they will continue to do so in twenty and thirty years time. Small variations and improvement are possible. I may touch Bernard Kampel out of the 200 meters individual medley this time, and he the next, but Dafna and Sutnick will consistently be ten to fifteen metres out front.

I agreed to sign up for this year's Maccabiah. But then I regretted it. Who needs to drive two hours to Wingate three days in a row, to swim, one or two events? But I made my commitment. I've been training fairly hard for the last few months. I believe I'm in good condition.

Our sports bureaucracy drove me a bit nuts. Send us a scan of your passport, a portrait photograph, details of this and that. No, I need better quality, no bigger, no more shoulder. And finally, a couple of months back, "thank you, you have completed all that is necessary for you to participate". Then more emails. The dates change, the times of day change, the order of events change. I ignore them until the end. It really doesn't matter to me too much well before the event.

Until yesterday, Wednesday afternoon -- the event starts next Monday -- you can't swim because, a) you are not a matter of the Israel Masters Swimming Association (30 shekels -- I can handle that), b) you have not paid your compulsory personal accident insurance (about 300 shekels, payable annually to haPoel's insurance office) and c) you need to do a medical, in accordance to Israeli law.

But you had everything you need from me!? So you said. Damn bureaucracy!

But where does this compulsory insurance and medical check come from? Most Israeli laws, while requiring three readings and debate in committee, are passed in the Knesset plenum by figures like five votes for, three against. Out of 120 sitting members.

Special interest groups look after each other. We need to get more money into sport -- sure lets tax sportsman and call it insurance. We need more work for sports doctors -- sure let's tax sportsman and make them do an annual medical, including an expensive stress test.

Excuse me, but may I take responsibility for my own body! If my liver explodes half way up the pool, what court is going to find haPoel responsible?

I absolve you and the starter of all responsibility for my health -- but if you leave pieces of glass on the bottom of the pool and George needs 27 stitches in the soles of his feet, it is you that better have an insurance policy, not me!

A proposal was defeated this week in the Knesset to "fine" families who choose not to inoculate their children by withholding government child endowment payments. It was defeated, but they look for another penalty -- perhaps we'll take your children away from you if you don't do what we say! or we'll put a surcharge on you for school fees.

This style of interest-group legislation is typical to Israel. I don't know if it works the same way in other [so-called enlightened] democracies. I imagine it does to some extent, but Israel's know how to take everything to the ultimate extreme.

One day a guy walks into a curtain shop, Vilonot Bitan at the Yisraeli Brothers Mall in Talpiot, Yerushalayim. He orders curtains, three and half thousand shekels worth. He doesn't have a credit card, but "I can give you the card number". The owner, keen not to lose this nice sale, manually puts the Mastercard number though his point of sale terminal. "To where shall I deliver the curtains", he asks the [so-called] religious, bearded Hareidi looking customer. "It's OK, I'll come back and pick up when the goods are ready."

Four days later the purchaser phones the store and doubles the order. "Charge the same card please." No problem mate. A few days later he arrives with a friend and they struggle off with their booty.

I'm not very good at accounting, and I rarely check my credit card statements, personal or business. And I have never had a problem, and since I only see the good side of people, I have no reason to suspect anyone of being a bigger crook than me or of my downstairs neighbour. On the one or two occasions that I have noticed something strange on a statement, I have called the company help line. It's always just a name I didn't recognise, like the shop is called Pearl Hardware, but the statement says Efrat Fruit and Veggies. I never buy at Efrat Fruit and Veggies! I wouldn't be caught dead in their shop. Well actually, no-one is alive or dead there. Pearl was going to open a greengrocery, but instead, at the last moment, decided to sell hardware instead.

So imagine my surprise when my bookkeeper rings me one day in December, before finishing off the accounts for the year, to ask me for a copy of the invoices from the curtain shop. What curtain shop? I didn't buy any curtains this year! nor last year either -- not for the office and not for home! Well you paid 7,000 shekels for the non-existant curtains back in April.

I ring Isracard, the company who issues Mastercard and Amex cards in Israel. They promptly provide me the name, address and phone number of Vilonot Bitan. They in turn send me a copy of credit card slips. There's a not bad imitation of my [simple] signature with the phone number (02) 993-14237 (my number is 993-1427). Every idiot in Israel knows that all phone numbers have 7 digits and not 8! And the proprietor tells us he remembers the sale. "Yeah, these two guys refused my offer to deliver or even to help them to their car. I did think it a bit strange at the time." But I was keen to make the sale.

Another example of unadulterated greed! I'm sure he isn't stupid -- but he is an accomplice to a crime.

I again ring the credit card company. Reverse the transaction! Sorry sir, we cannot. Not after one month has elapsed since the statement was issued. (But I only receive your statements two weeks or more after issue.) That's ridiculous. Your "agent" knowingly put though a transaction against your rules -- accepting a card number without a physical card, from a stranger without any id.

I write a letter to the Isracard. I send it by registered mail. This company has an interesting philosophy re customer relations. They never put anything in writing -- they phone you, verbal answers to written registered correspondence. They will not commit anything to writing. Go back to the guy who put the card through our system -- we've already paid him, we're out of the picture, forget us mate.

Of course the curtain man doesn't want to deal with me -- time to visit my solicitor. He looks into my claims. He advises me to forget about going to court over issue. What! Why? Because you won't win. Look at the law. It was obviously written by the credit card companies' lawyers. It gives them all rights in relation to fraud, and to you none. There it is, in black and white, in the statute books. 30 days!

And that advice cost me another 500 shekels!

I have decided not to swim next week at Wingate. The Maccabiah will happily carry on without me. And the bureaucracy will aways win gold.


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