Wednesday, November 09, 2005

This is so dumb

One of the reasons my klitah (absorption into Israeli society) is going as well as it is, to the extent that it is going well, is that I arrived with enough Hebrew skills to basically get around and take care of my business, especially since in Jerusalem so many of the bank clerks, tech help, and salespeople speak English. Between my intermediate Hebrew, my ability to mime, and their English, I was able, from day one, to do things like open a bank account, rent an apartment, find items I need in the grocery store (at least basic staples like bread, fruit, and meat), tell taxi drivers where to take me, etc. It was often hard, and still is -- even though my Hebrew has advanced tremendously -- but I could usually manage, somehow.

If I couldn't manage, I would do without. I am only now, for example, starting to buy Hebrew magazines to enjoy on a lazy Shabbat afternoon. If I can't understand someone because they are speaking too quickly and refuse to slow down . . . well, I just hope whatever they were saying wasn't that important. Yes, there were times I incurred fees for things because I couldn't understand all my mail, but I just chalked that up to the cost of Aliyah and went on with my day. If one is going to move to Israel, it helps to be "zen."

It also helps to remember that one is now an immigrant, in a foreign country. Expecting Israelis to speak English, and getting angry when they do not, is, frankly, Amerocentric. Yes, most Israelis learn English in high school. But many never had a chance to use it and have forgotten it all, and many Israelis are also immigrants and never learned English in whatever country they are from. Even if they are fresh out of high school and therefore supposedly know the language . . . well, how well could you carry on a meaningful conversation with your high school-level French or Spanish? Sure, Israelis have the benefit of being drenched in American culture. They hear English at the movies, on cable TV, and on the radio. But still, Hebrew is the national language, and as immigrants it behooves us to remember that we're just not in Kansas anymore.

Every so often I will call a business or government office, and the telephone menu will offer choices for Hebrew, Russian, or Arabic. I have heard about American immigrants who get upset by this, wondering why they don't offer English as well, and to them I say: because there are a hell of a lot more Russian- and Arabic- speakers in this country than English speakers. We "Anglos" like to think we're so important, but in the grand scheme of Israeli society, we are but a drop in the bucket. One can't expect, say, the Ministry of Transportation to offer service in every language spoken by every immigrant in Israel. When 20,000 Americans are making aliyah every year instead of 2,000, we'll talk again. Meanwhile, I'm learning to understand those menu options in Hebrew.

On the other hand, there is the perspective of the Israeli business, and from that angle, offering English menu options is a good practice because English is understood by people from a wide variety of countries. It's true that there are very few native English-speakers here, but when you consider, also, the immigrants from France, Germany, Argentina, etc who often speak a little English, English offers more value for the money than, say, trying to offer menu options in French, German, Spanish, etc.

Still, my feeling is that most businesses and government agencies are capable of figuring out who their clientele are, deciding what services they can afford to offer that clientele, and offering language options accordingly.

Unless, of course, we are discussing the Ministry of Tourism.

The Ministry of Tourism, obviously, exists in order to increase tourism to Israel. The people at the Ministry of Tourism presumably know a whole lot about fun and interesting things to do in this country. And therefore, presumably, the Ministry of Tourism might -- just might-- be an office that would be called by a very great many tourists and potential tourists. And, presumably, most tourists to Israel do not speak Hebrew and wouldn't be expected to.

And therefore, presumably, it would be a good idea for the Ministry of Tourism to offer callers an immediate option to hear the telephone menu in different languages. In fact, of all the private and public establishments in Israel, one would presume that the Ministry of Tourism would be the one most likely to offer menu choices not just in English and Russian but also French, German, Spanish, and Japanese, if not a wide variety of other languages as well. At the very least, one would expect something like "click 7 for Spanish" and then, when you click the 7, to hear a message saying "for Spanish-language tourism information about Israel, go to the following website . . . to speak with a representative now in Hebrew, click pound-2" or something like that.

But, we are presuming wrong, because when one calls the Jerusalem office of the Ministry of Tourism, one gets a menu entirely in Hebrew. Big fat help that is for most tourists, eh?

And, I should also note, the Ministry not only closes at 4 pm but also does not allow an option, after that hour, to leave a message. Which means that anyone from North or South America who wants to call the Israeli Ministry of Tourism has to get up with the sunrise in order to catch a human being at the other end.

Yes, yes, the Ministry has a New York office. Spectacular! (I'm not being sarcastic. Having a New York office is clearly a smart idea.) And yet . . . if someone is a tourist in Israel, already here, and wants some last-minute information about what to do or how to get where they want to go. . . who are they supposed to call? Are we interested in attracting hoards of tourists, or not? What is up with this?

PS I hope no one from the Ministry reads this before tomorrow, because I need their press person to give me an interview for an article I'm writing. About tourism to Israel. Don't hold this against me, nice Ministry of Tourism press person!

(Oh, yeah . . . they are closed . . . and they don't speak English! I'm home free! . . . um, that was a joke, oh holy media spokesperson . . . )

PPS When I get around to it, I'll try calling the Ministry of Immigration and Absorption and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and let you know what their stories are.

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