At last, I think – or rather hope – I can say that I have finished making amends to the State of Israel for the accident that I was involved in two years’ ago, and although my license is tarnished with fourteen points that will only disappear after two years of a squeaky clean record, I am hopeful that the worst is behind me.
Perhaps my optimism is ill-founded, given the fact that I didn’t expect my license to be suspended for three months, or to have to pay 1000 NIS, or to have to take a 12-hr drivers’ refresher course, which I have only just completed. At the back of my mind, I am half-expecting another accusatory phone call or letter that will prove that the accident is continuing to haunt me forever more… truthfully, nothing in this country surprises me anymore.
The course that I have just completed may not have done much to improve my driving, or increase my knowledge of the mechanics of my car, but sitting amongst 40 Israeli “refreshers” in a cold classroom for four hours a night, three days a week, shed some light on the Israeli psyche, and why it is that Israelis are such awful drivers.
About three-quarters of my fellow classmates were male, and an elderly Russian man and myself were the only non-Israelis in the group. Amongst the class were truck drivers, cab drivers, and teenagers under the age of eighteen who had lost their license before the ink even had a chance to dry on their first license.
The teacher, Arik, from Petach Tikva opened the class by stressing that with more people dying on the road per year than in suicide attacks, the Arabs may as well save their energy and sit back and watch us kill ourselves – the Arabs needn’t do it for us, we do a good job destroying ourselves with our shameful driving. He then showed us slides on the board of accidents that resulted in fatalities as a result of speeding, drunken driving, and no seat belts. The images on the screen were gruesome, but rather than silence or any sign that they were moved in any way by what they had seen, my classmates began to snicker, and make such comments as “I don’t believe that really happened,” “This is from a movie, right?”, “I didn’t see it – the guy next to me is making too much noise, show it again” “Was that car a Ferrari?” Not quite the reaction Arik was hoping for.
Unfazed, Arik, in his mickey-mouse tie, black shirt, and blue jeans, proceeded to show the class recent newspaper headlines with awful stories of entire families being killed on the road as a result of reckless driving, and, again, a total disregard for what appeared in black and white in front of their eyes. “Why are you showing this to us? We would never get into accidents like those!” “I have a football game I CANNOT miss tonight, so I have to leave class at 8.30″… Oh, and the absolute best comment was: “Is that article from Yediot (one of the main Israeli national newspapers)? I make a point of never believing a word they say”… which evolved into a 30-minute argument in the class about the relative merits of each Israeli national newspaper. All the while, cellphones were going off, husbands were instructing wives when they should come to pick them up, mothers were warning their children that if their homework wasn’t finished by the time they got home, there would be hell to pay….
My first reaction was to laugh at the indifference that was so characteristic of Israelis, but it then occurred to me that each one of us in the group was guilty of some type of traffic violation, and with such arrogance and a blatant refusal to acknowledge any responsibility or culpability, is it any wonder that there is such carnage on the road? And that is nothing to laugh about.
Religion came up a lot in conversation. Arik was saying that it is all very well and good to place your trust in G-d, if you are that way inclined (he is irreligious), but G-d wants us to help ourselves. This was in response to a comment from a black-hatted fellow who quoted “Da Lifnei Ata Omed,” “Know in front of Whom you stand,” in reference to G-d, to prove that we have to be humble in G-d’s presence, and we cannot control events or road accidents, but Arik replied that that is not enough. You need to know from where you are coming, and to where you are going – which can be applied both on a literal level – know which lane you are driving in, and which lane you want to turn into – and also on a deeper level – make sure that your feet are firmly planted on the ground, and that you do not get lost in spirituality or godliness to such an extent that you ignore the ABC’s of life that demand common sense and basic safety measures. He told the story of how he was teaching a drivers’ course in Kfar Chabad (a Chabad Lubavitch village in Israel), and only one woman showed up to the class. He told the woman that if their rabbi had told them to go to the class, there would have been a full class, but as it was, without the rabbi’s say-so, people are unable to think for themselves. I started to feel slightly uncomfortable with the change in direction of the conversation. I didn’t really get the sense that Arik was anti-religious, but that he had had some bad experiences in teaching religious groups – but still…
So ended the first lesson. The second and third lessons were hardly any better. With every statement or piece of information that Arik delivered, there were always those people who didn’t waste a second in disputing what he was saying. Judging by some of the reactions of the class members, you would think their driving was flawless. “I NEVER drive when I am tired or in an emotional state.” “I NEVER take medication, period, let alone drive after taking pills.” “I ALWAYS stop to think before I begin to overtake.” Arik took all the comments in good humor, and he made a lot of jokes himself, but on a personal level, the experience struck me as being so surreal and bizarre. Here I was, in Israel, taking a drivers’ refreshers course, in which adults acted like teenagers and asked the teacher if the class was nearly over; religious guys saying that it is all in the hands of G-d anyway, and if the Almighty wants an accident to happen, it will happen anyway – regardless of one’s driving; cellphones going off the whole time with Ayal Golan ringtones…. As I said, bizarre.The last half hour of the second class ended with a heated argument. A few of the guys at the back of the classroom were talking very loudly, and the people sitting near them complained that they couldn’t hear Arik speak. One truck driver piped up and said, “There is a reason why we are sitting at the back of the class… if you want to hear Arik, go sit near the front, or better yet, go take some private lessons with him…” which proceeded into an argument amongst all the classmates. And what was I doing while all this was going on? Writing dinner menus for the rest of the week, and preparing shopping lists! World War III may have been erupting in front of my eyes in the classroom, but so help me, my family would still eat that week!
The grand finale, the final class on Thursday night, culminated with a 30-minute exam, which sent me into a panic. You could only get four questions wrong out of 20, and according to Arik, if you fail the test, you have to take it again, and again, and the third time you take the test, you have to pay a fine, and considering that my notebook was filled with doodling and shopping lists, rather than techniques for safe overtaking, I wasn’t optimistic.
It turned out that my fears were groundless. I was surprised and confused when I saw people talk to each other and ask each other questions DURING the “exam,” and even ask Arik for help. The Russian guy had brought along a relative to help him translate the exam, and all in all, there was very little decorum. The multiple choice questions were confusing, and there were a lot of semantics in the way that the questions were phrased. I assessed the situation, and thought that it is either sink or swim. I could do the exam myself, and hope for the best, or I could turn to my classmates for help. At first I felt guilty at the prospect of “cheating,” but given the fact that everyone in the class, with the exception of me, were helping each other out, I felt that after nine years of living in this country, it was high time that I became Israeli.
No sooner had I looked up from the exam with what must have been desperation in my eyes, there were two guys sitting in the row in front of me who offered to help me with some of the questions. With not the slightest attempt at discretion, one of them sat down next to me, went through the answers I had already filled out, told me that they were mostly wrong (no surprises there!), and basically redid my entire exam. He could have been giving me the wrong answers, for all I knew, but I decided that he was a safer bet than relying upon my own knowledge, or lack thereof, so I decided to place my trust in his hands, and lo and behold, I got 95% in the test. He said he didn’t want to see me having to come back to do the test again, and that I shouldn’t feel bad.
At that moment, I felt happy to be living in Israel – because just like siblings in a family – you may not approve of what they say or do, you may find them extremely annoying or immature, but they are your brothers, and they will be there to help you through any situation, no matter what. I may never understand what makes Israelis tick, or behave in the way they do, but they will not leave you standing out in the cold.