Eleventh in Arutz Sheva's aliya series.
Two Returning Residents (Toshavim Chozrim) relate their stories:
This is Dr. Avi Perry. I am a returning citizen after living in the United States for about 50 years. I left Israel in 1969 to pursue my doctoral degree in the US and returned to Israel as a retiree in December 2019 after a successful career in the academy and in the high-tech industry in the USA and remained.
In its efforts to incentivize Israeli citizens to return to their home country, the State of Israel offers benefits that make the transition less difficult. The principal assistance comprises a duty-free dispensation on imported personal belongings for a period of 9 months past the official return. These benefits are an integral part of the policy that the government is taking to smooth the return, which involves many foreseen and unforeseen incidentals.
As part of the change in country of residence, many Israelis, including us, are prompted to give away gifts because these gifted items are not suitable or simply have no place in the relatively small residential place compared to what many have left behind.
We returned to Israel in December 2019 and were registered as returning citizens. We bought an apartment in Haifa and began renovating it in preparation for the personal belongings we planned on bringing in the summer of 2020.
In our particular case, our 9-month, duty-free period expires in September this year. The Corona pandemic prevented us and most of humanity from realizing plans designed before the outbreak of the plague. We were quarantined with the rest of the world following the Corona pandemic outbreak, and these days, we still must avoid places where chances of being infected is greater than a token.
Moving part of our personal belongings from the US to Israel will require us to fly back to the US at first, work on the shipment from there, then return to Israel and accept the contents here. We are not able to fly to the United States at this time or even in the coming months because of the high risk of a 12-hour flight to an area that is heavily contaminated by the Corona. This is especially true, considering our senior age and the fact that my wife is a Holocaust survivor with health issues. Traveling for 12 hours plus, in the near future, to New York, constitutes life-threatening circumstances.
Bringing our personal belongings from the US to Israel before the end of 2020 becomes unfeasible because we are unable to fly to the United States this year due to the constraints and limitations of the Corona pandemic. We may have to wait for next Spring or even next Summer before the danger of infection is reduced to levels of no-concern.
I wrote to the Israeli Customs office and asked them for an extension of my eligibility period in parallel with the prolonging risk of catching the virus. I asked them to postpone the end of the duty-free eligibility period until next Spring or Summer when a vaccine becomes available and there will be no risk of infection. They replied that my request was being considered. My appeal was delivered over two months ago. I have not yet sensed any indication that the problem has been considered, let alone resolved.
I learned that this matter was overlooked, and that the Knesset's finance committee was about to convene and discuss a tax easing policy for several sectors of the Israeli economy, but the issue of extending the duty-free period for returning residents was not on the agenda.
Professionals in the moving business and customs matters that I have been talking to about the problem have repeatedly offered an optimistic opinion. They were certain that the Israeli government would allow me to extend the duty-free eligibility time due to the special situation in Israel and especially in the United States. They were optimistic. Overly so.
In light of the uncertainty and lack of concern and answers that I encountered after trying to convince the authorities, I have begun to believe that these professionals wanted to see that logical reasoning was able to adapt and was winning over the thick-skinned bureaucracy. But Israeli bureaucracy is apparently slow to adjust.
I hope that there is room for a short-term change in the customs roadmap concerning returning citizens. Telling the story might bring those responsible for customs matters to recognize the problem created by the Corona pandemic. It could wake them up from their deep sleep and prompt them to act to correct the existing distortion.
I am not alone facing this problem. There are, of course, others sitting in the same boat. Soon it may be you - and that will mean more of us battling the bureaucracy back home in Israel, so maybe there is hope. On the other hand, all this needs is a quick decision. How about it, customs officials?.
An Innocent Abroad
Part I: The day time stood still
My name is Dr. Richard Small. I made aliya in 1971, then returned to the USA for a time to work when invited to a Washington think tank in my field of nuclear winter, I returned to Israel twenty five years ago.
This story started innocently enough in Los Angeles California where I flew to visit my daughter. I looked at my watch and thought there is still plenty of time before the dinner reservation. One hour later, there was still plenty of time. And even an hour after that even though by this time very hungry, there was still plenty of time.
But there wasn't. In fact, the reservation had automatically cancelled. Time had stood still.
Or which turned out to be more accurate, my watch had stopped working.
No problem. America is an advanced country and surely, I could have my watch repaired. And in fact, I was correct although, a part would have to be ordered and the watch would only be ready after I returned home. No problem. Mail it to me when ready said I in complete innocence and confidence in my country. How little I knew.
Part II: An Odyssey of the East
As promised, the watch was repaired and forwarded to me in Metula by express mail. The package left Los Angeles traveled to San Francisco and then to the airport in Tel Aviv and finally to the contractor handling customs for the Israel Postal Authority. I marveled every day as I tracked the progress of my repaired watch across oceans, continents and seas and soon to my house.
I waited for my watch as one waits for a long-lost love. After two weeks of no news I went to the post office to clear up what was happening. They didn't know nor could they check to find out. The mystery had started.
After a month a letter arrived from the contractor assessing customs levies for incoming shipments. In a clear and unambiguous warning, it stated if there is no response in twenty-eight days from the date of the letter, the package would be returned to the sender--at my expense. What luck. I received the letter just in time to forestall return of my watch to Los Angeles. I called immediately.
H was very nice and asked if I had declared the watch at the airport when I left Israel. If so, then tax would only be due on the repair--otherwise I would have to pay tax as if it were a new watch. I did understand the logic in the question. In turn, I asked, "why would I do that? The watch was working when I left Israel and only stopped working while in Los Angeles."
"Well if you had declared it when you left, then there would be no problem. And by the way, we charge 180 NIS for our liaison service with Israel Customs."
"OK, does everyone wearing a working watch declare it to customs when they leave Israel?"
H, without blinking an eye, asked if I can prove that I paid VAT on the watch.
I bought the watch 29 years ago and moved to Israel 25 years ago. I was not required to pay VAT on the watch. And for that matter, not on my clothes, shoes, underwear, socks or the baseball cap that protected my head from sunburn. However, I did pay VAT on the car, the house, the refrigerator, vacuum cleaner, mixer and stove among other useful things needed when moving from the US to Israel.
H was unimpressed and asked customs to evaluate the value of the watch. Surprisingly, the price was greater than what I had paid. Which I knew for a fact since I had the original receipt.
A brilliant thought occurred to me. "Send it back to Los Angeles."
"No H informed me. We will destroy the watch."
I appealed to managers, bosses, and anyone else that would listen. In fairness, at least two senior managers agreed with me that VAT should only be due on the repair cost. They, however, seemed powerless to influence the process. S in customs and H insisted that I pay.
While it takes only a few minutes to recount a sequence of events punctuated with countless letters, emails, and phone calls unfolding over a month and a half, it was a never-ending nightmare with employees of the State of Israel's bureaucracy abusing me at every turn. It still is not clear to me why in addition to my identity card, passport number, and plane tickets I needed to provide a copy of my last arnona payment and driver's license to clear a package through customs.
My friends treated this as an unfolding telenovela. Between the tears of despair there was raucous laughter at the absurdity of it all.
Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick (I still admire Teddy Roosevelt, even if that makes me not pc)
At the depth of my frustration, my ex-wife, an Israeli without an American accent, called up the head of customs and asked, "why are you doing this to him. I was with him when he bought the watch and then four years later when we moved to Israel. He doesn't lie and always tells the truth." The very next day they released the watch with VAT due only on the repair.
However, the copy of the check and the amount of the repair itemized on the jeweler's envelope were not enough. S insisted on an original receipt. But there is a pandemic in Los Angeles and the city is completely shut down. Do you really want an elderly man to violate the lock-down order and drive to his (closed shop) to obtain a copy of the original receipt when you already have verification of the cost and payment?
"Yes. It is absolutely necessary."
Even if he violates the shutdown order and endangers his life?
S responded that without the original receipt she would not release the watch.
I am not sure what happened to common sense and our belief in the sanctity of life, but I passed on the request fully expecting the jeweler to refuse. His sense of responsibility outweighed the lockdown; he drove to his shop and obtained the original receipt.
I doubt that the State of Israel can be proud of its clerks for asking a man in a high-risk age group to risk his life for a superfluous receipt.
Problem now solved. The watch was transferred to the Post Office to continue its express mail journey to Metula.
Look Homeward Angel
I was so hopeful. Within a day it reached Migdal HaEmek. Sometimes I wonder how that is the direct path to reach Metula, but I had confidence the Post Office knew the most efficient way to deliver mail. I eagerly checked the mail every day. It was a bit disconcerting that the package tracking showed it still in Migdal HaEmek awaiting express messenger delivery.
Two weeks later nothing had changed. I should not have been surprised, after all it took a month for the letter from the customs agent to reach me in Metula. Nevertheless, with renewed vigor, I resumed the battle. Appeal to the post office help line yielded a phone number to call in Migdal HaEmek. At first, the response was we do not have it. A day later, they reported that they found the package and that it would be forwarded to Kiryat Shmona. That I considered great progress.
I was not surprised when a few days later, the Post Office in Kirat Shmona had no record of this express mail package. I was sure, I would never see my watch again. The magic words of my ex didn't help although the shliach did admit to her that the employees at Migdal HaEmek are not always forthright and correct in their response to inquiries.
Weeks went by and suddenly my watch made it to the Metula Post Office. The explanation given--which I found entirely believable--was that it was put in a mail sack that was never forwarded from Kiryat Shmona to Metula because of corona. As in much of life, a single event can answer many questions.
Sometimes late at night, I wonder how long it would have taken were it not sent express mail.
I wish I had more confidence in my government’s management of its citizen-interfacing institutions, the training of its employees and their dedication to serving the citizens of Israel.
A simple transaction such as forwarding a repaired watch by express mail to an advanced country was held in a bureaucratic nightmare for almost three months.
I will never ever again mail something of value to Israel.
Israelis are a hard-working, dedicated, compassionate and generous people. We deserve better from those who fill positions with the power to affect our lives.