Thanks, Chuck; Thanks, Haim

What I’m about to write should not be seen as anything profound, original, or in any way startling: If you want to start a conversation with someone you know, you need to arrive at a topic that’s of interest to both of you. In our neck of the woods, the topic du jour is how we’re faring with the COVID vaccines. Did you get your first shot; when are you getting the second one; any side effects? That’s on everyone’s mind, at least the people we hang out with. So, yes, we got our second shots on Tues. (Jan. 26), and now we have to deal with the Health Ministry to get our coveted Green Passport, which will free us, we think, from most government-imposed restrictions, including traveling hither and yon – as if there were any places to go more worthwhile than the shuk.

The Maccabi clinic was as mobbed as it was three weeks before when we got our first shots. To service all these peoples, additional staff had been recruited. The young man ‘jabbing’ us was in miluim, reserve duty. (We could tell by his khaki pants.) He told us he had grown up in Maale Adumim, and his parents still live here – probably in the ghetto down the hill. Ariel mentioned that his father was an English teacher. No wonder you speak such good English. Actually, no. His mother was from Argentina, so Hebrew was what he heard at home. So where did you learn English? Watching The Simpsons on TV! Still does; claims to be up to date on their latest episodes. That’s one way to make use of your time.

There are things to be thankful for. Supposing the virus had struck ten years ago; imagine what kind of insanity would there have been at Maccabi. I can remember what it was like then. We would be waiting to see Dr. Baum, our doctor before he retired.  We did have an appointment, as did everyone waiting to go in. There was a printed list next to the door of the doctor’s office with a schedule of who goes when. But if the doctor was running late, and somebody felt he had waited long enough, he would barge right in, even if you were next. This is Israel, remember. Can you imagine fifty people clamoring to get their shots, and all of them insisting it was their turn? Today, with someone directing traffic and everyone being assigned a number, that kind of collective chaos no longer happens.

The question might be, how is it that the service at our healthcare provider has improved so markedly since we’ve been here, while the post office goes from bad to worse? Competition, my friends. While there are four kupot cholim, all privately run, there is only one post office, basically run by the government, so nobody really cares.

That’s why we could get our vaccinations in good order, but not a package from the outside world. (I’m still waiting for books that I ordered in November to arrive, whereas the wonderful Wilfa coffee grinder that I just purchased arrived from Finland in five days – via FedEx.) 

I’ve written before about the health care system here in The Land, starved for funds by the politicians, but still functioning – one of our finest achievements – and how our system of universal health care was the result of legislation that was enacted 1994.  What I only recently learned was the shameful efforts by the Histadrut to kill the plan before it even got started.

Lest anyone think that I am anti-union, I have my bona fides – big time. For 29 ½ years when I worked for NYC Dept. of Social Services, I was a member in good standing of the Social Services Employees Union (local 371). For over half of that time, I was a shop steward, creating my share of ‘good trouble,’ until I advanced into middle management and left the field to younger men and women. So I can tell you stories about administrations so inept they would have had trouble tying their collective shoelaces without the union’s help. And I can tell you stories about how the union saved my heinie on more than one occasion.

When I was first hired in 1966 (that’s not a typo, it really was 1966), none of us had any thoughts of hanging around for the duration. Therefore, when it was time to sign up for a pension plan – which we had to do – the only question any of us asked was, which one is the cheapest? Down the road, when some of us realized that, for better or worse, we were ‘lifers,’ it dawned on us that the plan we had signed up for wasn’t worth the paper it was written on. There was one guy – his name was Chuck Miller – who decided that we ought to ask for a pension plan re-opener so we could get into the gold standard – Plan A! He formed a committee, got the union to adopt his demand (easy!), got the City to agree to support it (not so easy!), and tried to get the NY State legislature to pass the necessary legislation (very hard!) to make it possible. He failed once, he failed twice, he failed three time…… A lot of us assumed he was just beating a dead horse, that we would spend the rest of our days kicking ourselves for our shortsightedness. But, on the umpteenth try, the legislature agreed! Maybe we just wore them out. But if we hadn’t won, I might still be chained to a desk in a second-rate office building, waiting to collect the few crumbs in my NYC pension, instead of living in the lap of luxury here in The Land.

Unions can be powerful forces for good, but don’t bet the mortgage that they always are. Think of the various police unions in The States today, making sure that racist cops stay on the payroll. And consider the story I started to tell above. Consider the curious case of Haim Ramon, once an up-and-coming Israeli political hotshot, the health minister at the time, who crossed swords with the Histadrut and the Labor Party over the National Health Law – whose passage they opposed. Now you might wonder why a bunch of ‘socialists’ would oppose health care for everyone in The Land. It had to do with simple control, the ability to maintain a monopoly. If you wanted to join Clalit, the largest and best organized health fund, you had to join the Histadrut, which took its cut from the proceeds. Otherwise, you could try one of the other funds, but they didn’t have to accept you. It was all ‘voluntary.’ Pre-existing conditions, or the like?

And so, Haim Ramon took them on. At a Labor Party convention in January 1994, confronting a mob of angry Laborites, he delivered his famous ‘beached whale speech’:

“Like a whale that lost its sense of direction, you are storming the beach again and again and trying to commit suicide. And I, with my limited strength, am trying to push you back in the water to save your life, But you don’t want, you don’t want. You insist on committing suicide.”

Powerful stuff. Does that sound familiar? Ever watch someone you know or some organization you’re aware of create its very own train wreck? I could say more, but I won’t. No use roiling the waters.

Ramon described his experience as akin to ‘running against the Communist Party in Russia,’ but, somehow, he prevailed. Now all of us here have heavily subsidized health care, with a variety of plans, at a health fund of our choice, which is forced to compete with the other plans for our patronage. Eat your hearts out, America!

With your indulgence, I will take a moment to thank these two men, Chuck Miller and Haim Ramon, who have immeasurably improved my life – even if they haven’t received the official acclaim they deserve. Sometimes, full barrels make the least noise. Worth considering.

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