Veteran Immigrant Recalls Life in 'Ancient' Israel of the 1980s

Israel has changed so much recently that even thinking back a few decades is like recalling an ancient past.

We moved to Israel from upstate New York in September 1984. In those days it usually meant starting out in an immigrant absorption center, where a family could get a tiny apartment at a nominal cost and months of free, intensive Hebrew instruction.

Although we’d wanted a certain absorption center near Jerusalem, no places were open that month and we couldn’t wait longer. So we agreed to go to an absorption center in Beit Eliezer, then a small, sleepy neighborhood of the town of Hadera, which is up the coast from Tel Aviv and slightly inland.

The sunny September days were often punctuated by the crowing of roosters that people kept in their yards. Empty fruit and vegetable crates lay strewn beside the roads. There was a guy who went around selling vegetables on a horse-drawn cart.

But it was much more than the languid, rustic nature of the place. These days people often refer to Israel in that period as a “backwater” or a “socialist backwater.” There’s a lot of truth to that.

Inflation was running 450 percent. It was the era of the famous “package deal” worked out by then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres and then-Finance Minister Yitzhak Moda’i: an economic-stabilization plan that finally got the situation under control and started inching Israel toward economic rationality.

But meanwhile, the “backwater” phenomenon was everywhere.

Waiting in line — anywhere, in grocery stores, post offices, banks, health clinics — was a nightmare. The country was still to a considerable extent a hodgepodge of immigrants from all ends of the earth, and certain behavioral norms still hadn’t set in. “Lines” were combat zones, formless blobs in which people bickered — and sometimes real fights broke out — over who was first or who was next.

But banks were the worst. Not only the “waiting in line” ordeal, but also waiting while a teller simply chatted, loudly, on the phone for however long she pleased to whomever she pleased. The customers stood around, despondent and helpless. There was no norm against bank tellers doing that.

There was a single state-owned telephone company, Bezeq, and it was desperately incompetent. If you weren’t something like a bank but just a private person, and especially if you were moving into a new home, you could wait literally years before Bezeq finally installed a phone for you.

Buses were broken-down and rickety, and rattled frighteningly when they passed over bumps on the rough, ill-kept roads. You feared that they’d fall apart.

Blackouts were a constant nuisance because the state electric company was incompetent as well. Blackouts occurred not just during storms (as they still do, but mainly affecting the internet) but in normal weather, too. They could make you miserable as you tried to watch TV or vacuum a room, returning yet again just when you thought the latest volley had ended.

Store proprietors could be remarkably insolent. It amazed me that they seemed to resent my coming into their store to consider buying their wares, as if I were disturbing what had otherwise been a peaceful idyll.

But now — thankfully — it’s very different.

Waiting in line in a bank — if you enter physical banks at all — means taking a number and sitting in a chair until it shows up on a screen. Bank tellers and other service people generally accept that they’re supposed to serve the public, and actually tend to be quite nice. Buses give smooth, comfortable rides, an automated voice announcing the destinations. Your land line — and all the other electronic fundamentals of your life — get installed, efficiently, the day you move into the new place. And so on.

Statistics, too, tell the story. From foreign exchange reserves of less than $1 billion in 1960, to $100 billion at present. In that year of our arrival, 1984, Israel’s GDP per capita stood at $6,000; today it’s at $39,000 (higher than Japan, France, and Britain). And inflation, as mentioned, was soaring along at 450 percent; today it doesn’t amount to a single percentage point.

Israel has morphed from socialist backwater to (mostly) capitalist, high-tech dynamo in a remarkably brief interval.

Now, when I think back to those days in Beit Eliezer, it’s like recalling a former life, or an earlier epoch of history. A languid place where roosters crowed and time — so you could have believed — had stopped.