Alfonso Rubin, a 59 year old former financial manager, experienced the effects of this in between-ness firsthand when he immigrated to Israel from New York 26 years ago.
Rubin came to make a fresh start. He was inspired by the glowing description his Jewish Agency representative, or ‘shaliach’, gave him—he would be welcomed open-armed, accepted by an absorption center brimming with people like himself. All he had to do was choose: Would you prefer the quaint seaside community of Ashdod, or the more bustling oasis of Beer Sheba? A room facing the park, or the sea?
He opted for Ashdod, sea-facing. He got something quite different. Rubin arrived in Israel, 36 years old, after leaving a job that paid him USD 50,000 (in 1979), full of the expectations that his shaliach filled him with.
The first sign of trouble was when there was no one at the airport to greet him. The next bad omen was the absorption center he arrived at (after taking at taxi from the airport)—it was closed for the day.
Black marketNearly 30 years later, Rubin’s troubles in Israel have only multiplied. Today, he is sinking in a mire of debt, has been repeatedly hospitalized, and, somehow, spends a good part of each day avoiding the police who have a warrant for his arrest.
“I sit at home like a dog. I’m lost in the world,” he confesses over an iced coffee. He takes another sip, and the story unravels.
The troubles began when Rubin was leaving his last apartment. He gave the landlord two checks that, he realized sometime later, would bounce. So, mindful of the financial practices of his former profession, he immediately went to the bank to cancel the checks and called the former landlord to inform him of the situation. Everything seemed okay.
Six months later Rubin received a phone call from an unidentified man in Tel Aviv informing him that he owed this man NIS 11,000 for the two checks. Rubin didn’t understand and promptly told the man, in New York terms, to please go away.
The unidentified man did not go away. He brought a lawsuit against Rubin for NIS 52,000 - 11,000 for the first two checks, the remainder for interest and damages. The man, it turns out, had bought the checks from Rubin’s landlord on the black market, not an uncommon practice in Israel.
Debts in hospitalSoon after, Rubin needed treatment for an intestinal hernia, a potentially fatal condition if left untreated. While in hospital he faxed the court the proper forms to delay the trial.
Two of his cases (he is also being sued by a bank and a cellphone company for debt he couldn’t pay on account of the first suit) sent him letters of approval, informing him that the delay was accepted. The third case, the black market check case, never responded. At least not until they served him with a notice informing him of his absence in court and the warrant that had been issued for his arrest because of that absence.
“I'm not a criminal who's trying to get away with things. I want to pay these debts. I've been hospitalized three times this past year. I'm backed up on my bills, I'm ill, and they want to arrest me.”
Rubin, who works five nights a week at a Tel Aviv hotel, has reduced his lifestyle to only the barest of bare necessities. After struggling in Israel for more than 25 years he confesses that he’s had enough: “I would leave Israel within 40 minutes at this point. But I don't even have the money to have pictures taken for my passport.”
Determination, but what for?It’s a low that, 25 years ago, he never thought he would sink to. When his optimistic shaliach reminded Rubin that, if he didn’t like Israel, he could always come back, Rubin refused that mentality. “I said no, if I go with the mindset that I can come back then I will definitely come back. If I’m going, I’m going for good.”
So when he finally got to the closed absorption center, he was still determined to stay. When his promised sea-facing room actually faced the building’s garbage dump, he was still determined to stay.
When he had to share a room with a mentally ill Russian immigrant who threatened, with the little English he knew, that he was going to kill Rubin, he was still determined to see it through. But now, coming up on his 60th birthday, he’s thrown in the towel.
“No one from the Jewish Agency ever pitched in to help me,” Rubin says, reflecting on his years in Israel.
“I’m not saying that new immigrants should get everything for nothing just because they're new immigrants. They should work. But they need to be given the opportunity to work.” And just as importantly, he explains, there needs to be a way for immigrants to get reliable, clear, and consistent information.
“You ask a question to 10 officials in Israel and you get 12 answers,” he says. The confusion and opacity are, in part, what started the disaster with the sold checks. It turns out that in Israel, two parallel lines must be placed somewhere on the check in order to denote that the check can only be cashed by its addressee. Rubin (probably like most immigrants) did not know that.
“Two little lines,” he says, “and now they’re trying to arrest me. But what about the man who sold my checks? Isn’t that illegal? Why don’t they arrest him?”
It’s all about the freedom
But, through all of this, Rubin has preserved enough perspective to point out some of the country’s qualities that he still loves. He says about Israel that, “You have more freedom here than you have anywhere in the world.”
He points to two teenage girls sitting by themselves at the café, at the late hour: “It’s amazing, there is nowhere else in the word that girls can sit in a big city and feel safe and free like that.”
He also returns to the comment he began the interview with, that the casual approach to things in Israel which has led him to disaster financially is something that he values socially.
Rubin is nearly glowing when he explains that in Israel you don’t have to make an appointment to go see a friend. “It doesn’t matter what time you come, day or night. You just show up and they'll welcome you in and make you coffee. That’s phenomenal.”
But returning to the issue at hand, Rubin remarks that, “This country needs more organization, from top to bottom. There should be one law for everybody. And for people who are not born in this country, they should be explained all the laws of healthcare, banking, communication, employment etc.
"But people - Russians, Ethiopians, Americans, are brought here and just dumped. Don't bring more immigrants until you can deal with those you have,” he says with a serious look on his face. “Stop aliyah. Period.”
It’s a drastic statement but one that, given Rubin’s experience, is perhaps understandable. It does not take into account the huge number of immigrant success stories within Israel, but it expresses a frustration that many immigrants, even the most successful, have felt at one point or another.
“If we want Jews to come here and live,” he concludes, “we’d better change our ways.”