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September 20, 2014 | 25th Elul 5774

Wheels I

Galilee Diary #207
November 14, 2004

Marc J. Rosenstein

And when the creatures moved forward, the wheels moved at their sides; and when the creatures were borne above the earth, the wheels were borne too. Wherever the spirit impelled them to go, they went – wherever the spirit impelled them – and the wheels were borne alongside them; for the spirit of the creatures was in the wheels. When those moved, these moved; and when those stood still, these stood still; and when those were borne above the earth, the wheels were borne alongside them – for the spirit of the creatures was in the wheels.

-Ezekiel 1:19-21

Our daughter having graduated college and started her independent life working in a rural community in the Golan Heights, the time had come for her to buy her first car. While the Egged bus company does run routes to every outlying kibbutz and village, these tend to be links between the periphery and the major cities and to run very infrequently (for example, the only buses serving Shorashim, which lies on a fairly major highway, are two early morning routes to Haifa and Tel Aviv, and one bus back from Tel Aviv in the evening. There is no service between here and the nearby towns, nor to the train station in Acco). I am a bit of a nut about the obligation to use public transportation – but out here, it is hopeless. We all came to the rural Galilee for the quality of life, but by doing so, of course, we contribute to its destruction.

Most used car sales in Israel are accomplished by the seller driving around with a home-made sign stuck inside the left rear window, with basic facts, encouraging words, and a phone number. The whole family scouted parking lots, yelled to drivers in the next lane at a red light, and drowned in advice from friends both knowledgeable and ignorant. When The Daughter, having gotten to know the market by following up on a number of prospects, found what seemed a good candidate, she made an appointment to meet the seller at a testing station. For about $100 (paid by the buyer), one can have a professional put the car through a complete set of computer and road tests and give the buyer and seller a detailed review of its performance. This gamble can help one side or the other in negotiations, or at least help eliminate too many surprises. In our case, it was mainly for reassurance, as the prospect was an 11-year old subcompact with 90,000 miles. The book value, which was the final price, was nearly $4,000.

It seems that despite all the liberalizations of the Israeli economy over recent decades, the tax on new cars remains a high percentage of the price. If this is intended to discourage private car ownership, it boggles the imagination to think what the country would look like without such a policy – not even the most peripheral regions are free of frustrating, choking traffic jams, and the cities are overwhelmed by parking chaos (if you don’t find a spot, just leave the car anywhere – on the sidewalk, in the aisles of the lot…). And if the price of the car isn’t daunting enough, The Daughter, who loves her new wheeled independence, is discovering to her dismay the ongoing cost of that independence – at nearly $5.00 a gallon. Visitors often ask, when confronted with these numbers, how so many people with normal salaries manage to buy new cars and fuel and maintain them. Indeed, I ask the same question myself as I sit in traffic in the middle of the pastoral Galilee. I have never succeeded in figuring out the answer.

I remember my gym teacher in ninth grade warning us: “getting a car is the end of every good athlete” (not that he had anything to worry about in my case – my prospects for either were exactly zero). It seems that the irresistible temptation of the private car – the sense of independence, of infinite possibilities, of power – exacts not only a personal price in resources, risks, and health, but has far-reaching negative impacts on community and on quality of life for the entire society. In North America, the “wide open spaces” have absorbed and masked some of these impacts; here in crowded Israel, they are “in your face” all the time. We can’t live without our cars – but it is not clear if we as a country can live with them either.

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