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October 25, 2014 | 1st Cheshvan 5775

Fairness

Galilee Diary #521, December 22, 2010
Marc Rosenstein

...do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kinsman fairly... You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old...
        -Leviticus 19:15, 32

Like all major bus stations in Israel, the central bus terminal in Jerusalem has a row of doors leading out to bus bays where the intercity lines dock. Over each door is a digital display indicating the times and route numbers of the next few departures. It actually works. Inside each door is an L-shaped channel of stainless steel railings, wide enough for people to stand two abreast; along one arm of the L is a bench. About a dozen people can fit in this channel. Outside the door, on the loading platform, there is room for a crowd of about twenty. In other words, there is no obvious physical support for the concept of a single-file line. The first passengers to arrive for the next bus usually pick a spot to stand within the railings, not necessarily behind the person who came previously, leaving gaps; new arrivals sometimes fill them, or pass through to the bus area, either to smoke or just to be closer to the bus when it arrives. Others stand or sit on the floor outside the railings. As the time of departure approaches, there is a general rise in tension and a shift toward the door or through it to the platform. Some people in the waiting channel hold their ground and give dirty looks to those passing them; others give in and go through to join the crowd on the platform. Then, when the bus opens its door there is a general, gentle crowding forward, with most people avoiding eye contact but not body contact.

Recently I was in this crowd for the hourly bus from Jerusalem to Haifa. A woman appeared from nowhere and inserted herself in front of me as I was just two people from the bus door. Then a young woman who had been standing behind me suddenly passed me and was squeezing in front of me. "What happened?" I said to her. "It's not fair the way people just cut in like that!" She said. "Right," I said, "But there are only about twenty people in line and the bus seats 50." "I know," she said, "It's just the principle of the thing." "You're living in the wrong country," I said. "I know," she said, and returned to her place behind me. We both got window seats.

Which led me to contemplate (from my window seat) the question of the morality of waiting in line. Where is it written that the system of "first come first served" that we Americans and Europeans take for granted is necessarily an expression of the way the world is supposed to be? Don't we make fun of the images of communist era citizens of Eastern Europe waiting patiently in line for hours to get a particular, coveted grocery item? Why is it assumed that my having had the good luck to avoid a traffic jam and get to the bus station before you gives me precedence in boarding? Perhaps you are unwell, or have a more urgent mission in Haifa than mine; perhaps you did everything you could have to get here sooner, but got held up by a bomb scare on the city bus or stopped to help an old woman cross the street? Each of us has a good reason to be first on that bus - whether related to the discomfort of waiting, the comfort of the seat we might get - or, in the extreme but not infrequent case of overcrowding - the costs of having to wait for the next bus. Why is the system of gentle pushing more moral than the system of passive waiting? I have heard Israelis expressing ridicule at the sight of a single file line snaking along the sidewalk at a bus stop in a colder country. Indeed, in a part of the world where we keep being told that the locals "only understand the language of force," perhaps that is the language we all speak... On the other hand, it must be pointed out that while the above scene is typical, it is not necessarily taken for granted, and even here in Israel it is common to hear complaints like that of the woman I encountered in the line for the 960. So it may be our culture, but there is an undercurrent of protest; there is a counterculture.

The larger post offices, where the lines are legendary and disputes are frequent, have now installed an elaborate system requiring you to take a number, take a seat, and watch the overhead monitors for instructions summoning you to a particular counter. No one complains. Are we a high tech power, or what?

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